A cosplayer is seen at the China Digital Entertainment Expo & Conference, known as ChinaJoy, which has been held for 20 years, in Shanghai on July 28, 2023. (AFP)Gaming 

Game Developers Push for Unionization Amid Growing Digital Entertainment Industry

As the demand for content continues to soar, the often overlooked individuals responsible for bringing movie superheroes to life and creating the iconic sounds of lightsabers are increasingly seeking support from labor unions. These individuals, who perform crucial behind-the-scenes work, are finding that their once dream-like jobs have transformed into exhausting and demanding routines.

The unionization trend that started last year with an independent game studio is gaining momentum as video streaming services compete for subscribers and video game makers try to keep players engaged.

The latest moves come from the visual effects (VFX) crews at Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, according to labor unions representing behind-the-scenes entertainment workers.

The organizing effort comes as Hollywood suffers from unionization of writers and actors over pay and concerns over the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

The National Labor Relations Board will count mail-in ballots Tuesday to decide whether to certify Marvel’s VFX workers, the first of its kind at a major studio.

Labor organizers at the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) see the effort as a major shift in a job that has been largely non-union since “Star Wars” revolutionized VFX in the 1970s.

Visual effects crews at Walt Disney Pictures will vote to unionize this month.

“We are seeing an unprecedented wave of solidarity that is breaking down old barriers in the industry and showing that we are all in this fight together,” said IATSE International President Matthew Loeb.

“Entertainment workers everywhere stand up for each other’s rights, that’s what our movement is all about.”

Competition between streaming TV titans Amazon, Apple and Netflix has increased demand for shows, almost all of which now include visual effects, IATSE organizer Mark Patch told AFP.

“Without VFX, you wouldn’t have a lightsaber, you wouldn’t be flying Avengers planes,” Patch said.

“We love this job, but we need health care; we need to be paid overtime, we need to take meal breaks…”

According to Patch, VFX workers are putting in 15-hour overtime days, even sleeping under their desks in front of production deadlines.

Those in the video game industry have long complained about similar grueling schedules when determining release dates.

According to IATSE international representative Chrissy Fellmeth, studio employees are increasingly looking for solidarity to improve working conditions.

Wages and benefits for video game workers have stagnated in the multibillion-dollar industry, while the speed of releases has accelerated with demand for updates, Fellmeth told AFP.

And with the games rushing out the door, studio employees have to deal with software bugs later.

People working behind the scenes in video games typically last about seven years before switching careers to other tech fields, according to Fellmeth.

“They tend to leave for greener pastures,” Fellmeth said.

“Even though they love working on the games, it turns out to be too difficult.”

New York-based game studio Workinman Interactive, which has clients including Nintendo and Disney, began merger efforts last month, according to IATSE.

They would join a handful of video game studio unions, including the Game Workers Alliance Union, which was launched early last year by quality assurance workers at Activision Blizzard’s Raven Software.

“I’m so excited to see what the future holds for us now that we have the opportunity to have our voices heard and valued as equals,” Workinman junior developer Cori Mori said in a release.

According to Fellmeth, video game workers’ interest in union protection has increased as studios limit telecommuting, which means workers are pressured to live near offices in cities that tend to be expensive.

The ongoing strike by film actors and writers has also been a factor that has highlighted the power of unionization.

The writers left their jobs in May and the Actors in July. Both unions demand, among other things, better pay and guarantees that artificial intelligence will not steal their jobs and income.

The strikes have halted the production of many studio films and television series.

“The writers and actors on strike have brought the idea of organizing to a lot of people’s attention,” Fellmeth said.

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