Trade In Your Nintendo Switch For a Better Battery (With a Catch)Get Used to ‘Fortnite’s’ Powerful Mech Suits Stay on target Ever since I really start reporting on video games back in Chicago, I’ve been familiar with the International Game Developers Association or the IGDA. While it is very much not a union, the group does seek to help the people who make video games and not just the corporations unlike the Entertainment Software Association or the ESA.While the quality of games themselves is arguably improving, the industry is facing all sorts of new and old issues. So at this year’s Game Developers Conference I got the chance to ask new IGDA Executive Director Jen MacLean about what a healthier video game industry looks like in the future, and her answer was a passionate but less radical future than I would’ve hoped.Geek.com: So say I’m someone who has loved games their whole life, wants to get started making them, but I don’t know what the IGDA is. What is it and why should I be interested?Jen MacLean: The IGDA is the largest professional association for game developers in the world. We support game development communities on a local level with over 150 chapters and special interest groups around the world. The IGDA’s mission is really to help game developers create sustainable and fulfilling careers. We want you to be a game developer at 22 and then retire 30, 40, 50 years later feeling like you have done something meaningful and valuable with your life and happy with the choices you’ve made in your career.Geek.com: What’s your background?JM: I have been a gamer my entire life since I had my Atari 2600 when I was seven. I started as a playtester in college and then a got a chance to work on the original Civilization. I went to AOL back when we were still playing online games on 14.4 modems.But I’ve always been passionate about the IGDA. I started getting involved with the IGDA back when I was a playtester. I believed in the idea of creating this community where game developers help each other out. I was on the IGDA board from 2008 to 2011. I was the chair of the board. I’m also the executive director of the IGDA Foundation which focuses on creating more diverse and inclusive game development community. So when the IGDA board approached me about becoming the executive director for me it was a natural next step in both my career and all the roles I’ve had in game development but also in my really passionate belief that we are stronger as a community when we give back.Geek.com: What are your responsibilities?JM: It’s a little bit of everything, it changes every day. The IGDA board and I together set up the strategy of the IGDA, what we want to focus on and how we can create the biggest impact on the lives of game developers around the world. Then with our staff, I really run the day to day operations of the IGDA. That includes things like negotiating members benefits, supporting our chapters around the world, advocating on behalf of game developers on issues that matter to them, thinking strategically about the problems game developers not only face today but tomorrow and years from now. Figuring out how to help game developers fundamentally be successful in their professional and personal lives. It changes every day but it is also incredibly rewarding.Geek.com: Sounds like a lot of small individual things. But what about more big picture visions you want to execute on?JM: Absolutely. At the end of the day we can’t help game developers have sustainable and fulfilling careers if the games industry is not healthy. Game developers don’t exist in a vacuum so the IGDA looks not only at what we do to help individuals but also help game development companies. We’ve seen that middle-tier of companies, that 50-200 person tier, has really shrunk.Geek.com: There’s no more middle class. Even on the press side we’ve seen how things have stratified to either just these tiny cool indie games and these huge AAA blockbusters that will bankrupt the studio if it sells less than eight million copies. Nothing’s in-between.JM: That makes me worried for who is going to be the Valve or Bethesda or Blizzards or Kings of Rovios of the future. If we don’t build our 5-15 person indie studios into the 50-person to 200-person to 1000-person studio that’s going to have big implications for the games industry in five to ten years.Part of the IGDA’s thinking is not only how we help individuals but how we help the companies that employ them succeed. That could be everything from “Hey this how you start your own indie studio. These are the things you need to think about when negotiating a publishing deal. This is why you may want to consider this platform. These are challenges to developing on that other platform. Here’s how you choose engine technology.”All of these issues that are not not necessarily game development but that are absolutely critical to helping game developers succeed. For me one of the most interesting and fun parts of my job is thinking about what the challenges game developers are facing and how can we be smart and impactful about helping them.Geek.com: Could say more about your diversity initiatives?JM: So in addition to my role with the IGDA I’m also the Executive Director of the IGDA Foundation which focuses specifically on fostering and supporting a more inclusive and diverse game development community. At the end of the day we believe that every person on the planet should love playing games. I don’t think there is any other art form that is comparable to games and the power and the enjoyment and the emotion games can spark. The best way to create experiences that every person can enjoy is to have a game development community that is representative and welcoming of everyone on the planet.So the IGDA foundation runs a number of programs to help really make a difference and support companies in building that diverse and inclusive environment. We do an allies workshops and hiring workshops. We have a number of special interest groups that help push for more inclusive teams. Women in games, Latinx game developers Blacks in games, LBGTQA+ game developers, Jewish game developers, Muslim game developers, game accessibility. All of these special interest groups that are bringing awareness as to why an inclusive community is so important and how to take action to make our community more inclusive.Geek.com: You’re not the ESA so you weren’t invited to the White House, but is there anything you want to say about the issue of violence and games and this newfound political scapegoating?JM: It is scapegoating, I’ll say it. There is no absolutely no scientific evidence that links video games to gun violence. So any attempt by the government or a lobbying organization to make that connection first of all doesn’t pass the science test and second doesn’t pass the common sense test. If you look at all the countries around the world that play video games they don’t have the gun violence the United States does. Any attempt to use video games as a scapegoat is fundamentally a disservice not only to game developers but also the majority of Americans who support sensible gun control laws.Geek.com: So it sounds like your response to critics would be to reiterate these facts. But is there any concern about the fact these talks even starting up again?JM: Absolutely, I think it is really incumbent on the IGDA and the ESA and individual game developers to take this