2024: Year of the Unionisation Flood

Image Credit: Andrey Metelev via Unsplash

Could we see a video game union in the coming years? Games Editor Joshua McCormack sets the scene of a changing video game sector.

Unionisation is a thorny issue in the games industry and one which is set to dominate the coming year.

It all started with Activision Blizzard.

The studio behind COD, made repeated efforts throughout their acquisition by Microsoft to foil QA tester’s attempts at unionisation, including attempts to restructure the company to bar the QA testers – those suffering the most from the poor working conditions and therefore most likely to want unionisation – from voting. Eventually, the battle reached its crescendo in an LA court, where the judge ruled in favour of their unionisation plans; and thus concluded one of the games industry’s most entrenched disputes over worker rights …

A mere skirmish compared to the battles to come, however.

While it's not headline news yet, make no mistake, behind the scenes the atmosphere is febrile, a bubbling discontent rising to a boil, spreading like an infection through the industry.

The Activision Blizzard verdict was a watershed moment; if one unionisation effort can succeed, why not another? But even more significant than the LA ruling was Microsoft’s unusual decision to not interfere in its workers at Zenimax Studios (The Elder Scrolls and Fallout) efforts to unionise – how altruistic of them. Were I a cynic, I might suggest that this unexpected bout of generosity was an effort at convincing the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to allow their acquisition of Activision Blizzard, but I digress. In any case, these landmark events cracked open the floodgates, and right now thousands of industry workers are embroiled in union activity.

These landmark events cracked open the floodgates, and right now thousands of industry workers are embroiled in union activity. 

CD Projekt Red (The Witcher, Cyberpunk 2077), Sega (Sonic), Ubisoft (Assassin's Creed and Just Dance) and Workinman Interactive, amongst many others have either unionised, are attempting to unionise, or are boiling tinderboxes of discontent awaiting a match. 

Be in no doubt, game workers have had enough. Mass layoffs, temporary contracts issued on a rolling basis that keep employees chained into low-pay brackets when, by rights, they should be advancing, months and years of eighty-hour crunch weeks with unpaid overtime being billed as a kind of voluntary initiation ritual as opposed to the blatant exploitation that it is.

Faced with such cruel conditions, unionisation is a no-brainer, but that’s not to say it won’t be without negative consequences for the consumer and the industry.

Better pay, less hours – the clarion call of every union in history. Let’s for a moment dispel the notion that studios are like dragons languishing atop hordes of gold. Any increase in their employees’ must be financed, but how? Cannibalising their overpaid executives' fat salaries? An appealing prospect, but not one that, when divided amongst any individual companies, thousands of employees is likely to throw a dent in the arithmetic. Thus the consumer must bear the cost, so expect hefty jumps in the cost of your favourite series in the coming years.

But if you're a real advocate for employee rights, don’t whine about it. After all, the extra is helping those people whose tireless efforts enriched your own life.

It’s only fair.