“We’ve all been subject to mistreatment” – now France’s video game workers are increasingly turning towards unions

by Simon Mauvieux

As people stream into Place d’Italie in Paris on 31 January 2023 for a second round of major protests against pension reform, a red and black flag bearing the initials ‘STJV’ begins to draw attention. “What organisation are you with exactly?” asks a man dressed in the colours of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour, CFDT), France’s largest trade union confederation. “We’re the Union of Video Game Workers,” replies the flag bearer.

While the STJV remains little known within French social movements, let alone amongst the general public, it has continued to attract new members since its creation in 2017 and has increased its activities in recent months. Several dozen developers, designers and 3D graphic artists working for the flagships of France’s video game industry like Ubisoft, Don’t Nod and Gameloft, have joined the recent protests against pension reform.

“The video game industry is not very unionised or politicised, but huge strides have been made in recent years,” says Frédéric*, a developer and one of the co-founders of the STJV. For a long time, the video game industry was an ecosystem apart, largely viewed as incompatible with trade unionism.

“This is the first time that I’ve gone on strike,” says Thomas*, a user experience designer at a studio in Paris since last July. Still a student when the STJV was founded, he joined the union as soon as he began working. “There’s a culture of neutrality in the video game industry, a certain start-up ethos where we don’t really talk about politics,” he says.

“But the reality is that we’ve all been subject to mistreatment at one point or another. Our employers aren’t necessarily familiar with the law and the fact that we talk about it helps to create collective awareness.”

Standing next to Thomas is Julia*, 26, a 3D graphic designer who is very energised by the growing unionisation of her industry. “It’s reassuring to know that we can count on the STJV, and that people are starting to have this awareness. The protests and strikes allow people to speak out about their working conditions,” she says.

Pierrick*, who has been working in the video game industry for 15 years, has seen trade unionism in the sector blossom over the course of his career. While he is not yet a member of the STJV, he is considering taking the plunge. “I’ve seen some absolutely egregious things over the course of my career and we had no one to stand up for us. We were all alone in our corners for a long time with the same problems and without the ability to resist,” he recalls. “The unions are responding to real needs.”

The STJV was created five years ago as revelations of unacceptable working conditions in the video game industry began to appear in the press. Since then, the union has grown and made its presence increasingly felt in social movements, which are shaking things up in the industry.

It was the IT section of the Solidaires union (Solidaires Informatique) that paved the way for trade unionism in the video game industry after handling several complaints against companies. The STJV, however, wishes to remain independent from the large confederations and exclusively dedicated to workers in the gaming sector. Frédéric says that the STJV now represents workers in the majority of French video game companies.

“There was a turning point around 2015 when the general public started becoming aware of problems in the industry. We began to realise that if we wanted our industry to work well we needed unions,” says Alex*, a developer at a video game company in Paris. But a certain entrepreneurial mythology – around creative genius, family business culture and passionate professionals – that is widespread and deeply rooted in the industry has made their road a long one. “We still have to fight against decades of political discourse that denigrated the unions and told us that we had to trust our bosses,” says Pierre-Etienne Marx, union delegate for the STJV at Ubisoft.

The first strike at Ubisoft

On the afternoon of 27 January 2023, the STJV joined forces with Solidaires Informatique to organise a strike at Ubisoft, the first in the 37-year-old company’s history. The action was sparked by an email that management sent to all of the company’s employees. With Ubisoft experiencing financial difficulties, Yves Guillemot, the company’s CEO, announced “structural adjustments,” telling employees: “The ball is in your court to deliver the line-up [video games in development] on time and at the expected quality level.”

This reversal of responsibility did not sit well with the employees. “Ubisoft is a big company where you don’t have a lot of decision-making power. ‘The ball is in your court’ essentially means ‘We’re making this your problem’. That’s how people took it. He’s basically saying: ‘I’ve put a hole in the boat and it’s up to you to keep it afloat.’ Well, you know what? No!” says Marx.

