By Johana Vargas Arias, Esq. GW Law LLM Candidate 2023. JD earned from The University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law
Photo Source: https://www.code-cwa.org/
We have all witnessed friends, family, and celebrities waiting impatiently to buy Nintendo’s video game, Animal Crossing (AC). Once purchased, those lucky few would brag about their accomplishments in the game. One famous such person and comedian, Cristela Alonzo often posted on her Instagram account about the amusement park and other places she built for her avatar while playing AC. For instance, Cristela twitted “I play Animal Crossing to do chores in my make-believe home that I need to do in my real life.” In response, Twitter follower Andrea Gutierrez responded that, “at least Animal Crossing chores turn into bells or miles.”
These personal type connections come as no surprise to AC’s owner, Nintendo. According to an article by Polygon in May of 2020, “Nintendo sold 13.41M copies of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in six weeks.” This rush on games is why many believe the video game industry is one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. Beyond playing any specific game, it is a place for others to connect with friends and make new acquaintances, becoming part of the fabric of this generation’s culture. Specifically, their social culture, which translates to the means by which to communicate with friends and make new acquaintances. To further this point, it is no surprise that in the United States, “97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games.” And, according to an article by BGR Media published on January of 2019, the video game industry is a lucrative entertainment market, having made “43.8 billion as revenue in 2018.”
As the revenue soars for the publishers, especially during the Pandemic, it should be no surprise that the support team creating these games is also becoming more aware of their place in the ecosystem and level of contribution to the growth. In response, the first and only game design company, to date, Vodeo Games, a California-based business, became the first certified game studio in the United States to have a union work staff. The company is staffed with 13 employees and independent contractors working remotely throughout the United States and Canada, and all eligible employees, including independent contractors, are represented by the union. At the time of this writing, the contract negotiations are scheduled to begin in the near future, with an eye on union goals: to “ensure a fair, equitable workplace, and to lock-in benefits they already have and love, like a four-day work week.” The union, named Vodeo Workers United (VWU), has the potential to ensure their workers have bargaining power and important worker protection rights. In addition, they have the potential to impact working conditions throughout the video industry.
A union is “an organization formed to negotiate with employers, on behalf of workers, collectively, about job-related issues such as salary, benefits, hours, and working conditions.” In 1935, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) which is a federal law that protects employees’ rights to unionize. The benefit for employees is protection from their employer’s poor treatment or work environment, including poor working conditions causing employees physical and mental harm. Employees may work long hours with low wages and be exposed to unstable layoffs in mass numbers. Other employees may face discrimination based on race or sex, including sexual harassment. Very often, a video game company has one main goal, making the perfect game that many gamers will buy in droves. However, arguably, this worthy goal can come at a cost to the employees, valued human beings seeking human working conditions.
Perfection may equal profit, but it could also lead to mass resignation by these talented workers.
On January 7, 2020, an article by the Los Angeles Times described that “the last two years have witnessed a wave of walkouts, petitions, and other workplace actions at video game and tech companies.” Furthermore, it surmised that a union could have the potential of bringing a much-needed form of protection to ensure the well-being of employees within the gaming business industry. To no surprise, the article discussed the creation of a new project named, Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE), orchestrated by the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Their objective is clear, to assist video game and tech employees to become a strong union. Following the formation of the VWU, in December of 2021, CWA’s Myriam Lachapelle, a producer at Vodeo Games, explained her decision in supporting a union. “All workers deserve a union and a say in how their workplace is run, no matter where they work, what their employment status is, or what kind of conditions they work under.”
Vodeo Games’ workers have successfully become a union, even though the unionization process was not easy. For example, “trying to discern whether certain classes or types of workers are covered by the NLRA can be difficult and has been a hotly litigated question since the [NLRA] Act was passed in the early 20th Century.” Not all the challenges have been overcome, because video gamer employees may be placed in different work teams with different tasks and may have different experiences during the same period of time. VWU has to accomplish a difficult task, to bring workers together by agreeing on specific issues and goals in order to address the needs and desires of their workers, as a whole.
An NPR article published on January 14, 2022, included a transcript of an interview between Mr. Limbong, the interviewer, and a Vodeo worker, Carolyn Jong. Ms. Jong stated, “we want to also help set a precedent that helps normalize those kinds of practices that we think are really important for workers and the entire industry.” The NPR included Emma Kinema, a senior campaign lead for CWA, who helped Vodeo workers form their union. Ms. Kinema explained that because Vodeo Games is considerably smaller than other video game companies, it may bring attention to the possibility of having a union at bigger video game companies, where employees at larger gaming companies may say, “look, these people we know, these people who do the same job we do at a company just like us - they went and organized.” Therefore, workers are now able to see not just the possibility but the reality of video game employees exercising their right to become a union in the United States.
Generally, video game companies are very different, it is difficult to make assumptions that what works for one set of employees will work for another. Still, VWU provides a real example to monitor, so that we may find out how a union can benefit workers in the gaming industry, while taking note of any setbacks or challenges.
Research was provided by Justin Ward, GW Law 1L
 William C. Selfridge, COMMENT: A More Pixelated Union: A Look at the Path to Unionization in the Video Game Industry under Trump's National Labor Relations Board, 29 U. Miami Bus. L. Rev. 164, 165 (2020).
 UNION, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).
 Hannah Esquenazi, NOTE: WHO CAN "SEIZE THE DAY?": ANALYZING WHO IS AN "EMPLOYEE" FOR PURPOSES OF UNIONIZATION AND COLLECTIVE BARGAINING THROUGH THE LENS OF THE "NEWSIE" STRIKE OF 1899, 59 B.C. L. Rev. 2551, 2551 (2018).
 William C. Selfridge, COMMENT: A More Pixelated Union: A Look at the Path to Unionization in the Video Game Industry under Trump's National Labor Relations Board, 29 U. Miami Bus. L. Rev. 164, 183 (2020).