I was looking forward to this interview, which had been ready for a long time but some obligations did not allow me to publish it at the appropriate time. Game Worker Solidarity is actually a project to record and map labor activities in the field of video games in terms of claiming better working conditions, thus creating a global database available for all. Special thanks to Austin Kelmore, Game worker and union organizer at Independent Worker’s Union of Great Britain and academic Jamie Woodcock, Senior Lecturer at The Open University of Great Britain.
Can you tell us a little about your work?
Austin Kelmore: Game Worker Solidarity is a collaboration between several people from the games industry, tech industry, and academic world all tied together by our desire to see the games industry organise to improve their working conditions.
When we started, we knew there was a bit of organising activity all over, but we had no idea how long it had been going on and the number and scope of the events. Through this project, we’ve come to learn that game workers have gone on strike for almost a year in SAG-AFTRA in the USA, occupied factories in Limerick, Ireland, and even gone on hunger strike in Japan in the 1950s.
I’m a game worker of 15 years and Jamie is an academic who has written a book about working conditions and class struggle in the games industry. We’re both keen to help the games industry connect up the movements around the world and inspire all game workers by showing everyone just how much is going on.
Does the right for strike has any consequences for the workers in the industry? If yes, how can you help them?
Jamie Woodcock: The right to strike is different in countries across the world. In the UK, workers that are members of a union (whether that union is recognised by the employer or not) can ballot to take strike action over a trade dispute. In some countries it is easier to strike, while in others it is more restrictive. In many contexts that game workers are organising, there has been a lot of education and training about unions and forms of collective action. This is an industry in which many people have never been part of a union and are now learning how they can fight to change things.
There is a great chronicle in your page about worker actions even from 1955. I believe that a worker can identify himself having a dialectical relation with history. Do you think that developers have the conscience of a, let’s say, industrial worker? We know that workers are excluding themselves from the proletariat or their class because they are convinced that they do not belong there.
Jamie: I’m less convinced by the idea of class consciousness. It gives a sense that workers are unconscious and there is some consciousness that needs to be revealed to them. Instead, I think subjectivity is more useful for understanding how workers identify themselves. It is clear that the composition of videogame work is different to industrial work – the labour process is very different. However, videogame workers are working within an important industry for capitalism more widely – one that makes large profits and involves supply chains and networks across the world.
The issues that Austin raised at the start about grievances and problems in the industry are generated from the labour process in videogames. While some workers may be better paid, there are many (like QA testers) that are not and there are many other issues that emerge in the workplace. The rise of videogame unions has been a moment of composition for game workers, figuring the ways they can organise together and what unions even look like in this context. This is building a new identity and worker power that is important within the industry and much more widely.
I recently had an interview with the Greek translators of Jamie Woodcock’s “Marx at the arcade: Consoles, Controllers and Class Struggle” which is the finest example in order to use references from pop culture trying to explain the working conditions. Do you believe that video gamers are understanding the problem? I am asking this because we are witnessing some disturbing behaviours from furious fans threatening developers when the game is not cut and sewn by their standards.
Austin: I don’t believe most gamers know what our working conditions are like, and I think that’s by design. Company owners silence game workers from speaking out about poor conditions by threatening them with disciplinary action or being fired. They do this because the more control and power they have, the more they’re able to keep wages low and profits high.
One powerful thing that workers can do is coordinate with communities that overlap their own. So for game workers specifically, I think it would be huge to build bonds of solidarity with gamers. Imagine famous streamers coordinating with the workers on campaigns and using their platform to push for improvements to the working conditions, which then helps make the games better.
Looking the actions, we can clearly see that Blizzard has the biggest issues in U.S.A, Canada and France. Considering the latest news about unions and after the latest change of leadership in Blizzard through Microsoft, do you see any kind of change?
Jamie: It is true that workers at Activision Blizzard have been involved in a range of collective actions over the past few years. In part, this is because it is a very large and high profile company. There are also clear issues to organise around. The Microsoft deal (which has involved a ‘labor neutrality agreement‘ being announced with CWA) is an important test for the new videogame worker movement.
Austin: I think there has been quite a significant change over the past four years. It’s no longer a question of “should we form unions?”, it’s more “who is going to form the next one?” With that comes workers better understanding their collective power and pushing for bigger and bigger changes.
Video games are a major thing in pop culture. Right wing -and especially alt right influencers from all the media- are trying to use this format in order to pass their agenda. Unfortunately, the Left is not paying attention yet or more suitable not the attention needed. Personally, I find it very dangerous. What do you think?
Jamie: The far-right and fascists have organised very effectively online and in videogame culture. There has been a strategy developed to do this – Steve Bannon through his early involvement in gold farms for MMOs has been explicit about this – which has provided a testing ground for building the far-right. This has been able to translate into organising on the streets, particularly seen in the US.
The left more widely hasn’t taken videogame seriously, seeing games as something trivial. Historically the left has made use of new media effectively, seeing it as one part of a wider culture to engage in. There are some examples of this being done recently, whether through union organising, political games, or more engagement with the industry, but this is still lagging far behind.
I assume you are playing video games so this question is unavoidable. How does it feel playing games? I mean, are you still enjoying playing video games and at the same time watching behind the scenes of the industry?
Austin: I play games much less than I used to when I was younger because I have less free time and they’re not as relaxing of an activity for me these days. I can’t turn the developer part of my brain off, so I end up analysing them while playing. So the games I enjoy are the ones that I can enjoy with my developer brain – ones with new mechanics or incredibly well made games.
There are times when the people who make games do such a good job that my developer brain turns off and I can just admire the game for what it is. I recently played Astroneer with a friend once a week for a couple of months and had one of the best gaming experiences of my life because of how much I enjoyed that experience.