The crisis of the video game industry in Ireland

While the pandemic severely damaged many sectors of the industry, gaming exploded as people had more free time and more disposable income.

However, amid record profits for gaming companies, stories about working conditions and allegations of intimidation and harassment surfaced, leading to a global push for unionization within the industry.

Although Ireland’s video game industry is much smaller than that of the United States or Japan, it now faces a similar reckoning when it comes to wages and working conditions.

While there is no industry body like the Irish Farmers Association or Licensed Winemakers Association, Imirt is the closest equivalent and represents the game makers in Ireland.

Two of its members Denman Rooke and Ellen Cunningham spoke with breaking on the problems affecting workers in the sector.

After working as an artist for various game studios in Ireland and the UK, Denman now runs an art services studio in Galway called Rúach.

Ellen Cunningham is a games writer who works with an independent Dublin-based studio called Gambrinous, which has created games like Guild of Dungeoneering and Cardpocalypse.

Magic the Gathering illustrations by Denman Rooke

Magic the Gathering illustrations by Denman Rooke

As members of Imirt and the Game Workers United Ireland union, they have both heard first-hand accounts of the issues facing workers.

“The biggest thing we’ve heard from developers is that a lot of them are running out of steam and in a very short period of time.

“It is not something that is sustainable. We have a very young industry, so a lot of inexperienced people come in,” says Ellen.

The ripple effect of people leaving the industry is that it affects the quality of the games, because teams don’t develop chemistry over long periods of time.

“We’ve also heard stories where people are putting in ridiculous hours and getting physically sick from the stress,” says Ellen.

This type of burnout stems from mismanagement where workers have to meet deadlines, i.e. mandatory overtime that is not paid.

Denman says there’s “pressure to work late, and you’re in a culture full of passion. If you want to move up, there’s external pressure to work late.”

He says managers often don’t do it intentionally, but they get into a cycle of trusting him when a project nears a deadline.

“Also the fact that it’s free is another reason why they use it,” he says.

crispy culture

Ellen says what makes things worse is that when people experience burnout, many workers don’t receive sick pay.

“It complicates the problem, so people can’t take time off, but they’re exhausted,” says Ellen.

One of the reasons workers are often exploited is because of their contracts. As someone who runs an independent studio, Denman is his own boss, but he’s been hired by studios before.

“In the last 10 years, when I was a full-time employee, the contracts said 40 hours a week, but also mentioned the need to work more hours to meet certain requirements.”

I have never seen a contract that mentioned overtime pay.

It means no paid overtime, and the contract is left intentionally vague. Says Denman, “I’ve never seen a contract that mentioned overtime pay.”

Because the contracts don’t have a clause about overtime pay, workers feel they don’t want to go overboard and ask a manager about it.

According to the Game Workers United Pay 2021 transparency report, wages in the industry can vary by position.

The report found that people working in programming roles are the highest paid, with 78% earning more than €40,000, followed by production roles with 63.5% earning the same amount.

In terms of unpaid overtime, 82 percent of respondents said they received no compensation for overtime. The survey also found that 78 percent of workers receive no pension contributions.

All of this paints a picture of an industry where workers feel pressured to work long hours and where their long-term future is far from secure.

Says Denman, “Because there are no protections for working overtime. I’ve been in positions where something isn’t working, and instead of changing things, you’re basically forced to work hard to fix it.”

Ellen says that in the long run, this type of labor practice could kill off the industry here.

A source who is a programmer at an Irish studio who does not wish to be named says the problem goes beyond simple management.

casual work environment

“I think it’s something that’s built into the industry. It’s an industry driven by passion and rock star developers.”

The programmer says that because the work environment is more casual, his commitment can often be questioned if he is not working.

“There’s pressure from other developers saying, ‘Well, we’re working until 7:00 pm or 8:00 pm, why not you?'” the source says.

There are also very few paths up the industry for younger workers. “What they do is they get a fresh batch of graduates, work them hard, and burn them. Then they bring in senior people to fill those roles,” the source says.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom and there are things that can be done to correct these problems.

“We have a pretty impressive indigenous gaming industry and that’s before any real government investment.

“Now what we really need to see is government support for collective bargaining and unionization,” says Ellen.

With a tax credit for digital games in the works, there is hope that, like France or the UK, it could help attract developers to these shores.

Game Workers Unite Ireland is also pushing for a living wage of €12.17 to be the industry-wide minimum.

This, coupled with better structures to ensure overtime is compensated and a focus on retaining workers in the industry, could be the start of the gaming sector moving in the right direction.

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