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The Means of Gaming Production
July 13, 2023

The Means of Gaming Production

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Video Game Industry Is Famously Toxic. These Workers Have a Radical Idea to Change It., Fed up with a toxic industry, video game workers are turning to a radical alternative., Tired of a toxic industry, video game workers are turning toward cooperative

On his office desk, Aleksandar Gavrilovic keeps two figurines: Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary, and Josip Broz Tito, the former communist leader of Yugoslavia.

Gavrilovic is the founder of the video game company Gamechuck. Based out of a tiny office crammed with computers in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, the company is organized around equality: Each worker earns the same salary and shares the profits of the games they create. All decisions are reached through anonymous voting on Discord: The 17-person collective recently voted to shorten workdays from eight hours to six. And nobody gets fired. (They can technically vote people out, but they try not to.) ‘We wanted to show that you don’t actually have to work like everyone else to be successful,’ said Gavrilovic.

Gavrilovic’s company is an outlier in the gaming industry, known for its grueling hours, high turnover rates, and worker discontent. Over the past five years, industry giants such as Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, and Ubisoft have faced lawsuits over mistreating their employees, while grappling with increasing unionization efforts. Since 2018, around 140 collective actions by game workers—including labor complaints at Nintendo, walkouts at Riot Games, and strikes against Blizzard—have been recorded around the world, according to Game Worker Solidarity, a project that tracks labor movements in the industry.

A small group of game makers is going even further: Rather than fighting for better conditions within existing workplaces and labor structures, it’s trying to build new structures. The group hopes to set an example for the $182.9 billion gaming industry—but as it does so, it faces both the difficult task of making decisions without centralized leadership and a lack of understanding from financers.

Some companies have kept executives (which are still in charge of high-level business decisions) but have otherwise adopted a flat organization model. Others, like Gamechuck, go further by introducing democratic decision making through unionization and collective bargaining agreements that grant more rights to employees.

And some reject the concept of having a boss altogether. These companies are organized as worker cooperatives, inspired by 19th-century labor movements and socialist thinkers. Each worker owns a share of the business, which operates for the benefit of its members (instead of outside shareholders, like most corporations). The profits are shared and decisions are made collectively.

Many workers have turned to these labor models after exasperating experiences in the industry. ‘I watched a bunch of my friends get laid off, over and over again,’ said Coby West, a technical designer at the U.S. gaming cooperative Glory Society. Before joining the firm, West worked for big gaming companies such as Trion Worlds, which, after its 2018 acquisition by Gamigo, went through several mass layoff rounds—a common practice within the industry.

Glory Society, the studio behind titles such as Night in the Woods, was founded as a cooperative because its members did not want bosses, West said. They didn’t want to feel as if they could lose their job at any moment, nor did they want to submit themselves to ‘crunch,’ the practice of putting in extreme overtime hours to meet project deadlines.

Crunching is pervasive in the gaming industry and often leads to burnout (and in some extreme cases, has even been linked to death). Designer and programmer Yannick Berthier recalls suffering from burnout after spending years working more than 60 hours a week, including for major game publishers, known as AAA companies, such as Bandai Namco.

These days, Berthier is a partner at French gaming studio Motion Twin. In fact, almost everyone who works at Motion Twin is a partner. Best known for its hit action game Dead Cells, the company has been operating as a cooperative for more than 20 years. ‘No one is the boss of each other, so everyone is autonomous and working together,’ Berthier said.

The trend is not limited to small studios. Valve, the gaming giant behind the Steam platform, introduced a flat hierarchical structure in 2012, with employees free to join different collaborative groups and no middle management. At one point, the corporation hired Yanis Varoufakis, a former Greek finance minister, as its economist-in-residence. The company was valued at $7.7 billion last year and had more than 300 people working on games. (Valve declined to answer questions about its current management structure.)

But while equality sounds like an inspiring ideal, operating a business without formal hierarchy can be tricky in practice. In 2013 former Valve employee Jeri Ellsworth denounced the company’s ‘pseudo-flat structure,’ noting that there was a ‘hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company’ that ‘felt a lot like high school.’

Working in a company where everyone is considered your equal sometimes means that nobody wants to take responsibility for addressing toxic behavior, former and current cooperative members have said. The decision to lay off people or otherwise confront bad behavior becomes especially difficult when the bad news has to be delivered not by a boss, but by peers or even friends. As is common for small businesses, some of these companies have no formal, standing HR structure. Layoffs are often decided through a collective vote, with members saying they prefer to retrain staff or take collective pay cuts instead of firing people.

