RESOURCES

GWU Worker Co-op Resource

What is a Worker Cooperative

Worker Cooperatives are businesses owned and controlled by the people who work in them.

 

"The worker-members own the business and return its profits to themselves based on how much they work for the co-op. They control the co-op, perhaps by electing a Board of Directors which makes policy and hires managers to organize their work. This hierarchical structure is common in medium and large worker co-ops, just like the other co-op sectors. But small worker co-ops are usually run collectively.” 

Source: https://www.techworker.coop/sites/default/files/TechCoopHOWTO.pdf (Pg. 5-7)

 

Although a Worker Co-op is similar in being a business that is controlled democratically by those who use it, it is distinctly different than the two other types, Producer Cooperatives (producers of a good, like farmers, creating a co-op that manages marketing and distribution) and Consumer Cooperatives (procures high-quality goods or services and sells them to consumers at a low price, like food co-ops, credit unions, and housing co-ops).

Top-Down Structure

Worker Cooperative Structure

Why Form a Worker Co-op?

We’ve seen the worker cooperative model do wonders for game companies of all sorts including internal game development teams, publishing houses, contract freelancers, art and writing outsource teams, non-traditional game worker collectives, and more!

From a worker’s perspective, why would I want a worker co-op?

  • Shared control and ownership of your workplace, and the products of your labor.

  • Removes excess management/boss/capital interests.

  • Creates a more equal share of profits.

  • Inherently democratic, encourages all workers to help shape the direction of the group.

  • Creates accountability for poor decisions of leadership.

  • Increased quality of life at work.

  • Greater job security relative to traditional top-down businesses.

  • Builds a sense of community from mutually respecting relationships.

  • No dependence on the benevolence of an owner/employer for all of the above.

From an owner/boss perspective, why would I want a worker co-op?

  • Worker co-ops can be light and nimble for indie and midsize studios because the organizational structure is flexible, determined by the group, and major decisions don’t have to always flow through an artificially enforced corporate hierarchy bottleneck.

  • Co-ops function on principles of mutual respect and solidarity which create a greater sense of worker investment in their company, game, and craft. 

  • When everyone in the studio is responsible for the direction and quality of the company, there is greater accountability and participation.

  • Studies show that workforces that are unionized or cooperatized demonstrate a significant bump in quality of work and cost efficiency in producing it.

  • Allows bosses that otherwise support things like unionization and labor rights to put their money where their mouth is and create an organizational structure that enshrines those values in practice.

  • Ensures a fair distribution of profits, regardless of what happens.

  • Many small and midsize studios already instill a great sense of cooperative control and input on their projects because they understand that more voices and perspectives means better decisions being made, the same can be said for the direction of the companies as well.

  • Many people create their own studios after becoming frustrated or burnt out from some of the larger game studio work cultures, so why reproduce the same company structures and risk the same issues developing over time except on a smaller scale?

The Basic Process of Forming a Worker Co-op

The process of forming a worker cooperative is much like the process of forming any company in that you must pick a form of legal entity open to you (corporation, LLC, partnership, etc) based on your local/regional/national laws, develop a business plan, create operational documents (bylaws, articles of incorportation, partnership agreements, etc), and formalize them legally. However, with a worker cooperative you might quickly realize that in earnest very few people really know how to form a worker cooperative, even lawyers who claim to work with worker cooperatives (many only help after the founding, not during their conception).

 

Be sure to read, not only this guide, but all you can get your hands on. Inevitably you'll have to find your own path towards a worker cooperative. However, there is lots of oral and tribal knowledge about worker cooperatives held by people who've formed them previously. The most important thing you can do is to reach out to worker cooperatives that do similar work to you and/or are in the same industry to hear their story and let their experiences guide you.

This is a living resource that Game Workers Unite will be updating regularly with more experiences and information with the help of our members who work in cooperatives. 

Own the Change is a 22 minute, free documentary that gives you a guide to starting worker co-ops that was made by the TESA Collective game worker cooperative.

List of Worker Co-op Game Studios

Many worker cooperative game studios have already been formed, and have been the creative forces behind some of amazing games! Some of these studios were formed as worker co-ops, some started as traditional companies and transitioned to being a worker co-op. All have a wild variance of personal values, democratic organizational structures, and creative processes that influence and draw from their being a worker cooperative.

We will be maintaining a comprehensive list of workers cooperatives that work in the game industry. Want to include your worker co-operative on this list? Get in touch at gameworkersunite@gmail.com!

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Thoughts From Members of Worker Co-op Game Studios

 

Why did you make your studio or transition your studio into a worker co-op?

