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Some video game workers aim to unionize to push for better working conditions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Workers at video game companies often put in long, grueling hours to meet product launches. The schedule is so entrenched in the industry that it's known by a special name - crunch. But those attitudes are changing. Our colleagues Wailin Wong and Darian Woods at The Indicator report that video game workers are organizing for better working conditions.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: A number of video game workers got into games by playing them as a kid. And that's true for Skylar Hinnant. He's a quality assurance tester at ZeniMax. That's a video game publisher that's owned by Microsoft.

SKYLAR HINNANT: The prestige of, like, working on something that you grew up playing, like, is really cool. So there is a certain level of passion tax that you pay to get into the industry.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: A passion tax is when an employee might do unpaid work or put up with not-so-great conditions because they really love what they do. This may be a familiar feeling to people in creative fields or in helping professions like social work.

WOODS: Skylar knows about the passion tax in video games. He was first hired as a contractor. That meant no paid time off or health benefits.

WONG: And crunch was a normal occurrence for both contractors and permanent employees.

WOODS: In a 2021 survey of game developers, 1 out of 4 workers said crunch meant working more than 60 hours a week. The entertainment press has documented more extreme schedules, and not just for developers but across departments. For example, one executive said that the writers for the game Red Dead Redemption 2 worked a hundred hours a week for three weeks.

WONG: Johanna Weststar is a professor of labor and employment relations at Western University in Ontario, Canada.

JOHANNA WESTSTAR: If there are a lot of people willing to do the job, companies can afford to pay workers less. The working conditions could be more harsh. And if somebody burns out, then they burn out and in comes somebody else. And what we see in the game industry is that there is quite a large reserve army of labor.

WONG: Johanna also says that the video game studios get caught in something called the iron triangle of project management.

WESTSTAR: In the iron triangle, you need to deliver your game on time, on budget and within the scope that you promised. And what happens is that that starts to be so constraining that really the best piece of flexibility in that triangle is the workers themselves.

WOODS: Executives have talked about this lack of wiggle room, where neither deadlines nor budgets can stretch. Others have conceded that overwork happens, and they're trying to address it.

WONG: For example, the studio that makes The Witcher game series says it's combatting crunch by making sure employees are given comp time or extra pay for overtime.

WOODS: But some video game workers aren't waiting for their employers to act. In the last few years, they've started organizing to push for better work conditions. Skylar Hinnant and about 300 of his fellow quality assurance testers voted in 2023 to unionize. They became Microsoft's first U.S. union.

WONG: At the same time, costs and time needed to produce blockbuster games have gone up significantly. And some companies have made expensive bets on things like blockchain technology that didn't pan out. The fallout has resulted in thousands of workers losing their jobs.

WOODS: Elise Willacker is among those workers. Elise says some of her former co-workers are considering switching over to software or web development.

ELISE WILLACKER: It really is tragic to see a lot of this, like, passion kind of just bleed out of the industry at a time like this. Just - people are over it.

WONG: Do you feel over it?

WILLACKER: Me personally, I think I'll always be into games. I love this industry. Working on something you love is so fulfilling in a way that other jobs can't really compete with. So I don't think I'll ever fully leave, truly.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

WONG: Wailin Wong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: For more stories like this, check out The Indicator from Planet Money. They just did a series decoding the economics that fuel the gaming industry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.
Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.