Labour Research November 2018


Grand theft of workers’ overtime

Working to make video games sounds like a cool job. In reality it is rife with insecurity, extreme pressure and huge amounts of forced unpaid overtime. No wonder the industry is seeing the green shoots of unionisation.

The world of video games is not just child’s play. It’s a multi-billion pound industry employing thousands of workers and is seen as a key sector for UK economic growth. Indeed, the government sees it as so important that it has given games development firms hundreds of thousands of pounds of public support in the form of tax relief since 2014. 

When the then chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, introduced the tax relief system, he said the sector was “going to create jobs and stimulate creativity.” He added that he wanted Britain to be “the go-to place for [video game] production”.

Well, he was right that the industry had the potential to grow. According to a major report published by the British Film Institute last month, it contributed £2.87 billion to the UK economy and supported over 47,000 full-time equivalent jobs in 2016. 
These figures are double what they were just three years earlier and, in the core sub-sector of games development, employment has almost trebled.

UK video games industry

The UK video games industry is “a significant entertainment industry”, according to a major new report produced for the British Film Institute (BFI). Indeed, it notes that the UK is responsible for “the highest-grossing single entertainment product of all time, Grand Theft Auto V, which has achieved more than US $6 billion in worldwide sales to date”.

According to industry trade body Ukie, there are currently 2,261 games companies in the UK. While the largest number (614) are located in London, there are 21 towns and cities that are home to more than 20 games companies.

The industry directly employed 20,430 people in 2016 and contributed £1.52 billion to the UK economy that year. 

Including indirect economic and “spillover” impacts (including merchandising and eSports), these numbers rise to 47,620 jobs and £2.87 billion in value. 

And the figures have rocketed in the last few years, partly thanks to the tax relief system introduced by the government in 2014.

The industry is made up of the sub-sectors of games development, games publishing and games retail (sales either as physical boxed products or through digital platforms). 

The majority of the employment is in the core area of games development, which accounts for 26,070 of the jobs. This figure has almost trebled from 9,400 in 2013. 

Screen business: how screen sector tax reliefs power economic growth across the UK, Olsberg.SPI and Nordicity.


But what Osborne did not say was that this success would rely on huge levels of exploitation of workers in the industry. Such exploitation is rife. This is despite the fact that those workers — particularly games developers and games quality assurance testers — tend to be highly skilled and often especially talented. 

The problem is that games development is, initially at least, an extremely attractive occupation to (usually young) people who have those skills, and employers know this very well.

The exploitation takes a number of forms, in particular through extremely high-intensity working, involving hours of mandatory, unpaid overtime stretching over weeks and months. It also includes job insecurity and pay which, while certainly not at poverty level, is often substantially lower than for other jobs requiring similar skills.

The "crunch"

One of the main ways in which games companies collectively exploit their workforce arises from the way in which they organise the production process. There is, of course, intense commercial competition in the industry, but there is also particularly extreme pressure on the timing of games releases. 

Dr Jamie Woodcock of Oxford University, who has studied the industry, says: “Games with huge budgets need to be launched at specific times: whether in relation to other games, before the holidays, to tie-in with films, or simply to synchronise with expensive and extensive marketing campaigns.”

The games companies deal with this time-sensitivity by imposing production schedules where work builds to a massive crescendo towards the end of production known as “crunch”. 

At this time, the games developers and testers are obliged to work huge numbers of hours for weeks on end to ensure that the game release date is met. 

This overtime is consciously built into the process: it is often a contractual obligation, it is generally unpaid and, not surprisingly, it creates huge levels of stress among the workforce. 

The crunch has been around for as long as the games industry itself. It achieved notoriety in 2004 when the wife of a worker at one of the largest games publishes, Electronic Arts, revealed that her husband was almost permanently in crunch time — working 13 hours a day, seven days a week. Once this became highly public knowledge it transpired that this was nothing unusual; these huge levels of mandatory overtime were the industry norm.

A decade later, an investigation by The Guardian found that there had only been a small improvement in that culture. It reported a survey showing that still “only one-fifth of industry workers don’t crunch at all, and nearly two-thirds still crunch more than 50 hours a week”. 

And its own interviews with current and former industry workers “revealed deep dissatisfaction with crunch and a sense that, even if it’s not as acute as it was a decade ago, it’s still worse than they can tolerate”.

One quality assurance tester, formerly at games publisher Rockstar, told The Guardian he had sometimes worked 72 hours a week. “That’s 8pm-8am, six days a week, testing Grand Theft Auto. It was horrendous. I didn’t see daylight for months. This was perceived as a requirement, and if you had issues with it you were told ‘Well, you can go stack shelves at Tesco instead or answer phones at a call centre.’ You were treated as disposable.”


If this aspect of working in the industry wasn’t enough, there is also a serious problem of job insecurity. Many games workers are only contracted for the period of an individual project, and are let go as soon as it is completed. According to the American technology news website Geekwire: “Larger companies are particularly prone to big hire-and-fire cycles, where they’ll bring on extra personnel in order to hit a ship date, then downsize abruptly once their product is on shelves.”

It adds: “It’s become an industry cliché for a games developer to get hired for a job across the country, move to a new city for it, and proceed to get laid off after a year or less.”

Games Workers Unite

The combination of exploitative working practices in this profitable industry, alongside a workforce that is highly skilled and marketable, would suggest that this is a sector ripe for union organisation. So, is there anything happening? In the US, there have been green shoots of unionisation in the industry. 

