The Games Industry has a Contract Work Problem

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With growing numbers of contract workers in the industry, Devinn Hurley asks: is this kind of work hurting game development and developers?

Over the past few months, a wave of lay-offs ripped through the games industry, most notably at Microsoft - where 10,000 employees lost their jobs. Developers from 343 Industries, The Coalition, ZeniMax Media, and Bethesda Game Studios, found themselves unemployed, but the rate of game development didn’t slow at these studios. The extra labour needed is being contributed by developers that aren’t full-time employees but are instead private contractors that are kept on short term contracts of between six and twelve months.

Contract workers do the same job as full-time game developers employed by the studio, but they receive none of the same benefits, privileges, or safety nets. Essentially, contract work is what happens when the gig economy is applied to game development. Companies don’t need to worry about providing any form of benefits to the contractors they hire; they can be paid far less than another developer doing the same job. And, best of all for the companies, contractors don’t have unions, which makes them unable to bargain collectively for better treatment.

What keeps these contractors coming back is the vague promise of a full-time position offered by the studio they are assisting. However, it’s not at all uncommon for contractors to never actually be offered such a position. Colin Campbell of Polygon reported that the practice of “dangling the carrot” is commonplace at many games companies. With the promise of a full-time position and all the benefits that accompany it, contractors often work long hours for just barely above minimum wage and yet all too often there is no full-time position available. When the contract is up, these workers are let go, and due to hiring laws can’t be rehired at the same studio for several months. So, they move on to a new project at a new studio, and the cycle continues.

It’s clear that the games industry has a nasty and deeply ingrained dependence on contract workers. The solution to this problem isn’t as simple as banning the practice of contract work altogether though. Simple as that may be, that would leave many thousands of workers unemployed and without a possibility of making it into the industry proper. Instead, a possible solution might be to start some form of union of contract workers to bargain for better pay and working conditions. This is also not as simple as it sounds on paper, unions are hard to start, they’re vulnerable to anti-union action from large corporations, and in some rare cases they prove utterly incapable of making meaningful and lasting changes.

The best solution would be for lawmakers to pass specific legislation to protect the rights of contract workers in the games industry and other industries, mandating higher pay, limiting the amount of hours that can be worked a week, and guaranteeing some form of benefits, be it medical care or workers comp. Either way the games industry will need to deal with its contract work problem sooner or later, and for the sake of the people that make our favourite games, hopefully it’s sooner.