A world without bosses? The rise of the worker co-op

By Paul Walker-Emig. Posted

In recent years, it’s become clear that the working conditions for game developers are often pretty bad. In October 2018, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser came under fire after he appeared to brag about his team working back-breaking 100-hour weeks to complete Red Dead Redemption 2 on time.

This was only the latest controversy surrounding a practice so common in the industry that it has its own name: crunch. In February 2019, Activision Blizzard laid off 800 employees right after announcing a bumper $7.2 billion quarter. The following month, 350 EA employees were let go – yet another cohort of unfortunate workers bearing the brunt of the industry’s whims.

In that context, the picture that developers Ted Anderson and Wren Farren paint of their experience working in video games is hardly surprising. Anderson references “diminishing benefits, stagnant wages, and worsening working hours” and recalls such phrases as, “Do you have the passion to come in and work this weekend?”.

Similarly, Farren recalls “A lot of issues with hierarchy, layoffs, and just bad management,” in her previous industry job. “I was feeling super- disenfranchised with the games industry and the structure that seemed to be inherent with it,” she says.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could jettison all those toxic practices? The expectation of working insane hours at the expense of family life and mental health; the zero-hour contracts doled out to poorly treated Quality Assurance workers; the profit-over-people motive that allows a company raking in piles of cash to discard the workers that helped make them that money on a whim.

Hell, why not just get rid of the bosses that enforce all this stuff in the first place? That might sound like a fantasy, but this is precisely how people like Anderson and Farren have responded to their negative experiences. In 2015, Anderson formed the worker co-operative Pixel Pushers Union 512, while Farren co-founded The Glory Society in early 2019.

Taking Control

“A worker co-op is a business that’s democratically owned and operated and controlled by its workers,” explains Scott Benson, who co-founded The Glory Society with Farren and Bethany Hockenberry.

“There’s a lot to it, but it comes down to the fact that we talk things out and communicate, and are accountable to each other in ways that aren’t really possible in a top-down business. Also, voting happens.

“To pick one example that might seem unique for people who aren’t familiar with these types of setups – we vote on things that affect the studio, our expenditures, our salaries, etc. It doesn’t mean we have a big group vote on every creative decision – we all have our expertise and collaborate accordingly. But it does mean there isn’t one boss or stratum of decision-makers above us that determine all those things for us, and who ultimately own the work we make.”

Pixel Pushers Union 512 isn’t shy about representing its politics in its games.

With no bosses above their heads, The Glory Society and Pixel Pushers free themselves from many of the worst excesses of the video game industry. There’s no management to force members into brutal periods of crunch; no imbalance of power that allows a hierarchy to question their ‘passion’ for the industry if they complain about their conditions; no one is going to exploit them to line their own pockets and boost profits for shareholders; and the co-op members aren’t going to vote to lay themselves off as part of a boom and bust hiring cycle.

“I’ve been laid off before, and I’ve been a part of a hiring binge before,” says Anderson. “It’s an untenable system that puts the weight of production on the shoulders of the workers without them having much say in how things rattle out.

“I believe that co-ops can help reverse the lost wages and ‘churn’ of layoffs and hiring that happens in our line of work, just as it has in other industries,” he continues. “I think they are definitely a better solution than the current method of production in many industries, and in games, it’s no different.

If you need evidence that a game made by a worker co-op can be a hit, look no further than Motion Twin’s Dead Cells.

“We’re an industry like any other, where workers produce goods or services and are given a wage for that labour. However, the surplus value of that labour lands in the pockets of the owners and management of those studios. This isn’t controversial, that’s just how the system operates, so it’s curious to me that examining it causes people to get upset.”

Farren points out that worker co-ops also offer creative benefits for their members. “We can all bring ideas and thoughts to the table and feel like we will be heard,” he says. “We’re able to have discussions on an equal level that ultimately get us to a stronger place than if we had one person calling all the shots.”

A Changing Tide

The Glory Society and Pixel Pushers aren’t the only video game worker co-ops out there – Dead Cells developer Motion Twin is another example – but they’re both small fish in a big pond, each composed of only a handful of members.

It’s possible, however, for worker co-ops to scale up. Cooperative Home Care Associates, America’s biggest worker co-op, employs 2300 people; and a third of the GDP of the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy is produced by co-ops. This nascent movement feels like it’s part of a changing tide, rising in response to an ever-greater awareness about poor conditions in the industry, that could grow to become something far more significant.

Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson were threading political themes into their games before forming The Glory Society.

“There is definitely a greater awareness of this exploitative situation among developers these days,” says Anderson, pointing to the growing unionisation movement in the industry as another example of how this is manifesting. “Groups like Game Workers Unite are a fine example of a turning tide in the conversation about workplace organisation and the power of workers to enact real change in their industry.”

