When I left the gaming labor group Game Workers Unite International in late 2019, I had sent them a letter that criticized how they handled racism, power, and transparency. After two years of intense burnout and unsupportive leadership, I never intended to involve myself with the labor movement again.
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Then came the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement. By May 30, game developers mobilized to match donations for bail funds. Famous streamers such as Jacksepticeye, Ninja, Mtashed, and Gothalion put out solidarity statements for BLM. E-sports teams such as Justice, Valiant, Mayhem, and Defiant had also used their platforms to decry the murder of George Floyd.
I was both moved and troubled. Again and again, I was told that game developers were not capable of being radical. Yet I saw colleagues out-organizing GWU. They were pushing racial justice further than anything that union organizers ever accomplished.
As this was happening, I checked the GWU Twitter. The silence felt like betrayal when my peers had spent the day raising bail funds. On May 30, I made a Tweet in response:
“If anyone is wondering why @GameWorkers isn’t speaking up rn when gaming Youtubers are: last year, I asked them to put out a statement condemning white supremacy. One of their leaders personally told me that they didn’t want to alienate game developers by condemning racism.”
In the next few hours, I saw several messages from former members or people of color who corroborated their awful experiences with racism within the organization. One Canadian developer mentioned that a local had mistreated their friend, a queer woman of color. A prolific British developer quit GWU UK after expressing dissatisfaction with how the union addressed concerns about racism. Racism was not a one-off occurrence. At the very least, GWU had problems in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
The truth can free me, I guess. The truth also shattered any optimism that remained from my jubilant days of joining the organization.
I’ve read GWU’s new statement about all of this. It says, in part, that “We join other labour organisations in condemning white supremacy and supporting Black organisers in the struggle against police brutality, systemic racism, and the institutions of the carceral state.” It did not fill me with confidence. The problem is bigger than a vague commitment to doing better. Public accountability and clear communication is needed. And from my own experience, external pressure is necessary to improve GWU.
Several BIPOC members were concerned about reporting racism within GWU for a common reason: What if making waves against racism would cause the unionization movement to lose steam?
As developers of color, could we afford to center antiracism in the movement? Would we needlessly risk the hopes of thousands of good people instead of paying the blood-price with our silence? We were strong people, else the games industry would have dashed our hearts against the rocks. People of color were used to making personal sacrifices. We were used to being the sacrifices.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? Game development itself hinges on our silent sacrifices. Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and Mixed developers make our video games. This is true whether or not we receive the same visibility as our white peers. Players spend hundreds of hours in our game worlds.
Numerically, non-white developers are not even a fringe group in game development. In 2008, 86% of major game studios admitted to using outsourced art assets. This number is likely higher today. If North American artists decided to unionize tomorrow, then it’s probable that their efforts would be hindered by a lack of solidarity with outsourced artists in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Glassdoor says that American game artist salaries start at 39k. An artist making AAA assets in Shanghai only makes $11k a year. An isolated American labor movement predicated on white arrogance was always doomed to fail.
I’ve seen folks talk about abolishing or separating from the International. The question is, what kind of organization would take its place? The problems with GWU were cultural. It replicated the same toxic studio culture that we had sought to eliminate, in theory.
Let’s imagine an ideal labor organization in six simple steps:
- Every member is required to attend racial justice training. If the organization asks a person of color to perform education work, that educator must be paid.
- The entire organization must actively support industry organizations led by people of color with no expectation of reward.
- A people of color committee must be allowed to convene and vote in private, and they are allowed a separate consensus from the rest of the organization.
- This consensus has actual weight and veto power within the organization. Committees are pointless if they are routinely ignored.
- Internal complaints of racism must be handled by this committee, which has the power to remove non-compliant members from the organization. All appeals must also be handled by this committee.
- This committee has sole jurisdiction over matters of racial justice, or any situation that involves a group of developers who are mostly non-white.
Whether it’s a union or a diversity committee, any organization that is truly committed to racial justice can start implementing these steps immediately. I’ve given all the free consulting, and now it’s up to white organizations to actually walk the walk.
Before American unionists fear managers, they should fear American labor history. Booker T. Washington wrote that Black people distrusted labor unions because white workers would not work with Black workers, or they banned Black union members entirely. This was the case in some rail and bricklaying unions.
In the political realm, racist unions helped pass the first race-based immigration ban in the country: the Chinese Exclusion Act. Unions are not inherently progressive, and in many historical cases, they were powerful tools of white supremacy.
A white supremacist union is worse than no union at all. When there is no union, people of color only have to survive bad managers. When people of color have to survive both bad managers and a hostile union, the situation will only drive more people of color out of the video game industry.
Whether it is GWU or a separate organization in the future, games labor must examine its own racist shortcomings. Else, they will replicate racist structures they were supposed to oppose.
I say all of this with every hope that an antiracist union would succeed, but I need to see the antiracism first.
Sisi Jiang is a game designer who prefers making games over writing about them.