“We wanted to deal with the insecurity and instability of being individual freelancers. We saw all sorts of benefits, including emotional support, social support, creative support, the benefit of appearing as a company externally, the internal benefits of being a company including being able to share costs, and practical issues such as coverage for ill health.” - Ian Thomas, TaleSpinners

“Because I wanted to try something new.  I didn't like the way top-down mod teams or game companies worked, so I figured I'd try this out with this project.” - Ted Anderson, PPU512

“We have issues with the boss/employee structure and the problems that arise from it and a worker cooperative seemed like something that would obviate a lot of those issues.” - Scott Benson, The Glory Society

“The guys started off as a bunch of friends hanging out making games, so there was naturally no boss. When they started to make money from games and needed to pay taxes they realised they needed a legal structure/business entity, but the traditional company structure meant you were pretty much obligated to have a boss and that the equity and gain that could be made on on company shares without participation was not at all what they wanted to do.” - Steve Filby, Motion Twin

How has being a worker co-op related to your game development process?

“As a collaborative group, we can support each other's work, and combine skills. For example, one person in the company can check or edit another's work before it goes to the client, or several people can collaborate to solve difficult story problems. Additionally, everyone in the company learns skills from the others, so our individual personal development is enhanced.” - Ian Thomas, TaleSpinners

“It's been a big help in decision making, in that decisions are democratized out at a level of granularity that is more elastic than the rigidity I've experienced in typical game development.” - Ted Anderson PPU512

“Even before the co-op was a legal entity we operated with a lot of discussion and consensus finding. The co-op model just puts a lot of that into the actual structure of the workplace and builds in levels of accountability and safeguards.” - Scott Benson, The Glory Society

“Basically it really means that everyone has a say on everything,  so there's a lot of pressure to make every aspect of the game perfect, or at least in a way that will get past the critical process that our zero hierarchy setup creates. This means that everyone feels free to do contribute ideas to the game, but they know that they have to be able to defend those ideas against a bunch of experienced people with critical eyes analysing them and trying to make them better... It's a build in QA function when it works right.” - Steve Filby, Motion Twin

Briefly, how is your worker co-op structured organizationally and how do you keep it democratic?

“We have a core team of co-op partners who handle the day-to-day of the company equally, save for one partner who handles most of the finances, but who is paid for that. Those co-op partners handle the bulk of the work. Outside of that we have a team of associate writers who we work with as and when we need them. We have regular catchup meetings to work out what everyone is doing. Any larger decisions are discussed by the core team as equals.” - Ian Thomas, TaleSpinners

“Pixel Pushers Union 512 is set up on the shop democracy model where we have meetings to vote on big issues that effect the team, but otherwise trust one another to do our jobs.  We have no managerial level currently, but should we require one in the future, we'll be doing so on terms of it being a "job" and not a "promotion." Management is a skill like any other, and divorcing it from a salary and top-down decision making means that it's more likely that people who are good at that skill will take up that task, and if they're not good at the job, won't be financially penalized for being voted out of that position.” - Ted Anderson, PPU512

“We're legally an LLC with multiple equal owners, though later on we'll transitioning to another sort of corporation with the same equal ownership. We have an operating agreement that contains all of our procedures and regulations and we've all signed onto that. Co-op regulations differ by state but being an LLC makes things a lot more simple and flexible and we can organize it as a cooperative via how we structure ownership and the operating rules we've legally set in place.” - Scott Benson, The Glory Society

“Zero hierarchy, equal pay, equal say. There are two people who wear the "Co-CEO" hats who have the glorified role of signing for things, but all big decisions must be voted by the simple majority and unanimously if they're gong to change the rules that govern the co-op. Democracy is maintained through constant vigilance and ritual combat (also known as talking, A LOT).” - Steve Filby, Motion Twin

What benefit has being in a worker co-op studio given you/done for your life?

“The primary benefit is feeling that you have support - emotional, social, practical, creative. We're stronger together.” - Ian Thomas, TaleSpinners

“It's a relief in that the stress of development doesn't fall solely on one person's decision making capabilities.  It's been good, too, in that it promotes friendships with fellow workers, rather than resentment or secrecy.” - Ted Anderson, PPU512

“Feels good not perpetuating toxic boss/employee structures. We're all a lot more signed onto the project and personally invested because it belongs to all of us. Even if you're the coolest boss ever, you're still someone's boss, which means you're always wielding this power over someone even if you promise never to abuse it. Removing that does wonders for morale. I think we all work better creatively as well since we have to actually talk with one another in ways that if we were a top-down studio we wouldn't be as encouraged to do. And credit is naturally a bit more spread around, since it's such a group thing as opposed to some visionary person and their employees. Also it means our schedules aren't dictated from on high, and we can work around our lives if need be, vote for vacation time, etc. It's cool. There's lots of little things you don't even think about at first but are big changes from what we're all used to from previous jobs.” - Scott Benson, The Glory Society