Around 100 employees went on strike in several of the company’s locations in France, demanding salary negotiations and opposing certain strategic decisions within the group which they believe to be responsible for poor results. In 2021, for instance, Solidaires Informatique and the STJV opposed Ubisoft’s decision to enter the NFT market (a technology that allows for the acquisition of immaterial works), which the unionists considered a speculative bubble. When contacted for this article, Ubisoft did not wish to comment on the strike.

In September 2022, members of the union gathered in front of the annual plenary session of Paris-based video game developer Don’t Nod. They distributed leaflets demanding wage increases and condemning work overload.

“Employees frequently brought up the lack of consideration for their problems: understaffed teams and overworked employees, all while projects multiply.”

“We had people experiencing burn-out and bore-out, which is a clear indication of very poor production management,” says Mathilde*, who has since left Don’t Nod. The company did increase wages at the beginning of the year but by less than what the unions were asking for.

Like most trade unions, the STJV offers legal assistance to employees in the sector. Sophie Clocher, a lawyer specialising in labour law, is one of the union’s advisers. She regularly encounters three problems: under-classification, i.e. making someone work below their level of competence; wage discrimination against women; and psychological or sexual harassment. Some workers face more than one.

“One of the biggest problems in this industry is under-qualification. People who have a five-year degree, sometimes an engineering degree, end up as ‘technical employees’ when they should be classified as management, and are thus automatically underpaid,” explains Clocher.

Video game production is also a very male-dominated industry. According to the 2021 survey conducted by the Syndicat National du Jeu Vidéo which represents video game employers, only 22 per cent of workers in the industry are women. “I have many cases of women who are paid less than men for doing the same job, especially when they are the heads of teams,” says Clocher.

Complaints of institutional sexual harassment

Finally, one of the issues that has received the most attention in the press is the widespread culture of harassment. Clocher’s files are full of such cases: “Some of these workplace cultures are extremely harmful: out of control people hurling insults in front of other employees, lowbrow humour, sexual harassment, all of it completely denied,” says Clocher. In 2021, the Solidaires Informatique union filed a complaint of institutional sexual harassment against Ubisoft. Several of the accused managers were dismissed from their jobs, though some remained in their positions.

According to Marc Rutschlé, Solidaires union representative at Ubisoft, sexual harassment is not just a matter of a few individuals but is indicative of a structural problem within the company. Clocher agrees, describing what she calls a “culture of harassment”.

But Ubisoft itself is part of a much bigger problem. France has nearly 700 video game companies with nearly 8,000 employees. While these same problems don’t plague every company - Clocher deals with about 30 cases a year – small studios are by no means an exception. “The big studios actually tend to comply with the law more quickly,” she says.

Despite this rather bleak picture, Axel Buendia, director of the École Nationale du Jeu et des Médias Interactifs Numériques (ENJMIN), France’s only public school for video game design, located in Angoulême, believes that a change of culture is possible. “Real progress is being made. Many of the abuses revealed by the press have been corrected. Not everything has been fixed but there is a general will to do better,” he says.

As Buendia explains, it is in the interest of video game companies to make these changes in order to remain attractive as employers. Students are increasingly discerning of the companies they choose to work for. Some have a bad reputation and that is becoming an increasingly important factor in students’ choices,” he says.

The STJV is a young and energetic union and it needs more time to have an impact on the industry. It is slowly building up its presence and organising power, company by company. Discussions have not yet been opened between the STJV and the representatives of video game employers on issues that could affect all employees in the industry, including wages, overtime and harassment. The video game employers’ organisation did not respond to our multiple interview requests.

Simon Mauvieux

This article has been translated from French.

*The names followed by an asterisk have been changed. The majority of our interviewees wished to remain anonymous.

Photo : Dans une école de design de jeux vidéos au Canada. CC BY 2.0 Vancouver Film School via flickr.