Unions aren't necessarily the single brush-stroke that will fix the game industry's problems, but the three founders of the Glory Society are adamant that a co-op studio structure is definitely worth embracing.
Over the past few months, a wave of high-profilereports that reveal the troubling working conditions at many big-budget game studios have triggered a roiling discussion about how best to tackle the problems that haunt the ever-growing video games industry. Many developers assert that industry-wide unionization similar to that of the world of films would help alleviate the punishing hours and unpaid overtime that have characterized the video game business since the days of the Atari.
Still, some developers who support broad unionization warn that these still-developing efforts won’t be sufficient by themselves to reverse the harm that decades of crunch culture has inflicted upon the lives of workers everywhere. Instead, studios like the freshly-forged Glory Society - the trio of Scott Benson, Bethany Hockenberry, and Wren Farren - have begun to reject the hierarchical corporate structures that they’ve labored under for so long, opting for a form they view as more egalitarian -- that of a “cooperative.”
If you’re only dimly aware that cooperatives exist, you’re not alone, especially if you reside in the United States. Outside of your local credit union - or perhaps a grocery store, if you live in an urban area - you’re not likely to find many establishments that vaunt their co-op status. (To complicate things further, those few examples are likely consumer cooperatives, which vary significantly from what we’re describing here.)
As Benson attests, trying to explain what exactly they were planning to build to their friends in the industry proved a far more difficult task than they first anticipated. “Our friends would say, ‘oh, cool, that’s great,’" Benson said. “Then they’d say, ‘well, what does that mean?’ We eventually got the explanation down, but it took a while.”
Benson and Hockenberry first became stars in the insular world of indie gaming after the smashing success of Night in the Woods, an ode to the decay of small-town America that combines millennial melancholia and the goofy exploits of a Tumblr-loving twentysomething. When they decided to start up a studio with Farren, they very quickly ran into a problem: none of them wanted to be the boss. In fact, none of them wanted any of their coworkers to be their boss, either.
“We’ve all had negative experiences with employers,” Benson affirmed. “We’ve all had to work late. We all come from a place that’s just like, ‘fuck bosses.’ That’s our position. Why would we want to replicate that inherently exploitative structure? None of us want to be that person. There’s no such thing as a good boss, honestly. I’m sure there are people who are going to read this and say, ‘hey, I have a great relationship with my boss.’ Good for you, but I guarantee that you would like that person more if they didn’t have that power over you. Your ability to live, to have healthcare, to buy groceries. It’s not something we wanted to replicate.”
For the Glory Society, the decision to go with an alternate structure was not born from a whim, but their Marxist beliefs about the structure of the traditional workplace. They believe that the traditional hierarchy fundamentally and irrevocably results in a manager or boss that skims off excess profits from those lower on the totem pole. As Benson explained, the gospel of capital convinces people that this configuration is just by promising them that they will one day be the bloated leech at the top, sucking up all the surplus value. If he or Hockenberry were to take the mantle, they would be unwittingly promoting a view of the world that they find morally repugnant.
As a worker cooperative, The Glory Society describes itself as “a workplace and studio that operates democratically in all aspects.” In a consumer cooperative, shoppers purchase a democratic share in the way the business operates, voting on how it should proceed. Profit is typically returned to the shareholders in a manner similar to a stock dividend. Rather than a manager wielding absolute power over a cadre of underpaid employees, the three members of Glory vote on every major decision.
While that might conjure images of a long oak table in a glittering boardroom, Farren says the reality is anything but serious: the votes typically occur through Slack, in the form of the thumbs-up or thumbs-down emojis. This might sound tedious to some, but to Hockenberry, it’s much better than the alternative.
“If Scott gets mad with power and decides to make the game his way, we just vote him off the island,” she said. “It prevents the sorts of power-hungry manager behavior that you hear about in the industry. We’re legally-bound not to be dicks.”
When they were considering the nature of their new venture, and what Benson viewed as his impending and unavoidable boss-dom, he was “angsting about it” to anyone that would listen. Eventually, one of his friends, who happened to be a member of the International Workers of the World, asked him: why not just form a worker cooperative?
