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A small studio has become the first video game company to unionize in North America

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The video game industry has a reputation for long hours, abusive bosses and overall not being great for a work-life balance. But the workers at the small independent video game company known as Vodeo hope to model something different by being the first unionized video game company in North America. NPR's Andrew Limbong spoke with some of the workers about charting a path for the rest of the industry.

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ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In the video game Beast Breaker, you play as Skipper, a mouse who steals Granny's sword to quite literally bounce around and fight, you know, beasts.

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LIMBONG: It's made by Vodeo, a relatively small and young game company. And unlike the reputation that precedes a lot of video game companies, it's actually a pretty chill place to work, says Carolyn Jong, a game designer there.

CAROLYN JONG: Vodeo is a place where there's been a lot of emphasis on things like work-life balance, for example. We have a four-day work week.

LIMBONG: There's also protections against harassments and guardrails against what's known in gaming as crunch, which is essentially working massive amounts of overtime right before a game's launch.

JONG: These are kinds of things that we want to hold on to.

LIMBONG: So the workers decided to form a union to get these protections down on paper. There's also the rest of the industry to think about.

JONG: We want to also help set a precedent that helps normalize those kind of practices that we think are really important for workers and the entire industry.

LIMBONG: To back up a bit, video game workplaces have been in the news lately. Riot Games, which makes the popular League Of Legends, just last month agreed to pay $100 million to settle a class action gender discrimination lawsuit. Before that, workers at Activision Blizzard, which makes Call Of Duty, staged a walkout to protest layoffs. And even that is coming off the heels of a separate Activision Blizzard walkout prompted by reports that the CEO didn't respond to years of sexual misconduct claims at the company.

EMMA KINEMA: These things are all connected. They're all rippling back and forth, and people are learning lessons across all these different efforts.

LIMBONG: That's Emma Kinema, senior campaign lead for Communications Workers of America's games and tech arm. She helped the Vodeo workers form their union, and she says the biggest obstacle to widespread organizing in games isn't scalability or logistics or anything like that.

KINEMA: It's a question of ideology. It's a question of education. It's a question of culture. It's a question of the social kind of fabric of that industry being developed and matured to a level where the workers are ready to own, you know, their own rights and voice in the workplace.

LIMBONG: She points to the decades-long process the film industry took to organize. That could be a template of sorts for what could happen in video games. And yeah, Vodeo is a small company, but Kinema says that they became the first successful certified union of video game workers in North America says something to workers at the bigger studios.

KINEMA: It's no longer a hypothetical question of, would you support having a union in the workplace? It's actually, look, these people we know, these people who do the same job we do at a company just like us - they went and organized.

LIMBONG: Back at Vodeo, lead artist Jemma Salume knows that people are watching them, and she hopes the company can be an example of success. But besides all the big-picture industry stuff, she's mostly looking out for her co-workers.

JEMMA SALUME: Part of my personal motivation for unionizing was like, well, I want to take care of all these people. (Laughter) Like, I care about them.

LIMBONG: She wouldn't tell me though if the next Vodeo game was going to have a little emblem on it that says union made.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "GREEN HILL ZONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.