The video game industry is notorious for long working hours and toxic environments. But now, a small studio hopes to chart a different course by becoming the first syndicated video game company in North America.
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The video game industry has a reputation for long hours, abusive bosses, and overall not being ideal for work-life balance. But workers at the small independent video game company known as Vodeo hope to model something different by being the first unionized video game company in North America. NPR’s Andrew Limbong spoke with some of the workers to chart a course for the rest of the industry.
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ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In the Beast Breaker video game, you play as Skipper, a mouse who steals Granny’s sword to literally bounce around and fight, you know, beasts.
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LIMBONG: It’s made by Vodeo, a relatively small and young game company. And contrary to the foregoing reputation of many video game companies, it’s actually a pretty laid-back place to work, says Carolyn Jong, a game designer there.
CAROLYN JONG: Vodeo is a place where there’s a lot of emphasis on things like work-life balance, for example. We have a four day work week.
LIMBONG: There are also safeguards against harassment and guardrails against what in gaming is known as crunch, which is basically working massive overtime right before a game launches.
JONG: These are things we want to hang on to.
LIMBONG: So the workers decided to form a union to put those protections on paper. You also have to think about the rest of the industry.
JONG: We also want to help set a precedent that helps normalize these kinds of practices that we think are really important to workers and the industry as a whole.
LIMBONG: Going back a bit, video game workplaces have been in the news lately. Riot Games, which makes the popular League Of Legends, agreed last month to pay $100 million to settle a sex discrimination class action lawsuit. Before that, workers at Activision Blizzard, which makes Call Of Duty, staged a strike to protest the layoffs. And even that follows a separate Activision Blizzard walkout prompted by reports that the CEO has failed to respond to years of complaints of sexual misconduct at the company.
EMMA KINEMA: These things are all connected. They come and go, and people learn lessons through all of these different endeavors.
LIMBONG: This is Emma Kinema, senior campaign manager for the games and technology arm of Communications Workers of America. She helped Vodeo workers form their union, and she says the biggest obstacle to widespread organization in games isn’t scalability or logistics or anything like that.
KINEMA: It’s a question of ideology. It’s a matter of education. It is a question of culture. It’s a matter of developing and maturing the kind of social fabric of this industry to a level where workers are ready to have, you know, their own rights and their own voice in the workplace.
LIMBONG: She points to the decades-long process the film industry has taken to get organized. It could be a kind of template for what could happen in video games. And yes, Vodeo is a small company, but Kinema says they’ve become the first successful certified union of video game workers in North America says something to workers at bigger studios.
KINEMA: It is no longer a hypothetical question whether you would support the presence of a union in the workplace? It’s actually, look, these people that we know, these people who are doing the same job as us in a company like us – they went to organize.
LIMBONG: Back at Vodeo, lead artist Jemma Salume knows people are watching and she hopes the company can be a success story. But on top of all the industry stuff, she mostly cares about her co-workers.
JEMMA SALUME: Part of my personal motivation for unionizing was like, well, I want to take care of all these people. (Laughs) Like, I care about them.
LIMBONG: She didn’t tell me if the next Vodeo game was going to have a little emblem on it that said union made.
Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
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