The world of French video games has been shaken for some months by hot issues: non-compliance with labor law, sexism, machismo … And yet the sector displays an unequaled dynamism. A situation that the young Union of video game workers intends to reform. For Les Numériques, two of its members take stock of a social situation far from being idyllic.
The Dontnod studios in Paris in 2013. © Marco Mosca
The recent cases that rocked the video game industry [Quantic Dream, machisme et sexisme, Eugen Systems] have put the video game workers' union (STJV) on the front line, a brand new structure that aims to defend the interests of employees in this area. young industry. Mehdi Chihaoui works in a start-up specializing in Artificial Intelligence. He has 20 years of video game experience in medium and small studios. Mehdi Chihaoui is one of the founders of STJV. "Galan" (a nickname) is a young independent contractor. He joined the union when he left school. For Les Numériques, both explain the genesis of this adventure, their fight and the way they think they can advance the sector.
When was the STJV created and how does it work?
Mehdi: The union was created at the end of August, beginning of September 2017 and is based on a horizontal organization. There is no president. We are a body without a head. Decisions are taken collectively.
How much are you in STJV?
Galan: We are reluctant to communicate on this for strategic issues. We do not want to give the number of our members yet. We want to keep a maximum of confidentiality to avoid problems of union repression, especially with regard to the employees concerned. This will change in a few months, when we will be declared majority union. We can then say how exactly we are and how many companies in the industry we represent. There is no difference between union executives and members. Any member can create a commission.
What was the trigger ?
Mehdi: The main trigger is the fact that it is a small environment, quite nice, with passionate people who meet often. And during these meetings, we realized that there were recurring difficulties related to management problems, project management. What also played in the creation is the fact that the previous government put forward the social dialogue. But typically, in our environment, there is none. For example, we do not have a collective agreement. And we had the impression of not being represented. The only union to have a voice was the SNJV (National Union of Video Game), but it represents more the interests of the industries than those of the workers. And in his speech, we never saw a single line dealing with the problems inherent in the working methods of the sector. We got together, we started a union, and we managed to get enough people together to do something.
Galan: On my side, I got acquainted with the STJV by an article of Canard PC. It was right when I was finishing my studies. I joined the union just before it was created. But the problems we mention have been around for twenty years now. I heard about it from my teachers.
Mehdi: These are small circles. It is initially felt that the problems are local. It took a while for consciences to be created. Behind that, because of working conditions and low wages, there are few seniors in the video game, so the awakening of consciousness takes more time.
Galan: We must also see that the industry has begun to mutate. It's easier to create a studio today. But suddenly, there is also a lot of closed studios. And there is movement between employees and more exchanges.
The image conveyed by the industry is that of a young and dynamic sector, where working conditions are enviable. Have we been deceived by this idyllic vision of things? Is it just a facade?
Mehdi: We have to distinguish two things: the atmosphere between colleagues and the working atmosphere. When everything rolls, there is no problem. Problems are more of a project issue. In the development of a game, there are often milestones [étapes charnières, NDLR]with the investors who oblige to have points of the game validated and developed. This creates pressure on the company that is directly passed on to employees. We find to do "crunches", times when we work enormously [15 à 20 heures par jour, NDLR]. These phases of intense work should be limited to short periods. But this is not the case. Suddenly, it generates bugs, the delay, because we focus on a presentable version for investors, not for players. And we have to patch the games so that they are in the nails. We spend the final half of the time in the crunch. It's used. There is tremendous pressure. So a deleterious atmosphere. The crunch has become a mode of production. It's a way for the studios to sell their game.
Galan: Mehdi is a member of the union's barometer and statistics commission. He conducted a survey that shows that over 35 years, there are not many people in this industry because it uses a lot.
It's an industry that is shooting itself in the foot. Galan, member of the STJV
Mehdi: Combine these methods of work with far-reaching wages: at one point, you realize that passion can not replace a salary. For my part, by changing industry, I doubled my salary. We can not have on one side this situation and on the other an industry that communicates on a record turnover! [Le SELL a publié lundi dernier son premier bilan de l’année 2017 qui fait état d’un chiffre d’affaires en France de 4,3 milliards d’euros, soit une progression de 11 % pour le secteur, NDLR]
Galan: It's an industry that is shooting itself in the foot. As seniors do not stay, the experience goes away. Production processes can not improve, and the crunch can not be abandoned. There are some studios that manage to do without it, but overall it's an institution. In the video game, you have to crunch. It is a speech that is hammered at school. Video game schools run on projects and it is good to work late, to stay on weekends.
Is the video game industry in France two-speed, with big boxes on one side and small jungle structures on the other?
Galan: The SNJV says that 54% of member companies do not exceed 5 years. We must see that the precariousness of the employees of some studios is often linked to the precariousness of the studios themselves. The biggest financier of the video game is Pôle Emploi. In France, there is no vision of video games that makes it possible to appeal for state aid and subsidies, unlike certain artistic professions. Nobody in France treats developers as artists. As a result, we end up with a crisis of overproduction in the video game. The business model is pushing games out too early and limiting creativity. We end up with games not finished and are very similar.
Mehdi: The video game industry is in an oligopoly situation. There are four to five big boxes, and then behind a multitude of small studios. The big ones monopolize the financing. And the little ones have a hard time getting by.
Is there in your industry a lack of training in the managerial world and in the business world?