“I have come to realise the incredible importance of being able to impact the direction of the thing you're working on and in (take that Simon Sinek). Essentially the structure forces you to think carefully about thingss that you don't like. It's not enough to piss and moan about your boss, as there isn't one, so you end up thinking "ok, why do my colleagues think that way about point X?" From there you need to come of with a coherent idea and arguments to defend that idea. If you can't, then maybe you need an attitude adjustment?” - Steve Filby, Motion Twin

What values do you bring to the worker co-op either in founding it or participating in it? How has or does the worker co-op influence your values?

“I think the key for me has been the realisation that the freelance economy is so precarious, and that anything we can do to alleviate that - and act as a template for others, to help them alleviate it - is incredibly valuable. The co-op has strengthened that belief.” - Ian Thomas, TaleSpinners

“Personally, I bring the values I hold and have learned from being interested in groups like the IWW and its tenets of shop democracy.  It's been great to have fellow workers help massage this concept towards the goals of game development.” - Ted Anderson, PPU512

“Like I said above, this is kind of how we naturally want to operate as people making things. We've been involved in a lot of projects and things before that operated by consensus as opposed to some structure where one or two people called the shots. It made us really aware of how bad hierarchical tendencies can take hold in non-hierarchical situations, which means that's something we really watch for now. The worker cooperative model just goes with our preferred ways of doing things, our politics, and our desire to collaborate as equals in structure, not just in sentiment. And to be honest while we're in this to make stuff, we're not in it to build The Glory Society into some massive huge studio. We want to make stuff and survive and try to be good at both. We wanted a structure that made the workers themselves a priority and this does that a lot better than what we've all experienced in the past. And that's pretty great.” - Scott Benson, The Glory Society

“Individual responsibility and taking ownership of your actions. When everyone is responsible for a problem, sometimes no one really is, which means that in a co-op you have to be very careful to ensure that things get done. It's been interesting to me to see how some people naturally lead and others don't, how some naturally take on responsibility. This means that in order for things to remain equitable, the people who might not be particularly comfortable leading and dealing with responsibility need to be helped and coached to take on what they can, therefore helping the rest of the team.” - Steve Filby, Motion Twin

Regional Co-op Associations and Resources

This collection of Regional Co-op Associations, Guides, and Resources are not endorsements of any group or process by Game Workers Unite, but are simply a list a resources intended as good recommend reference for game workers interested in learning more about the specifics of worker co-ops in their country or region.

International:

 

Africa:

 

Americas:

Asia-Pacific

Europe

Co-op Mode: A Discord Community for People Interested in Game Industry Worker-Owned Cooperatives

Co-op Mode is a Discord community run by members of game industry worker cooperatives and is a great resource for people who are in worker co-ops or interested in learning more about worker co-ops. Anyone curious about the subject is welcome to join, learn, and ask questions of the community!

The Co-op Mode discord is a community run server, and is not run or moderated by Game Workers Unite. Please email the admin of Co-op Mode for any questions you may have.

How Do Worker Cooperatives Relate to Game Workers Unite, Unions, and the Labor Movement?

One of the founding principles of Game Workers Unite was that game workers should support game workers. Many GWU members have already formed or transitioned their studios into a worker cooperative model, and we want to collect their knowledge, experience, and lessons learned so that the process may be easier for those following in their footsteps. For many game workers in small and midsize studios, they realize that having a boss can be inefficient, unnecessarily hierarchical, and undemocratic in a way that hurts an otherwise tight-nit creative team, for those sorts of studios we encourage them to consider forming or transitioning into a worker cooperative model.

How do worker cooperatives relate to the union and labor movements? In the labor movement, we understand that the interests of workers and bosses are inherently in conflict and that workers must build and demonstrate power to better their conditions.. However, what better way to empower workers and bring democracy to a creative team than by removing bosses from the picture entirely! Plus there is a history of worker cooperatives joining larger unions for many reasons including contracting standards, shared healthcare and benefits, industry-wide bargaining power, and more. By working with existing co-ops and helping to form new ones, we can point to a horizon beyond what we are told to expect as workers. Worker-members in cooperatives, just like workers unionizing in traditional companies, are both seeking better workplaces, quality work, and happier lives, and building solidarity along those lines is incredibly important.

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