GamePolitics points out this interesting discussion about whether video game designers should unionize, a question prompted by disputes over how the folks who helped develop L.A. Noire were treated during the six years the game was under development. Michael Pachter says they shouldn’t: Tags: GameTrailers.com , Pach-Attack! – Episode 222 , PC Games , PlayStation 3 , Xbox 360 It’s a thoughtful analysis, but also one that I disagree with. I think Pachter is right that game development is not a punch-in, punch-out kind of job, that gamer developers and designers have more autonomy than people on assembly lines, that their workplaces are not necessarily places where you’re in danger of being maimed, and that if you’re in game development, you are almost certainly paid a solidly middle-class wage, and have the potential for future earnings from profit pools. And I think those facts lead Pachter (who describes himself as a Democrat) to a fairly common conclusion about the proper and limited role of unions: I think unions are in business to protect workers from, I think, dangerous working conditions and unfair and predatory labor practices. So dangerous, yeah, if you work in a factory and you can lose a finger, then the union has to make sure you have steel-toed shoes and the right kind of gloves…if you work in a sweatshop where they’re hiring children and not paying a minimum wage, absolutely you need a union to make sure there are fair labor practices. We’re talking about a games industry where the average compensation is well above $60,000…I just don’t think people who make $100,000 need a lot of protection because they might have to work overtime…I think sports unions like the NBA and the NFL make no sense at all…Once you get up to a certain wage level, you’re charged with being able to take care of yourself, and if you can’t handle it, don’t work there. A couple of thoughts. First, the idea that just because you’re well-paid for doing a job you like means you can’t be abused isn’t really true. The reason that players in the National Football League need a union is that even though average player salaries are higher than the average game developer’s salary, they’re not necessarily high enough to pay for long-term care if you get a traumatic brain injury and leave money behind for your family if you die young. You’re probably not going to get a traumatic brain injury working in game development, but you can get treated badly and pressured by your boss, you can get sick from working too many hours. Taking a good salary doesn’t mean trading in your right to dignity. Second, I actually think issues like being included in credits (one of the issues Team Bondi developers had with the L.A. Noire project) are, for folks working in the artistic industry, worth going to the wall for in the same way wages, benefits, and workplace salaries. Having your name on your work is absolutely critical to your ability to secure future work. The Visual Effects Society has raised similar issues about the crediting (as well as taking on common problems like extended crunch times) of folks who do visual effects work for movies. This is the kind of thing that I think often is treated as if it’s not a core union issue, or that it’s lower-level, the kind of thing that can be dealt with by a guild, or an informal complaint. This is a huge challenge for unions, right? If you’re fighting a rearguard action for your survival, it’s really easy to justify your existence by pointing to the hugely vulnerable people you protect from the most abusive employees. But that can be easily turned against unions to narrow the public’s sense of the appropriate space for unions to operate in: if Don Blankenship isn’t burying you in a collapsed coal mine while laughing maniacally, you don’t really need a union (and maybe not even then). If game developers (and I’d love to hear from those of you in comments who are among that number) don’t want union representation, that’s one thing. But that seems like it’s an issue for them to decide, rather than a category for analysts to suggest they don’t belong in.
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Unionizing the Video Games Industry