The Rise of One of the First Video Game Workers Unions

This story is adapted from Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, by Sarah Jaffe. The book traces the evolution of the “labor of love” myth—the idea that certain work should be done out of passion instead of pay. Whether it’s working for mere exposure and experience, or enduring poor treatment in the name of workplace “family,” more and more workers are being pushed to make sacrifices for the privilege of being able to do what they love. And across a variety of industries, including the one described below, those workers are organizing to change those conditions.Video game programmers learn to celebrate “crunch” from the get-go. Like many of his peers, Kevin Agwaze went to a specialized school that taught coding for games, rather than a traditional university. Such schools normalize a brutal workweek, treating high dropout rates as a badge of honor, and instilling the idea that the games industry is a shark tank where only the strong survive. While in his native Germany, he noted, “Uni is free,” the program he attended, a two-year course, costs around €25,000 (about US $29,000). Such programs can cost even more in the United States, where a specialized education might run $100,000.
The schools, Agwaze and other programmers explained to me in a London pub, pump out “eight gazillion” games developer grads, for whom there are not necessarily enough good jobs. By the time they graduate, programmers expect to work long hours to prove themselves, and for those hours to stretch even longer when deadlines loom. To Agwaze, it seemed to be worth it to work in a field about which he was passionate. “I knew it was going to be bad for me,” he said with a lopsided grin. “I thought, ‘I am young, my body is going to be fine. I can do it for a while. I can handle bad conditions.’”
His day-to-day work schedule depends to a degree on other programmers working in offices that might be several time zones away. There’s no time clock to punch, no overtime pay; he comes in to work around 10 am, he said, and leaves most days around 7 or even 8 pm The late evenings are in part, he explained, because he’s working with developers in Montreal, who don’t arrive at work until after he’s had his lunch.The seemingly inefficient process is common across the industry, he explained. In part, that’s because so many different people work on different parts of big games that it would be impossible to have them all in one office, or even, it seems, one company. There is also the desire for what he called “acculturation” benefits—making sure that games are accessible and interesting to audiences in a variety of locations rather than being so culturally specific to one that players in a different market won’t want it. “If you have people with different backgrounds working on a game,” he said, rather than employing “the same Bay Area American people” each time, “it might just end up being a better game.”
There is also the question of costs—some of the programming is outsourced to countries like India, where the wages are lower and the working conditions less regulated. “Somebody working in India and somebody working in Sweden can have completely different working conditions,” he noted, “even though they are working at the same company on the same game and the same project, maybe even the same feature.”