In the rapidly paced world of video game development, the unsung heroes – the engineers and artists who breathe life into superheroes and make laser swords glisten – are seeking the aid of unions to fight for improved working conditions.
Special effects engineers and artists are unionizing to demand improved working conditions as their workload intensifies. This trend took root in 2022 in an independent studio in the United States and Canada, and has escalated this year, coinciding with the historic strike of Hollywood writers and actors, backed by their unions.
Content demand is skyrocketing, not just from video game publishers but also from streaming platforms fighting to retain their subscribers and attract new ones. According to organizations representing the unsung heroes in the entertainment sector, employees responsible for special effects at Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures have expressed interest in forming unions.
A largely non-unionized profession
A group of Marvel employees could potentially become the first special effects team from a major studio to unionize. The US federal agency responsible for labor law is set to count their votes on Tuesday. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) views this development as a significant shift for a profession that has remained largely non-unionized since the rise of special effects in the 1970s with Star Wars.
Special effects specialists at Walt Disney are set to vote on unionization in September. “We are witnessing an unprecedented wave of solidarity that is breaking down old barriers in the industry and proving we’re all in this fight together,” stated Matthew Loeb, International President of IATSE. “Workers from the entertainment sector are standing up for their colleagues’ rights, and that’s what it’s all about,” he added.
“We need meal breaks”
The competition among streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and Disney has increased the demand for movies and series, virtually all of which now require special effects, explains Mark Patch from IATSE. “Without special effects, there would be no lightsabers, no Avengers flying around,” he points out. “We love this job, but we need meal breaks, health coverage, and overtime pay,” he elaborates.
According to Patch, it’s common for special effects industry workers to pull over fifteen-hour days, even sleeping under their desks to meet tight production deadlines. This mirrors the experiences of video game publisher employees.
As per Chrissy Fellmeth, International Representative of IATSE, wages and benefits have stagnated despite the multi-billion dollar industry. With the accelerated release pace of games due to high demand for updates, studio employees are left scrambling to fix software errors.
According to unionist Chrissy Fellmeth, game developers usually stay for about seven years before moving on to other tech sectors. “They tend to move onto greener pastures,” she explains. “Even though they love working in this industry, it turns out to be too taxing.”
New York-based game studio Workinman Interactive, which counts Nintendo and Disney among its clients, started a unionization campaign in August, according to IATSE. They would join a handful of video game studio unions, including the Game Workers Alliance Union, launched in early 2022 by quality assurance workers at Raven Software, owned by Activision Blizzard.
“I’m very excited to see what the future holds now that we have the opportunity to raise our voices and be respected as equals,” said Cori Mori, a junior developer at Workinman, in a statement. According to Chrissy Fellmeth, the surge in unionization is tied to increasing remote work restrictions imposed by studios, forcing employees to live near high-cost city offices.
The current strike crippling Hollywood has also played a role, highlighting the power of workers when united. The writers started their movement in May, followed by the actors in July. Their unions are demanding better wages and assurances that artificial intelligence won’t steal their jobs and income.