For the nascent studio, it was like a bolt of lightning on moonless night. As they started researching just exactly what that was, Benson started to wonder: “Why doesn’t everybody do this?” He compared trying to track down information about how to legally form a worker cooperative in the US with trying to understand the world of Lordran by reading item descriptions in the classic RPG Dark Souls. “The information’s technically out there,” he says. “But we had to unearth it, and find people who knew something about it.”
The search for that knowledge became a lot easier when Glory contacted a number of notable worker cooperatives in the gaming industry, including Pixel Pushers in Texas and the Canadian outfit KO_OP. However, it wasn’t until the success of the roguelite slash-’em-up Dead Cells that the studio-to-be heard about the French developer Motion Twin, one of the most prominent examples in the gaming industry.
Worker cooperatives are far more common in Europe than in the US - thanks in part to a consciousness of labor that simply doesn’t exist in North America - but, to Benson, reading oodles of positive press about a game studio that flaunted norms gave the studio’s plan a much-needed sense of legitimacy. To those developers who say that they’re happy with the traditional state of affairs, Benson doesn’t mince words: you’re risking so, so much.
“When I tell people about how we’re doing things, they always say, ‘oh, but what about good bosses?’ And I just want to say to them, you really don’t know that person,” he noted. “Your boss can come into the office with the zombie virus from ‘28 Days Later’ and make your life a living hell. They can just be a rabid, horrible person, and they still have that power over you, they can take that value you’re producing and own the thing you create. The co-op model gives structure, power, and transparency that just can’t get from bosses.”
“It also just makes us a lot more creative,” added Farren. “It’s amazing how much easier it is to work when you don’t have to worry about someone outranking you, undoing your decisions, or laying you off. It’s just way less toxic that way. My last job was at a studio where I went through several rounds of layoffs, and nobody seemed to really care about the welfare of anyone there. I never want to go through that again.”
The members of Glory admit that, just like unionization, the co-op structure can present its own set of challenges.
Some cooperatives in other industries have a reputation for outsourcing a vast portion of their work to isolated contract employees who don’t share in the firm’s profits and have little to no influence on the direction of the project. Similarly, stopping to vote on each of the thousands of hyper-granular decisions that have to be made in the course of developing a video game would drive the creative process to a halt. Or as Hockenberry puts it: just because the team lacks a boss doesn’t mean that they’ve abandoned any sense of coherent management.
“I’m the person who sometimes has to say, ‘okay guys, here’s what we’re doing,’” she said. “Sort of like a producer, or as a financial officer. Those roles are sometimes necessary, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to make ten times the amount of money of the person who makes the art, for example.”
“If we do bring in contractors for this project, which we likely will, we will pay them more than fairly, promptly, and credit them very visibly,” Benson remarked. “It’s a thing where we’re always going to make sure that we’re never keeping someone out of the co-op who wants to be in it, and should be in it given the quality and quantity of the work they’re doing, just to save a little money or whatever. We want to do this whole thing as ethically as possible.”
While it remains to be seen how the Glory Society deals with this wealth of potential problems, one thing’s for sure: they’re absolutely committed to this cause. For years, they’ve all been fed the industry line that everyone who works in games could consider themselves so luckyto be a part of the machine. But, as Benson put it, that platitude comes with a barb that the deliverer doesn’t even try to hide: if you don’t thank your lucky stars for the right to work here for 70 hours a week for low pay, there’s a younger version of you who’ll do it for even less. As a whole, they’re sick of it, and this is their way of fighting back.
“I think there’s an understanding among developers - workers in general, not just in the gaming industry - that if we want something better, we have to get together and demand it,” Benson said. “The video game industry is a comically extreme example, of course. We have to do something about it. This is us trying to create something better, and I think we will succeed.
"We’ve been told our entire lives that this is the end of history, the Francis Fukuyama thing. We’re just tweaking liberal capitalism, and this is the only way we can do things. People are starting to realize that that’s falling apart. Some game folks who saw our announcement, there was just this sense of ‘oh, thank God, history isn’t over.’ We can do better, together, and this is a part of that.”
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