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Astrolabe (28): Transmission Received with Nicole Carpenter

Polygon's Nicole Carpenter discusses video game unions, labour rights, and her zine "The Rise of the Video Game Union."

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Astrolabe 28’s feature story looked at Polygon’s “The Rise of the Video Game Union.” In this piece, I spoke with the guide’s writer, Nicole Carpenter, about the piece—which doubles as a history of unionization in the games industry, and a hands-on how-to for people interested in starting a union at their work place. Here you’ll find my full interview Carpenter, where we dig deeper into how unions form, their benefit to creative industries, and how they can even protect and improve working conditions for freelance and non-contracted workers.


Photo by Nicole Carpenter

“Knowing your colleagues have your back, and in turn, having theirs, is really powerful”

Aidan Moher: Your fanzine/feature "The Rise of the Video Game Union" is a marvel. It's at once a historical accounting of why we're seeing a labour movement in the video game industry right now, and a how-to guide aimed at helping non-unionized workplaces begin the process of forming their own unions. How did this project come together?

Nicole Carpenter: We've been covering worker organizing and the build-up to this moment for years, and it made sense to bring all that reporting and gathered information together in one big place — to approach the process in an explainer in a really transparent, easy to understand way. We started talking about it — and the idea of a physical zine — at the start of the year, and I started reporting on it almost immediately, while my editors helped pull together an artist and logistics. I spoke to dozens of video game industry workers throughout the project, and things kept continuing to progress over the year, so we knew we had something timely with it.

AM: Did you have any internal push back for this project?

NC: No internal push back! My editors and Polygon's leadership have been really supportive and helped champion the project. It wouldn't have been possible to put so much time into this without that.

AM: Here in Canada, unions are fairly ubiquitous and you rarely run into anti-union sentiment, but it's a very different story in the US where most of the video game industry and the games media exists—and the games industry itself is still under-unionized. As far as I'm concerned, anything billionaires spend their fortune fighting tooth-and-nail against must be beneficial to the greater good. What's the deal with the anti-union mindset, and how does your guide help people navigate that?

NC: A union is a structure that can change the status quo at a company. Corporations exist to create value and maximize profits for their shareholders — having a union could mean spending more money to fairly compensate workers with increased pay and benefits. There are a number of different arguments that companies use to dissuade people from joining unions, citing things like high union dues or positioning a union as a third party. We've got a section in the zine that lays out exactly how companies may respond to union efforts to help folks understand how the process usually goes. We also provide workers' thoughts on what they call companies' "union-busting" tactics — that union dues help pay for essential functions that drive union efforts, and that a union isn't actually a third party, it's the workers themselves.

AM: We're seeing a major push for stronger worker rights in the publishing industry, highlighted by the ongoing HarperCollins strike, and in journalism, where staff from the New York Times are planning a walkout tomorrow (December 7th, 2022). Film and television have robust unions that protect actors and behind-the-scenes staff, but video games are generally behind these other content-based industries when it comes to unionization. It feels like that's changing, though.

Big studio video games famously require hundreds of staff across many different disciplines (artists, programmers, project managers, play testers, etc.), all of whom benefit from the career stability and negotiating authority granted by unionization, and we've seen unionization efforts at various studios, developers, and publishers. Why do you think it's taken the games industry so long to unionize?

NC: The tech industry has a history of being against or slow to unionize. It makes the process harder, and union experts I spoke to suggest it's because there are ingrained ideas on who unions are for, and a lot of people didn't previously see video game workers there. But that's changed a ton over the past few years as workers have seen the power of collective action in other organizing efforts, like the Riot Games walkout or the Lovestruck: Choose Your Own Adventure strike.

AM: How does unionization lead not only to fairer working conditions, but also better games?

NC: The thing with unionization is that workers at any particular company get to negotiate with leadership for the things that will improve the workplace for themselves. It means having a say in how a company can meet your needs, and that's important in its own right, beyond whatever product a company is putting out. But it's definitely true that these working conditions, and meeting workers' needs, means better games by workers who aren't pushed to their limit everyday.

AM: Games media is infamously volatile, with layoffs and closures feeling like a regular occurrence these days (most recently, Fanbyte faced major layoffs, and Bustle's Input shut down completely). But some of the larger publications, like Polygon (Vox Media Union), where you work, and Kotaku (GMG Union) have unionized work forces. How does working in a unionized environment like this change the way journalist and media creators approach their job compared to non-unionized and more volatile work places?

NC: Honestly, everything feels so volatile regardless of whether a workplace is unionized or not, but being in a union can absolutely help people feel more secure. Knowing your colleagues have your back, and in turn, having theirs, is really powerful — beyond what's in a contract, the solidarity there is very powerful. But having a contract is, of course, helpful, because that means protection in the event of layoffs, stuff like severance pay.

AM: Related to that, how do unions benefit the freelancers that work outside the union agreements?

NC: In the video game industry, there are several unions that do include contract workers in their contracts, so in those cases, it would benefit those workers in the same way as full-time workers. (This largely happens when unions are voluntarily recognized, like with Vodeo Games' union before the studio shut down.) Similarly, when the Lovestruck: Choose Your Own Adventure worker went on strike, they didn't have a contract and the group included contract workers, and their collective action is what helped them reach an agreement, regardless of worker classification.

AM: "The Rise of the Video Game Union" isn't just a feature on Polygon's website, it's also an illustrated and printable fanzine designed for easy workplace distribution. This concept hearkens back to the fanzines and pamphlets that have been handed out for hundreds of years in support of grassroots movements, artistic endeavours, and fan-created content. It's also rarely seen in this digital age. How does the physicality of the fanzine help push the labour movement forward compared to just publishing it to Polygon's website?

NC: We wanted the zine to live not only as a digital story, but for it to have a physical component that might be able to reach a different audience, people who aren't reading Polygon or spend so much time online. I grew up making zines, both digitally and physically, and it felt really natural to do something like that, especially given the content.

Read & Share Astrolabe 28:

Astrolabe 28: That's why they call it a union.
✊✊✊ Labour issues are obvious to anyone paying attention to the video game industry. Despite billions in profits every year, video game developers, artists, writers, quality assurance experts, and everyone else along the creative chain are expected to sacrifice their bodies, relationships, and lives to deliver u…

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