Listening to testimonies of video games workers, something clicked for Ellen Cunningham.
“My eyes were opened by hearing something I already knew,” she says, on Monday over coffee.
It was March and Cunningham was at the Game Developers Conference 2019 in San Francisco, at a round-table discussion on unionisation, she says.
“It was really emotional,” says Cunningham, a writer, designer and artist working for an indie video game company in Blanchardstown. “A lot of people were angry, some of them were crying.”
Some video games workers spoke about suddenly being laid off after relocating their entire families.
Others talked about not receiving credit for their work because they had signed non-disclosure agreements. They told stories of gruelling workweeks with no overtime pay.
When she got back to Ireland, Cunningham got to work setting up a branch of the global Game Workers Unite (GWU) here. It launched earlier this month, and is already honing on issues it plans to tackle, she says.
So far, GWU Ireland has a committee with 10 people and about 40 members, says Cunningham.
It’s a branch of the Financial Services Union (FSU). “They actually represent a lot of the tech companies here,” says Cunningham.
“It’s growing pretty rapidly every day,” Cunningham says. After all, “games workers” is a broad title – drawing in all kinds of jobs, from designers and artists, to writers and developers, to retail staff, marketing and even professional streamers and players.
Gareth Murphy, head of industrial relations at the FSU, says its role will be to support workers if they decide to collectively bargain with employers, or take cases to the labour court, for example.
The workers might also want to look for a “sectoral employment” order that sets out rates of pay for different games workers, says Murphy.
For Cunningham, her experience in the industry has been positive, she says.
“[My employer] Gambrinous are fantastic; they’re really supportive of union work and unions,” she says. “It puts me in a good position to be public about it.”
Surveys So Far
At the moment, the GWU is scoping out what it might want to prioritise with a survey to capture workers’ concerns.
“That will set the agenda for workers,” says Murphy, of the FSU.
They’ve already started analysing the responses – more than 100 and growing, Cunningham said on Monday.
So far, 64 percent of respondents say low pay is an issue and 57 percent have experienced working unpaid overtime, according to survey results.
David Ó Laıġeanáın, a former games software developer, says that in a former company, the pay was “secretive”.
Once workers talked to each other about it, they found that there was “massive pay disparity between people on the same team,’’ he says.
Says Murphy: “It seems to be very dependent upon your particular employer and what kind of relationship you have with your line manager.”
GWU’s website has a five-point charter with its main aims. One of them is ending “crunch”, a super-intense period where workers work overtime, often unpaid, to meet a deadline or prepare for a product release.
The conversation about the games industry crunch is over a decade old in the United States. Cunningham says it happens here too.
“It can be sudden or planned,” Cunningham says. “For little or no pay. It’s essentially free overtime and very intense.”
The first time Ó Laıġeanáın experienced crunch was two days into a new job as a software developer for a small games company.
He says he took time off work because of stress-related illness during his time in the company.
“It was headaches, feeling sick, I was sweating a lot, my heart racing. I had nightmares,” he said.
Ó Laıġeanáın left the games industry this year. “For the next three years it was up and down I eventually snapped,” he says.
But how does crunch happen? Cunningham says that it’s an industry where people are passionate about their work.
“People say you should feel lucky working in what you love. I think that’s taken advantage of a lot of the time,” she says. “People put in more than they should.”
Ó Laıġeanáın says the same: that crunch is built into the culture of the industry.
“Some people feel that it’s their calling in life and they love games so much,” he says. “They’re happy just to spend all their time doing it.”
So, he says, they’ll work 12 or 13 hours a day. This sets a precedent, he says, and employers put pressure on other workers to follow it.
Contract work is common in the games industry, says Cunningham, and it makes sense sometimes.
Take the example of writing, she says. “A company might not need a writer for the entire project.”
They might need a couple of arcs, storylines, scenes, she says. And it depends on the project.
“We’re very much seeing abuse of that system,” she says. Cunningham says there are “far too many” workers on temporary contracts doing necessary work for a company, sometimes for several years.
The survey has raised issues about contract employment, says Murphy of the FSU. “There’s questions of self-employment and is it really bogus self-employment if a person is in a company for a long time,” he says.
This reliance on contract work, rather than permanent positions, means there’s less job security for games workers: if a game performs badly, half of a company’s team can be laid off, Ó Laıġeanáın says.
Even some of those with job security are leaving the industry though, Ó Laıġeanáın says. “You might have your permanent position, he says, “But whether or not that’s actually tenable for you to endure, that’s another thing.”