by Lana Polansky
Since 1996, Quebec has footed the bill for nearly 40% of technical staff salaries in the games industry through a multimedia tax credit. This tax credit is taken for granted as an attractive incentive for large companies to establish themselves in the province, creating putatively good jobs and cultivating an entire secondhand industry for startups and vocational schools. One owner termed Quebec the “Hollywood of video games,” and industry lobbyists tend to frame this tax credit scheme as ultimately beneficial to workers, allowing for better paying and more stable jobs than if the scheme did not exist.
Game Industry “Job Creation” Propaganda is Misleading
A prominent image in industry propaganda is that of the young, professional game developer: well-paid, earning a salary somewhere between $50,000-$90,000 a year, with a cushy and creative job. Take nonprofit management lobby group Alliance Numérique, who, in response to a proposed 20% cut to the tax credit in 2014, submitted a 26-page report to the Quebec Taxation Review Committee entitled, “Perpetuating the Quebec Miracle.” The report calls for not only the reinstatement of the credit, but for diverting further government funding to the private sector, relying on the image of local “creative talent” that would disappear without it. Former Minister of the Economy and Innovation, Dominique Anglade echoed much the same line in 2017, as part of a press release in support of EA’s $500 million investment to expand its operations.
No question, the games industry means big business in Quebec. Around 48,000 people are employed in the games industry in Canada, and over 11,000 of which reside in the province. The Canadian videogame industry “pumped more than $4.5 billion into the Canadian economy in 2019”, according to a CBC labour report, and continually ranks third globally behind the United States and Japan.
One big problem, though, is the fact that this subsidy doesn’t really account for the kind of work being done or the conditions of that work.
What are Game Worker Jobs Actually Like?
Not everyone is a well-paid developer—in fact many game workers are not. Something that gets left out not just in industry propaganda, but in much labour reporting, is the fleet of thousands of minimum wage and contract workers who tend to suffer most from the industry’s exploitative practices – while accounting for a significant chunk of “job creation” thanks to the subsidy.
I used to do just that kind of job, having worked in Quality Assurance (or game-testing) in my early 20s. I can speak to a great deal of mismanagement, sexual harassment, instability and poor pay, but the novel-length NDA I signed at the time prevents me from going into too much detail.
So, I decided to speak to someone still doing the job to know if anything had changed. Greg* (who requested I use a pseudonym) has been working at Enzyme since July, a third party firm that provides QA to Warner Brothers. He says working conditions have generally been easygoing – and there have been improvements including onsite anti-harassment training— but many of the underlying problems have not significantly changed.
While QA workers are paid minimum wage and work exclusively for the conglomerate that hired them, they are still essentially contractors, with no promise of basic benefits, regular hours, or long-term employment. Workers at these companies are split into two camps: permanents and non-permanents. Non-permanents are often hired en masse, given minimal training and shuffled through the company, while a small number of dedicated testers are given the opportunity to become “permanents”, which comes with a pay raise and some of the benefits of a conventional employee.
“You know, the holiday season’s upcoming, and for the holiday break, if you can call it that, I’m not getting any kind of wage,” says Greg. “None of the non-permanents are getting any kind of wage with the exception of Christmas and New Year’s. We can bank whatever personal days we have left, of which we have 2 per year.”
Permanent employees, he says, receive a four-day bonus, but only if they’ve been permanent for at least 6 months. This can be difficult to achieve since workers may be promised permanent status for months before that actually happens. Even working hours can be hard to secure. Greg notes that he was hired months before he was ever actually called in to work:
“So I actually had three months of, ‘I don’t know if I have the money. I need to start paying my student loans and other things,’” he says. Because of this experience, Greg is not convinced that the tax credit necessarily translates into better or more reliable jobs, regardless of the raw number of jobs created, remarking,
“I mean, think about it. Enzyme is contracted by WB. In theory, they could probably ask for just about any cash amount and get it, and be like, ‘Hey, we only need like 300 employees and we’re going to pay them 20 bucks an hour, whatever.’ They could, but why would they bother doing that when they could just hire like 600 people, cram them into offices, and force everybody to have shitty hours?”
Unionizing the Games Industry
What can be done about this discrepancy between the image projected by the industry and the actual experiences of its workers? In the last few years, worker advocacy has begun to articulate itself through groups like Game Workers Unite (GWU), which advises workers on how to organize in their workplaces. I spoke to a representative from GWU (who preferred to remain anonymous) about the industry claim that the tax credit has resulted in better jobs. They detailed to me the official position of GWU, stating:
“The tax credits credits given to the game studios should come with requirements regarding the types and conditions of the jobs created. […] A lot of those jobs are poorly paid. They require unpaid overtime, mandatory or they may say it’s voluntary but you get fired if you don’t do those hours. Sometimes they offer no stability, so your contract getting renewed every three months. No job security, so often as soon as the project is done, a lot of the QA or the developers even, will get fired. So, those are all jobs that are subsidized, and there’s no check from the government for what those jobs are exactly.”
The GWU representative offered nuance in regards to the credit, arguing for the institution of various standards in terms of how the credits get used. We discussed the credit as a type of corporate welfare, where the industry advocates for a greater share of public funding and tax breaks while opposing unions and threatening capital flight. It’s hard not to see the comparison between this and Silicon Valley companies like Amazon which literally pit cities against one another in a lottery to determine the location of their second headquarters, while promising “50,000 high-paying jobs.”
Of course, corporate welfare may keep a company planted in one spot for awhile, but the representative notes that outsourcing and automation are inevitable on some level as long as there are cheaper places—with an even more exploitable workforce—where companies can profit.
“In the big scope of things, that’s why everyone should be unionized, and there should be international solidarity on that,” they say.
“It’s known that the main thing about the games industry is the glamour,” says Greg. “But it’s a good way to avoid looking at the constant churning of employees.”
Learn more at https://www.gameworkersunite.org/
Follow Lana at @mechapoetic