Earlier this year, the US campaign organisation Games Workers Unite (GWU) burst on to the public stage at the industry’s big event, the Game Developers Conference, held in San Francisco. 

GWU is not yet a fully-fledged union but describes itself as a “grassroots democratic organization of people dedicated to advocating for workers’ rights and the crafting of a unionized games industry”.

And in the UK, unionisation is similarly starting to get a hold, where a UK “chapter” of the GWU has been established by games designer Declan Peach. 

Until recently, the GWU UK was a free-to-join campaigning and networking organisation, but it is now going down its own unionisation path independent of the GWU in America. According to Peach, GWU UK now has about 250 games workers involved, though with “varying levels of engagement”. 

It has a national committee which has been doing the initial organising work, and the next stage is to set up regional chapters (most activity has so far centred on London). Peach said it is aiming to recruit around 1,000 members, among both games developers and quality assurance testers. 

Momentum building for unionisation

He told Labour Research why the momentum is building for unionisation of the games industry. He highlighted crunch, with its obligation on workers to do huge amounts of unpaid overtime which, he said, makes for a “horrible working environment”. 

In addition, there is the insecurity, where he confirmed that many workers are taken on for the duration of a project — say a year or a year-and-a half — and are then laid off. Sometimes people are dumped much more abruptly than this, maybe after a couple of months, if a project is abandoned.

On top of the stressful environment and the insecurity, Peach noted that games workers are not even paid particularly well, considering their skills, which are highly in demand elsewhere. “If you did programming for commercial software, with the same skillset more or less, you get paid more and get much more secure positions,” says Peach.

Employers get away with these poor work practices because of the desirability of working in the industry, particularly among young people. (In 2012, almost 70% of workers in the industry were aged under 35.) 

Peach says: “There is a culture that everyone in this industry really wants to be in this industry … You see a lot of employers take advantage of this. They use it to convince people that they don’t need to be paid as much as software developers. Games companies always have a big bank of people they say would want to join the company.” 

But he says workers’ acquiescence only goes so far. “Most people [entering the industry] are not too bothered about the money at first, but as soon as they experience these conditions, that’s what makes them burn out.” 

He says workers tend to stay in the industry for three to four years before moving to better-paid, more secure jobs requiring the same skills. 

The suggestion that games workers are only prepared to put up with the exploitation for a certain length of time is backed up by Canadian research, which found that young new entrants to the industry were considerably more likely than those who had been in it for some time to think that crunch is “a necessary part of games development”. 

The researchers also noted that the average age of workers in the industry had not changed in 10 years, with the result that “the industry never matures”.

Peach argues that the industry does not benefit from this way of working and that, if publishers extended their deadlines and made the jobs more secure, it would ultimately be more efficient and cheaper for them. 

For a start, they would get the more senior people to stay around, but also “if they let people work more steadily, they will get more work done over time”.

However, it is likely to take some time to persuade at least the large employers to see things this way, and in the meantime, Peach and colleagues must encourage and motivate games workers to organise themselves to push for better conditions. So how are they going about it? 

As soon as the group started putting the idea of unionising out on social media, it received a high level of interest from games workers. 

True, there was fear among some about the likely employers’ response, but no outright hostility to the idea. The big issue, however, has been that people have little knowledge or understanding of unions. 

“People are really interested in it, but they don’t know what it is,” says Peach. At their first branch meeting, held in London, it was clear that no one knew what a union did or what it meant to be in a union. Some even asked if they had to tell their boss if they joined a union. A large part of the work of the GWU UK activists so far has been education.

The group has received much help from academics and established trade unions. They have given advice and resources and have carried out informal casework for games workers who quickly came forward with problems. 

The independent IWW union supplied union rep training, while the WGGB writers’ union contributed campaign resources, such as T-shirt printing. The GWU has also been assisted with pro-bono accounting. 

So far, the group has had to finance itself in terms of hiring rooms and so on, but “we’re enjoying it, so it doesn’t feel like money wasted!” says Peach. They will hope to recoup some of that when they start receiving subscriptions.

As this article was written, the GWU was in the process of joining the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) to fully transform itself into a union with a paying membership. This will allow it to share the IWGB’s legal department and web domain as well as other organising resources, and more of its members will be trained as reps.

As far as their stance towards employers is concerned, the GWU does not plan to go in aggressively. The most challenging employers will be the large games development companies, such as Traveller’s Tales, which makes the Lego video games, and Rockstar, among whose most successful titles is the Grand Theft Auto series. 

The large companies are where GWU UK hears most of its employment “horror stories”, like “people having wildly different pay grades for the same job, or they get people to do QA [quality assurance testing] for about three months and then they all get sacked at once”.

The problem is, it’s the employees at these sorts of companies who will be the most scared, said Peach. 

He added: “That’s where we need to primarily focus our efforts, and that’s where I think we might get a lot of hostility from the company. But we haven’t seen that yet.” The union’s strategy will be to say to employers: “We’re not here to antagonise you, to cause trouble. We just want to represent your workers, to negotiate things that are going to be mutually beneficial.”

If things get sticky with big employers, the GWU may not immediately have an enormous amount of bargaining power, but in the longer term the potential is huge. Peach says its key strength lies in the inter-dependency of the different specialists involved in games development and the extreme time sensitivity of the process. 

“The way that game development works is that every single different discipline has to communicate to get things done … If a couple of people stopped work for a day it would slow down things so much,” says Peach. 

“If we could get a whole quality assurance department to stop, we would have the leverage. It would be massive.”

While that might not be the approach the GWU wants to adopt in the first instance with employers, it is certainly a useful tool to have in its back pocket.