Even in the best of cases, democratic decision making can ‘easily become a politics nightmare,’ Berthier said. Motion Twin tries to avoid such nightmares by staying away from meetings as much as possible and keeping things small. Its team is capped at around 10 employees. ‘Legally speaking, we can debate everything,’ he said. ‘But if we do that, it can last until the end of time—and we might be dead, and the game will not be released.’

Steve Filby, Motion Twin’s head of business development and the CEO of its spin-off Evil Empire, has spent a lot of time evangelizing the cooperative model among curious game company founders. But as time went by, he realized that a full co-op model wasn’t attractive to most. ‘Many people, when they are faced with the reality of proper democracy, an actual majority rule, are like, Hm, that’s not exactly what I had in mind,’ he said.

Co-ops and similarly structured companies are still the exception in the tech industry. One (admittedly incomplete) list of tech co-ops, maintained by German developer and activist Henning Schumann, puts the global number at fewer than 10.

Filby helped build Motion Twin’s Dead Cells into a game worth an estimated $55 million, and then—with Motion Twin’s blessing—founded Evil Empire to help develop it. After he founded the new venture, however, he made sure he maintained control. ‘Obviously, having not started my own company as a cooperative, that sort of speaks volumes,’ he said.

What troubled Filby was the lack of clarity and financial stability. Motion Twin distributed the money made each year between the employees, with just ‘a few bucks’ left over for the company. ‘This means that if there’s ever a moment where a game flops or there’s no more money coming in from existing [intellectual property], they’re up the creek without a paddle,’ Filby said.

Similarly, Glory Society’s West traded the stress of not knowing when the next layoff would come for the stress of knowing exactly how the business is doing. The co-op model means that everyone is responsible for running the company. ‘It’s the difficulties of being a business owner, while also being a game developer,’ West said.

Co-ops face another financial conundrum. The tech industry works in a uniform pattern: It’s designed to scale and maximize profit for outside shareholders, and it’s often driven by venture capital, said Melissa Hoover, co-executive director for partnerships and growth at the Democracy at Work Institute, a think tank focused on worker cooperatives. ‘The model is broken in terms of serving anybody but outside investors,’ Hoover said.

Worker-owned companies often run against that logic: They are not designed to grow infinitely, and they operate in the interest of their members instead of outside shareholders. This can make it difficult for a co-op to access the kind of funding that traditional companies have. In 2022 gaming companies raised more than $11 billion.

‘When you have all this venture capital coming in to subsidize enormous losses with the goal of shutting down all the competitors and then capturing the market, that kind of capital comes with real structural imperatives attached to it,’ Hoover said.

While co-operatives are still, in Hoover’s words, a ‘teeny-tiny part’ of the economy, they are growing—and becoming more attractive to workers. In 2022 a trend of consolidation throughout the industry—which saw many large companies take over smaller ones—further disempowered workers in traditional organizations, said Austin Kelmore, co-founder of the game workers branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. That means that this year could see even more game worker unrest.

Much of the impulse for change may come from new generations of game workers—young people landing in AAA game studios who may eventually experience the inevitable layoff cycle. ‘I can imagine, with a new wave of people coming into the industry with different ideas and with a union already in place,’ West said, ‘that the co-op trend will probably grow in popularity.’

A similar desire for different workplaces can be found in the broader tech industry. Many tech workers are searching for less stressful jobs and prioritizing work-life balance. The popularity of unions in the U.S. is currently the highest it has been since 1965. And for many, tech founders who were once revered as heroes—such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos—are starting to feel like villains.

Part of this shift is reflective of a change in how game workers see themselves. It’s often said that no one goes into the industry for the money. ‘I’ve been … doing games since I was a kid, so it’s, like, my passion, my life: My work is a huge part of what I am,’ Berthier said.

But that passion has made game workers more exploitable. Games are often viewed as jobs for young men without families and caregiving responsibilities, which makes the industry less attractive for other types of workers, including women. But as the industry matures, it’s slowly changing from a fun job for ambitious young people to a profession people want to keep until retirement—which, today, is a rare occurrence, Gavrilovic said.

‘A lot of people have been leaving the gaming industry because they can’t handle the working conditions,’ said Gavrilovic, back in his cramped office nestled inside a coworking space slash innovation center in Zagreb. ‘They don’t want to sacrifice time with their children or their free time.’ The ‘ideological goal’ of labor models like Gamechuck, he said, is to ensure that sacrifice isn’t necessary.


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