Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Why the Games Industry Needs a Union

Class action lawsuits seem to be creeping out of the woodwork, so far mostly in the US EA's just had a couple, Activision seem to have one or more on their hands now, and these are the ones that we know about. The reaction from publishers is pretty much what you'd expect (according to friends on the inside etc), which is to implement overtime policies in those specific areas that have resulted in legal damages, while at the same reinforcing the no-overtime-here policy in their other territories.

It's all very legal, but these being the days of email and web-based news, of course the news gets out there, leading to more grumbling and - no doubt - more lawsuits in other territories. The terror of outsourcing might serve as a discouraging whip for some, but in the long run that is just another mitigating strategy. Putting off til tomorrow what is hoped will not surface today etc.

What we're looking at here is a big mess, in otherwords, and it could very easily become an acrimonious mess (it arguably already has) that continues to drive talented people out of the industry into other fields, propagates worsening conditions, and continues to effect the downward spiral of the quality of the industry's output. And therefore ultimately hit the bottom lines of these companies.

It's for reasons like these that the game industry needs an effective union.

You might point to the IGDA as the game industry's equivalent, but the IGDA is not really a proper professional organisation. It's full of academics and students, which tends to dilute any sort of professionals-only issues, and it is less concerned with action that advocacy. The IGDA is essentially a valuable research and debate organisation, but despite several calls from within its ranks and from the outside as well, it has on several occasions specifically said that it will not take on the mantle of any kind of union organisation.

Unionisation conjures up a variety of Dickensian misery or Arthur Scargill-style strikes (see here if you don't know who Scargill is), combined with suspicions of socialism. It also conjures up fears for jobs, in the sense of companies adopting no-union policies, outsourcing, the fear that unions automatically mean strikes, and so on and so forth. These images may well have a place the developing world and manual labour industries, but not in the modern world of technology and knowledge workers.

Many high-skilled industries have unions although they are often called something else. An example are the Writer's Guilds that cover the field of screenwriters working in television and film. Another is the International Union of Operating Engineers, or the Union of American Physicians and Dentists.

These are professionals-only unions, essentially, and their job is to negotiate on behalf of professionals for their fields. Unlike a miner's union or manual worker's unions, professional unions tend to be light-touch, negotiating in areas of importance while retaining the flexibility for individual workers in their field to negotiate on their behalf.

A manual labour union will often heavily negotiate for pay increases, ranks of pay, hours worked, working practises and that sort of thing. These kinds of unions are essentially trying to nail down every aspect of their profession and obtain what they think is a fair deal across the board for their members.

A professional union, on the other hand, doesn't take such a heavy handed approach because that approach is not what their members require. What they require is representation in key areas, but independence in many others. The Writer's Guild of Great Britain, for example, negotiates basic rates with the BBC and other major media organisations for individual writers. Under WGGB regulations and negotiations, the BBC are mandated to pay a certain minimum amount to any writer. However, the WGGB does not dictate terms outside of those minimums. Writers are free to negotiate for themselves, and working practises are frequently left to their own discretion.

Another thing that the WGGB does, which is also common to professional unions (especially in contract-based industries like the games industry is slowly becoming) is that they organise help and relief for members. Writers, in this case, are not the sort of people who work consistently, so obtaining health insurance or mortgages can be very difficult for them.

These issues are becoming more pertinent for the games industry, especially when the current trend of campus studios starts to falter. The industry is currently consolidating a lot and trying to internalise studios all over the place into giant places like EA Vancouver. But the day will come, and not too far off, when EA and the like realise that this system is an inherently flawed way of working because it lacks necessary flexibility in a world of fewer, more high profile releases. It's a lesson that the film industry learned a while ago, and it's coming our way too, probably within 3-5 years.

The real issue is that it's becoming more and more in the publisher's and manufacturer's interests to support an unionised industry than not. While on the surface that may seem like a perfectly insane statement, there is a logic to it. As lawsuits continue to gather pace, this means that the various companies are going to come under attack. Bad press for shoddy treatment of workers is not one of those things that is easily spun, and with every case making its way into the headlines, another company takes a hit on its stock rating, becomes a place that high-profile candidates are less likely to want to work, and overall a bad reputation carries. The best way to avoid all this mess is to draw a line under it by negotiating an agreed set of fair guides that both employees and employers can live with. That means that the employers need someone to negotiate with.

Some thoughts on how to shape an industry union in a few days.

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