Galan: We have good formations, but they focus on the programmatic, graphic, game design technique. The two subjects that are systematically absent from school programs are labor law and business, the business world. People who engage in these trades are totally ignorant of their rights. And then we find ourselves with people who want to create games, but who do not know where to find funds, or how to ask for help, to talk to investors. This creates long-term economic sustainability issues.
Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen visits Quantic Dream Studios in December 2017. © Marco Mosca
How do you position yourself against SNJV and SELL?
Mehdi: We do not do the same things. Each his work. They defend the industry. Their lobbying job pays off. We believe that we are complementary. There was nothing for the workers. We filled a void by responding to a request. We soon realized that some of the industry's employees, freelancers, students and auto-entrepreneurs were behind us. We brew wide.
Galan: Our statutes state that we are the video game workers union and we go beyond development studios.
Have these two unions seen your arrival with a bad eye?
Mehdi: Frankly, that's fine. We do not really have any relationship with them. On the recent cases that came out in the press [Quantic Dream, sexisme dans les studios, Eugen Systems, NDLR]they responded to the side. To answer the problems, they sent out a box of human resources to try to find the solutions and to identify the good behaviors in the industry. We are waiting to see. But overall, we have the impression that they respond to the side. On our side, we tried to put things in order. The last cases are labor law. These are not wage demands.
There are companies today that do not respect the law. Some by malfeasance, others by ignorance of the law. GALAN, member of STJV
Reading your press releases, however, feels a certain measure. You are not dangerous revolutionaries …
Mehdi: We wanted to make an autonomous union and not attached to existing plants. Our environment does not have a political culture. We thought we did not want to scare people who wanted to join us and we wanted to have autonomy and freedom of movement and total expression. We are not Marxists, we want to move things forward. Our first goal is to enforce labor law. We want our industry to stop gross violations of labor law. We are not even in the wage claim yet, while our industry is 30-50% cheaper, at equal skill, than other industries. We are not even looking for a sharing of earnings. We are in the making and we want to make sure that we become an adult industry that respects the law. We want to get out of the garage at start-up.
Galan: There are companies today that do not respect the law. Some by malfeasance, others by ignorance of the law. The industry is endangering the health of its workers. That's right now, our fight.
Mehdi: If you take the case of Eugen Systems, they have been negotiating for 15 months. It's a long time to simply enforce labor law. It took training in labor law. Beside that, they are people who love their business. They just want to live off their passion. On the record, there is a lot of malfeasance and ignorance of the law. The further we go, the more we see things that are wrong. And the worst thing is that in this case it's intentional. All are not like that. There have been efforts made at Dontnod. There was an effort of dialogue. This is not enough, but there has been dialogue.
Galan: A number of little bosses come to us to do things right. They are claimants to respect the law.
A programmer with 10-15 years of seniority costs between € 2,300 and 2,700 gross. Mehdi Chihaoui, member of STJV
The world of video games is very far from the image of an industry where one earns a good living …
Mehdi: We started very quickly an investigation on the employees of the video game. We are starting to have statistics that show us that the SNJV report is a bit biased. So of course, there is the example of Ubisoft, which seems to offer salaries close to those practiced elsewhere. They treat their employees well. They manage to keep their seniors. It looks better than elsewhere. But the result of our survey is very far from what is claimed. A programmer with 10-15 years of seniority costs between € 2,300 and 2,700 gross. He is bac +5. At some point, you have to stop deceiving yourself.
Galan: A game designer who enters the industry wins the Smic and often ends up with a debt of 30 000 € on average, corresponding to the reimbursement of his studies.
Galan: We met him informally. We presented our analysis of the industry. Organizing Estates General is an excellent idea, but it is not only up to us to do it: it concerns everyone. The subjects of the parliamentary group are not necessarily ours, but I think we have been listened to.
Mehdi: At first we will be auditioned by the parliamentary study group. We will be part of the panel, but the themes selected are far from our concerns, with the exception of the place of women in the industry. And again, we do not have the same approach. The group sees the place of women in e-sports or video games. We want to address pay gaps – women's wages are 30% lower than men's. And according to our survey, they are only 16% in our sector. These are topics to discuss. In any case, we are not looking for a fight. Of note, there is an initiative, the RIJV (Gathering Inclusive Video Game), which works on all forms of exclusions in the industry. We inherit a patriarchal bias in business and a certain sexism in the video game.
Macron's project contracts are something you will fight against, right?
Mehdi: This is a file on which we are in complete contradiction with the SNJV. He sees this as a sesame. We live these contracts as a form of precarious working conditions. When you enter a business, it takes time to have expertise on a game engine. A project is an average of one year to a year and a half: how to train people so quickly?
Galan: I do not think as an entrepreneur that it's such a good thing. From one studio to another, we do not work with the same technologies, and the turnover can be catastrophic. Project contracts will make it easier to separate workers. This will make more movement. But that will not necessarily put oil in the workings of the industry.
Mehdi: We need training and experience. I have had cases where games could not be updated because there was no one left with the expertise to do so.
Should we fear a brain drain to American eldorados?
Mehdi: There is a real quality in France, there are real talents. There is of course the attraction of big companies across the Atlantic, with all that goes with: quality of life, higher wages … But we do not have to blush. The industry generates a lot of money in France, but there is not much that goes down. It is a problem. And that does not encourage people to stay. Talented people go elsewhere.