“We’re aware of where we’re at in history,” says Benson. “It’s not like every worker co-operative that’s formed is made up of people who see it as an anti-capitalist act, and many just see it as a better, more egalitarian way to run a business.

“For us, though, it has a strong political component because we’re aware of the times we’re in and the industry we’re part of. It’s kind of inescapable. We’re conscious of what the concept of a worker co-op means in the current space and choosing to do this was definitely a way of putting our convictions about capitalism and production and collaboration into practice.

“Really, though, you don’t have to be cool anti-capitalists like us to start one of these,” he jokes. “No one, like, checks your socialism card when you set one up. But I mean, it’s 2019. Look around.”

This game proves, once and for all, that only a broad-base revolutionary force can truly defeat the Kraken.

We don’t yet know what The Glory Society are working on, but in some fashion, it will reflect the political awareness that’s reflected in the studio’s structure. Hockenberry and Benson’s previous game, Night in the Woods, threads commentary on a changing economic landscape and its effects on a small town, based on Hockenberry and Benson’s experiences, into protagonist Mae’s personal story of struggles with mental health.

“As a writer, Night in the Woods and any games we’ll probably make in the future are very much based on personal experiences, and those experiences are very much based on politics and capitalism, so it would be really hard for me to separate those out or not to think of them,” Hockenberry explains.

“For this same reason, it would be hard for me to have the opportunity to start a business and not want to address a lot of the issues I came across as a worker in my past jobs.”

Pixel Pushers’ politics are unashamedly being expressed in their upcoming game, Tonight We Riot, a brawler where you control a crowd of workers liberating comrades on the way to overthrowing the forces of capitalism. If that all sounds very serious, it’s worth noting that the game does also have a sense of fun.

“Tonight We Riot isn’t a manifesto,” Anderson clarifies. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek take on how you have to fight for your rights (sometimes against giant mech suits). While the politics of the game are a serious matter that we feel need representation in the world of games, we also realise that without a bit of levity it can quickly become overwrought and more of a moralising lesson than a fun gameplay experience, so we’ve done our very best to ride that line carefully.

“We want to make sure the player has a good time, but also hope that they walk away with some class consciousness as well.”

Office Politics

The way that the politics of these studios’ organisational structures are reflected in their games, and vice versa, are important. There’s been a general and welcome trend towards exploring a greater breadth of subjects and representing a broader range of perspectives in games of late.

The Glory Society founders’ previous game, Night in the Woods, was a well-received and thoughtful title – though it was eventually consumed by a different sort of political discussion.

We’ve seen economics explored in everything from BioShock to Cart Life, games about mental health such as Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Depression Quest, games that represent gay relationships like Gone Home and The Last of Us: Left Behind, and greater diversity when it comes to the characters we can play as. This is fantastic, but it’s important to recognise the ways in which these developments can be limited.

That Apex Legends features lots of cool female and culturally diverse characters is a welcome step in the right direction, but the question that must be asked is: to what extent is this diversity replicated in the studio that made it? What does it mean if the politics that are being expressed in games aren’t being reflected in the way they’re being made?

This is an issue The Glory Society is acutely aware of. “It’s really easy, trivially easy, to just make slightly woker games and to master the language and etiquette of progressiveness,” Benson argues. “In this space, there’s a lot of big talk about what needs to change culturally, but the way games are produced goes largely untouched. We’re in a place right now where more and more people, especially younger people, are wondering why that is.

Tonight We Riot’s tale of the exploited versus the exploiters is clearly trying to tap into experiences that many of its players will have had in their working lives.

“The way something is produced, who profits from it, who owns it, the tools it was made with, and who controls what happens with all of it – these are the questions that start shaking long-undisturbed architecture. We’ve got such a theory of change in the industry that’s centred around pledges, conferences, hashtags, diversity initiatives, and so on.

“But we organise our entire lives around work, around the production of things. If we’re lucky enough to find full-time work, we spend five out of seven days of almost every week of our adult lives there. Our workplaces need to change.”

The Glory Society recognises that worker co-ops aren’t, in Farren’s words, “a magic solution.” Hockenberry points out that they “come with challenges” and are “just one solution of many out there.”

Clearly, though, they offer an exciting approach to dealing with many of the issues workers in the games industry, and even society at large, face today. These studios might offer a glimpse at a future we could all one day inhabit. At the very least, they should help us extend the debates we’re already having in the realm of culture into the workplace, so that the important conversations that need to be had about how the industry needs to change can continue happening.

There’s no guarantee that these studios will serve as a template that will give us a boss-free future, or even that they will spark a shake-up in the relatively narrow confines of their own industry. But as Hockenberry points out, “It’s better than what most of us have, so why not try?”

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