In a summer where we’ve seen Hollywood’s actors and writers go on strike, and a push for the first-ever VFX workers union, it’s safe to say it’s been the most tumultuous year for creative labor rights in at least the last 15 years.
Now, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) — the same group that’s representing the Marvel VFX workers in their fight to unionize — is tackling the video game industry’s lack of unions.
Like much of the entertainment industry over the last handful of years, the world of video games is too familiar with mass layoffs. This year alone, we’ve seen staff let go at League of Legends developer Riot Games, Xbox Game Studios, Embracer Group, and most recently BioWare. Beyond layoffs, the video game industry is notorious for crunch and other labor problems.
Conversations about unionization in video games date back several years. In 2021, Vodeo became North America’s first certified game developer union, before shutting down less than a year later. We’ve seen unionization votes at Raven Software and Activision Blizzard, and in August, Workinman Interactive staffers filed to unionize with IATSE. But while unions have cropped up here and there in the video game industry, the IATSE’s goal is to collaborate with game workers to unionize across the United States.
IGN can exclusively reveal the details from IATSE’s 2023 Gameworkers.org Rates and Conditions Survey, where the organization asked hundreds of video game developers about their pay, benefits, and working conditions.
Results from IATSE’s Game Workers Survey
The survey says that the video game industry is “suspended in a parallel reality compared to other sectors of entertainment where union representation is more common.” It also points out the lack of widespread unionization despite the fact that video games are “now five times more profitable for these employers than motion pictures.”
“Most game workers reported that their game career is either unsustainable or they’re unsure whether it is sustainable, and less than half make it to their seventh year working in the industry,” the survey’s introduction reads in part. “Unfair pay disparities within singular job titles, lack of retirement security, pressure to work unpaid overtime, low wages, burnout, and exhaustion were widespread and commonly reported.
“Ultimately, two in three respondents indicated they did not believe they were in a position to negotiate viable solutions to these problems on their own, highlighting an environment where unionization and collective bargaining could be a viable alternative to the status quo.”
The Rates and Conditions Survey began collecting data in March 2023, running all the way through mid-August. The online form is still collecting responses if you’re a game developer that wants to participate. Video game workers from across the industry responded, including AAA, mobile, and indie developers. The survey was widely skewed toward AAA developers, though, as over 57% of respondents said they most recently worked on a AAA game.
One of the most notable results from the survey is the seeming lack of career longevity in the games industry. Among all respondents to the survey, the average years of industry experience was 6.9, and less than half of respondents had made it to their seventh year in the industry. When asked if working in games is sustainable, 42.9% said yes, 37.9% said no, and 19.2% said they were unsure. Employees with multiple decades of experience in games said they felt their own career was sustainable, but recognized some of the challenges faced by workers just entering the industry.
Crunch is one of the biggest issues facing video game workers, as countless reports over the last several years have documented the long working hours developers face at many AAA studios. 50% of respondents said they have experienced crunch in the last two years alone. Most game workers who responded work an average of 40 hours per week, but a quarter of respondents worked 41 hours or more, with the longest reported average work week clocking in at 95 hours.
In a similar vein, 57.9% of respondents to the survey said they are paid an annual salary, with 26.4% reporting hourly pay. While salaried positions certainly have benefits under proper working conditions, many salaried workers are “exempt” from overtime pay.
“It’s frustrating to work a 14-hour day and know that with California overtime laws, I should be getting paid for 18 hours of my time when I’m only getting paid 8,” one game worker said.
45% of workers said their pay is not keeping pace with rising costs of living, while nearly 20% said they were unsure. 54.3% of respondents said they have not been able to negotiate a raise on an individual basis.
One of the other biggest challenges facing game workers is retirement security. Over 36% of respondents said they don’t have any sort of employer-sponsored retirement plan. When work in video games already pays less than comparable tech jobs, some respondents to the survey said the lack of concrete retirement plans can make it “difficult to justify staying” in the industry.
Other topics covered in the survey include hourly rates for freelancers, expected tasks that fall outside of the job description, remote work, healthcare, career advancement, and more.
Now that the survey is out, IATSE is planning to hold a town hall with all of the survey respondents to determine the next steps. The organization wants to create a discussion surrounding unionization in the video game industry, and IATSE expects that this survey will spark those conversations at video game workplaces.
Logan Plant is a freelance writer for IGN covering video game and entertainment news. He has over seven years of experience in the gaming industry with bylines at IGN, Nintendo Wire, Switch Player Magazine, and Lifewire. Find him on Twitter @LoganJPlant.
IGN can exclusively reveal the details from IATSE’s 2023 Gameworkers.org Rates and Conditions Survey, where the organization asked hundreds of video game developers about their pay, benefits, and working conditions. Read More