Why We Are Unionising the UK Games Industry

By Austin Kelmore, GWU UK Secretary

It’s been less than a year since Game Workers Unite was founded at the Game Developers Conference and it’s amazing how much has changed in that small amount of time. As of December 14th of last year, there’s a full, legal game workers union in the United Kingdom as a branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain. If you had asked me at the beginning of this year whether I thought we’d have a union, I would have laughed at the absurdity of it, yet here we are.

I started helping GWU UK last August and I’ve had quite a number of conversations since then about why I would spend all my spare time building a union. Why not try to fix things at the companies internally? Why not create an advocacy group? Why didn’t we join forces with some of the other organisations out there instead? Why did we create a union? I thought I’d take some time to write out my personal thoughts on why I helped form GWU UK and continue on as Secretary.

Trying To Create Change

I can’t speak for everyone in Game Workers Unite, but I never wanted to create a union. Do you know how much time and energy it’s taken to get here? I’m not getting paid for this. Quite the opposite, in fact – I’ve worked countless nights and weekends to help this union become a reality. If there were an easier way of fixing the systemic issues we face in the games industry, I would happily do that instead. I’ve tried so, so many other things first.

I’ve been in the industry for over 11 years and during that time, it’s not been hard to find areas to improve. At first, I tried complaining to my peers and boss. Sometimes I was able to change things for myself, but I was rarely able to affect change for more than a handful of people. So then I participated in small internal group efforts thinking that would be better because it’d be more than one person trying to change things. This was slightly more successful for the group, but then I noticed our efforts rarely affected the whole company.

So next I switched to company-wide efforts thinking I needed everyone on board in order to really change some of the issues. I ran a multi-month 100+ person, whole site retrospective that included everyone from top to bottom. We figured out a lot of the issues and agreed to a set of changes that needed to be made. When it was time to schedule and do the work that we had all agreed upon, our plan was almost completely ignored by the people in power because deadlines always took precedence. I was crushed. When another group asked me to help with another similar initiative, I declined. I wasn’t willing to invest another three months of emotional energy for nothing again.

I turned to organisations outside of my job that could possibly help bring change. I volunteered for advocacy orgs and was able to help individuals, but didn’t make a dent on the industry wide problems we have. I talked to CEOs and got a lot of “I totally support all those things you talk about”, but when asked to actually do the work, they were somehow always busy this month with next month looking better. Then when the next month rolled around, they repeated the same thing.

I tried everything I could think of to help fix the systemic issues of crunch, poor diversity and inclusion, and low pay. That is, until Game Workers Unite came along.

Change the Incentives

The core reason that I was never able to help permanently change the industry is that I was never able to change the incentives that companies and people in power have to treat their employees the way they do. The reason the CEOs I talked to would tell me they agree with my goals, but didn’t have time to help is because helping didn’t align with what they really cared about – money, their free time, and following the law (usually in that order). For most CEOs, improving the lives of their employees, helping create a diverse and inclusive games industry, and eliminating crunch are waaaaaay down the list of things they really care about even if they give lip service to those topics.

So how can unions help change the incentives of companies and people in power? Through collective action we can push on those three levers and make the people in power feel uncomfortable enough to want to change. Unions can defend your legal rights, they can negotiate as a group for fair pay, and they can push back against excessive overtime and other harmful development practices through collective action.

Remember, if people in power say they want change, but haven’t used their power to make it happen – they don’t actually want it. Caring about something is about using the power you have to create change, not just saying pretty words. If you never use your power to improve a situation, you don’t actually care, you just say you do.

The Power of Organising

Excessive overtime is still a thing. We still have a serious lack of diversity in our industry. The pay is significantly less compared to other tech industries even though we do similar work and the companies we work for make billions of pounds. These things have all been consistent in the 11 years I’ve been a professional in the games industry. The people in power haven’t changed their behaviour when asked nicely, so it’s time to try something new.

Part of the reason why I haven’t been successful with bringing meaningful change in many of my previous endeavours was because I was never a part of a critical mass of people. Most of the ways I’ve tried were either by myself or with a handful of other people grouped together around a small goal. With Game Workers Unite UK, we have a real chance to stand up together and demand big changes for how we work.

It’s not going to be easy, and it will take a lot of work and effort on our part, but we’ll be doing it together. We’ll be improving the industry for those who are here right now and for those who come after us forevermore. We can do it, we just have to do the work. Come join us at Game Workers Unite UK and help us make a better games industry.

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