opportunity to educate people. Fundamentally, we have a ratings system and it works. So any kind of suggestion that we need video game ratings shows obvious ignorance of what is actually in place and what helps parents make choices about the content their children consume.We need to point out that there are many countries around the world that spend more per capita on games than the United States, like Japan, but don’t worry about their children getting shot when they go to school. Other countries around the world have mental issues but they don’t have the mass shooting the US has. When you look at the demographics what sets the US apart it’s not video games or movies or mental health it’s access to firearms, period.Geek.com: The last topic I want to touch on is maybe the spiciest. You talk about wanting to help game development communities, wanting to give back, but what would you specifically about the issue of labor and unionization in games?Editor’s Note: MacLean looks off into the middle distanceJM: I think unions are really interesting as an issue… It’s important to have a conversation about what we want unions to address. For example, I’ve heard some people say they want unions to make sure there is more stability. But I don’t think that’s something unions will be able to help with. When I look at the lay-offs that happen in the games industry it’s often because of access to capital. Having a unionized workforce doesn’t solve that.If you look at working conditions there are studios that are very public about their commitment to crunch because they believe it’s the best way to make a game. I vehemently disagree with that. I think crunch is an inexcusable policy that has significant and very clearly documented consequences for physical, emotional, and mental health. But there are developers who happily go and work for those studios knowing that they will crunch because they also know they will work on titles that make millions of dollars and they will get large bonuses. Assuming that the workforce will unionize is a bad assumption.Geek.com: Isn’t that an issue in games though that the passion some people have just for even having this “dream job” can make them less likely to notice how they’re being exploited? And that publishers take advantage of that?JM: That fundamentally to me is a supply and demand issue. We are in a situation right now where we have more people who want to work in games than we have game development jobs. That’s not going to change because we have these amazing degree programs that are giving us a constant stream of new game developers. We can’t change the supply. We don’t want to change the supply. We want a lot of people to make great games. How do we change demand? How do we build more successful game companies? How do we give more people the opportunity to work in game development jobs? And to do so in a way that is humane and fairly compensates them and makes sure they aren’t exploited. That protects IP ownership and gives fair credits. All of these are big issues.Another important consideration is that we are a global workforce. There is a games industry union in france. That doesn’t mean it is easily portable to the US or Canada or even another EU country. When we talk about unions I think we also have to remain aware that we are global and that there are a lot of legal considerations and practical considerations to unionization that we need to be aware of and be talking about.There’s also the challenge that disciplines are not paid the same. Programmers have higher average salaries than artists. In part that’s because of supply and demand. There is more demand for a programmer’s skills at companies outside the games industry that pay very well. If we don’t have conversations about that and what that potentially means for unionization we’re doing game developers a disservice.Geek.com: And then you see how it intersects with other adjacent industries like with the voice actors strike. My developer friends would be like how can voice actors ask for that when we are only getting this. My answer would be that game developers need to re-examine their own situation and how it could be more equitable.JM: But the other challenges are that the laws in the US are not set up to encourage that. In the US management doesn’t have to negotiate with their workforce unless 51 percent vote for unionization. If you just have artists voting but not programmers you won’t reach that threshold because of this specific US legal issue. We have game developers in every single country in the world. Imagine that complexity by 200. It’s a really challenging issue.Geek.com: Do you think there are things specifically about the games industry that make it especially challenging to unionize?JM: Yes, I do. A lot of it is first of all access to capital which creates that supply and demand issue. It is the fact that we are global and that game development can easily be transferred to another country. We see this in a lot of the art outsourcing that happens with companies like Virtuos you may have a core game dev team that is in Canada working with another studio in France and another in the UK and using art outsourcing in Vietnam and Singapore and the Philippines. If you put in a higher cost of labor in one of these countries what are the consequences of that?There are always going to be jobs tied to a specific location. Usually they are the smaller studios that grow up because someone says “I live in Boston and I want to start a company in Boston not in Singapore or Vietnam or Australia” But if we make it prohibitively expensive for larger studios to grow their workforce in a specific region or country does that then have unforeseen consequences.You’ve even see that happen with some of the tax programs. When Montreal introduced a number of their tax programs to incentivize game development we saw a lot of game dev jobs leave Vancouver and go to Montreal. And now Vancouver has announced their own tax benefit programs.Geek.com: Or like in Rhode Island with 38 StudiosJM: You’re even seeing that a little in San Francisco. That cost of living has grown so high and the competition for skilled labor has grown so high. I’ve been talking to studio heads who aren’t growing their SF operations, they are growing their Austin operations because of the more sustainable cost of living. It’s easier to find and maintain talent there. What happens if you unionize in one area but not the other? Does that area with unionization end up stagnant? I don’t know.Geek.com: So we should unionize everywhere.JM: But then how do you unionize in 200 countries around the world? There isn’t any kind of comparable we can look at. Even if you look at Hollywood with things like Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild, they are there because Hollywood projects aren’t done with full time employees they are done like “You work really hard on a movie and then don’t work for four months.” But that’s the exact issue people want unions to address, they want more stable careers where you don’t have to worry about being laid off when your project is over.So to me this has to be an ongoing conversation that’s honest and open because we have to figure out how to address the issues that stop game developers from having more fulfilling careers.Thanks again to Jen MacLean and the IGDA for this opportunity.Let us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey.