In order to move forward on schools’ problems, changes must take place at all levels

This article is a sub-section of a large report on French video game studies published by the STJV. You will find the table of contents of this dossier, and links to all its parts, here : https://www.stjv.fr/en/2021/09/report-on-french-video-game-studies/

While waiting for external actions and systemic reactions to occur, sometimes one has to take matters into their own hands. Indeed, students or teachers directly facing discrimination, harassment, health problems caused by their studying or working conditions need immediate actions, and cannot wait for large-scale changes. To this end, there are different means of forcing schools to respect the law, their teachers and their students.

It should be reminded that students of a private education institution are consumers of the services provided by the company behind that institution. Contracts with schools, which are often integrated or even merged with application papers, obviously fall under the law, mainly consumer rights law. Schools must comply with their clauses. In particular, schools must provide an outline of the courses to be taken. If the courses provided do not correspond to this, or if they are not provided, the school can be sued.

Moreover, as mentioned before, discrimination and harassment are already punished by law. Teachers, administrative staff, school representatives who discriminate against or harass students can also be prosecuted, and in many cases the school that allowed these acts to take place can also be prosecuted.

We explained in the first part of this report that schools are economically dependent on their public image, and disproportionately so. Although this dependence is a source of many problems, and one of the main causes of schools’ repression on their students’ freedom of speech, it is also a weakness. Schools are afraid of having their wrongdoings exposed publicly, which gives a relatively powerful leverage to the victims of their (in)actions. Asking for accountability and asking questions at open days, at fairs, in meetings that schools may have with parents, students, student delegates, can also fit into this kind of tactic.

Whatever the means chosen, acting and exposing oneself alone is always risky, financially, mentally or socially. We very strongly advise not to do things on your own and, depending on the situation, to approach unions, consumers’ associations, lawyers, etc. In the same way, it is always useful to communicate with colleagues, fellow students, external acquaintances, other parents… Warning each other, discussing our problems together, combining different skills, experiences and means, gives the opportunity to do more, and better, than alone.

Many suggested solutions to the issues of video game studies are dead ends or lies

This article is a sub-section of a large report on French video game studies published by the STJV. You will find the table of contents of this dossier, and links to all its parts, here : https://www.stjv.fr/en/2021/09/report-on-french-video-game-studies/

While schools are often the first to blame for these problems, they are hardly the last to attempt to solve them. Well aware of the economic risks of a loss of public reputation – or for members of the administration, the risks to their careers – they have found means of protecting themselves.

The first one, which we discussed in the first part of this report, is of course repressive measures. The “best” way to protect one’s reputation is to prevent the expression of any fact or opinion that might damage it. Intimidation of students, notably via school rules that violate basic freedoms, unlawful dismissals of people considered a nuisance, the use of crisis communication agencies to counter-attack and bury information, SLAPP suits … the range of options in this regard is unfortunately wide and heavily used.

These issues are those against which workers’ and students’ organisations, such as the STJV, are fighting on a daily basis through their actions: our goals are to prevent companies (and therefore schools) from abusing their power, to create a counter-power benefiting all workers, present and future, protecting whistleblowers, and, in the long run, to hand all power over to the workers.

Among the external actors of private education monitoring, we also find the state. Through schools’ subsidies mechanisms but also, and above all, through its system of degree certification via the Répertoire National des Certifications Professionnelles (RNCP). These certifications are very important, because a degree that is not recognised by the state “does not count” administratively, which has many repercussions:

  • Without ECTS credits, it is very difficult to obtain equivalences in order to continue one’s studies elsewhere, whether in the public sector or abroad;
  • some state subsidies are conditioned by the validation of a recognised education level;
  • some CNC grants for independent video game creators and studios require a recognised degree from a small subset of schools;
  • obtaining visas, whether in France to immigrate there, or abroad to emigrate, is often conditioned by the education level and therefore the recognition of the degrees achieved;
  • professional status and all that goes with it (salary, pension, holidays, etc.) may also be linked to the recognised education level.

If the monitoring of education by a public authority external to private education companies is useful and even necessary, these certifications are not without flaws, and schools are constantly seeking to hijack or circumvent them. Degree designations are sometimes misleading, for example the term “Mastère” which, unlike the term “Master”, is not an official designation and therefore does not guarantee the quality or recognition of the degree. The certifications given may not correspond to the classes taught, as is the case in a Parisian school where the Game Designer diploma delivered has an RNCP certification of “interactive designer”. But they may also have expired, despite being highlighted in schools’ advertising, leaving students at risk of obtaining a diploma that is not certified upon graduation.

As employers’ lobbies want to limit state intervention in their business, they often pretend to be ahead of legislation to show a positive image and negotiate the deregulation of their sector, in the name of some imaginary “self-regulation”. One example in the video game industry is the game rating and age recommendation systems, whose management by these lobbies is partly responsible for the uncontrolled emergence of gambling mechanics in recent games. This exposes children in particular to a practice that is normally highly controlled. As far as video game studies in France are concerned, this strategy takes the form of various labels, mainly the Réseau des Formations aux Métiers du Jeu Vidéo (RFMJV, formerly REJV, Réseau des Écoles du Jeu Vidéo).

But, like all private labels, this one is only a front for communication. It is impossible to trust it, and the people and organisations behind it know this very well, even going so far as to reject the title of “label” and any responsibility that goes with it when confronted about it. In an article in Libération in April 2021, the journalists recall that “admission conditions [to the RFMJV] do not imply any control over the content of classes, and the Syndicat National du Jeu Vidéo insists on the fact that this network is not a label“.

The shortcomings of labels are not only caused by the organisations behind them. Ensuring sufficient quality in educational programmes is a colossal task, beyond the reach of private actors, which in any case would only allow for a posteriori evaluations. It is simply impossible to guarantee that data is up to date, true or complete. This is why, rather than relying on necessarily imperfect communication tools, we prefer the implementation of systems that prevent schools from being judge and jury, and ensure that the problems and lies we are talking about do not occur in the first place.

Beyond labels, companies, including schools, have many other tools at their disposal. Practices such as over-communicating about the slightest effort, whether real or not, appropriating minorities’ struggles while undermining their core message, or exploiting marginalised people are unfortunately common. They are better known as pinkwashing or socialwashing. Inauguration of a building accessible to persons with reduced mobility while the rest of the campus is not and never will be, promotion of a gender discrimination awareness week while the school turns a blind eye to the sexual harassment that takes place within it, a ban on crunch in a school that explicitly leaves project rooms accessible 24/7 and overloads students with projects… There are many examples. Highlighting the 5% of things that are going well often conceals, sometimes intentionally, the 95% that are not.

While the benefits of making discrimination more visible, the representation of marginalised people and ‘role models’ have been demonstrated, these are just the tip of the iceberg, and can never replace fighting discrimination from within and in a systemic way. Attracting marginalised people is a small and inexpensive step to take, preventing discrimination against them throughout their education and career, whether one is the perpetrator or it comes from someone else, requires far more effort.

In this respect, charity is a good example of dissonance between publicly stated intentions and actual impact. For example, but this is not the only case, the positive direct effects of a private scholarship are completely undeniable, and one can acknowledge the light it sheds on the material problem of access to private education. But one can also lament the far greater benefits it brings to video game companies, and to individuals who capitalise on the positive image of such initiative to promote themselves despite any misconduct they might be accused of.

Many schools and studios have been quick to jump on the bandwagon to give themselves a ‘humanist’ image, making financial donations that are cheap compared to their annual budgets: tax exemptions means that 60% of them will actually be paid directly by the state. The motives of institutional sponsors can thus be seriously questioned when they include schools that explicitly discriminate against some students during the recruitment process and continue to raise their tuition fees every year, or companies that cover up the material and personal discrimination they impose on their marginalised employees.

In recent years, many schools also added various ethical codes of conduct to their communication arsenal. These codes consist of a series of proposals to improve diversity and inclusion in schools, and can be incorporated into the school’s rules. On paper nothing negative, and schools have not hesitated to stage the signing of these codes during important events of the French industry, in the presence of ministers, or to communicate intensively on their introduction to their students and during their open days.

However, these codes are only notes of intent, or recommendations. They are not tools for solving problems, only communication tools to express the intention to solve them. This is why, unfortunately and not surprisingly, there are schools that have signed an ethical code of conduct but continue to cover up problems internally and to repress the people who try to solve them. Some of the first schools to communicate publicly about such codes were reported to have actively protected sexually abusive students or teachers in the year following the implementation of their respective codes.

Ethical committees, whose name and composition may change locally, are a key measure found in the majority of recently adopted codes. When they are set up, they are usually composed of volunteer students and teachers and can be tasked with collecting testimonies and complaints, discussing problems in the school, and/or proposing solutions to the administration. The existence of such representative bodies is good news, as it is a significant step forward in student representation and democracy in schools.

However, a number of biases remain, of which we must be aware. The composition of these committees, necessarily only people from the school and mixing teachers and students, can lead to difficulties of judgement, as in a recent case where an ethical committee initially did not want to study in detail reports about a former and high ranking teacher, or when students are deprived of their right to speak (voluntarily or involuntarily) because of the hierarchical superiority of teachers over them. The members of these committees are very often temporary, preventing a long-term monitoring that is often necessary, and preventing the identification of repeated situations: no matter the band-aid solutions, the obstacles that marginalized people face are systemic. But in most cases, the main problem is the lack of resources and power allocated to these committees, and the resulting inactivity or inefficiency.

This is in fact the main problem behind all attempts to solve problems. Actions and regulations without the will to allocate resources to ensure that they are respected and carried out properly are in fact merely propaganda and camouflage tools for employers (or the state, depending on the type of regulation).

As in almost all fields and sectors, more resources are needed first and foremost. There are already laws, decrees and other regulations that take into account existing problems: we don’t need one more law (let alone a code) to prohibit (again) rape, harassment, breach of contract, embezzlement, etc. Before talking about more regulation, the existing ones should be enforced.

Studying conditions lead to the reproduction of the industry’s problems

This article is a sub-section of a large report on French video game studies published by the STJV. You will find the table of contents of this dossier, and links to all its parts, here : https://www.stjv.fr/en/2021/09/report-on-french-video-game-studies/

The absence of questioning of the industry’s methods and the lack of a development of a critical perspective, combined with the high porosity between teachers and the industry, leads to the reproduction of the industry’s problems in schools. Many of them even come to consider them as normal for the industry and encourage their students to adopt them in their work organisation and social behaviour. These students will then join the video game industry and act in the same way, thus ensuring the reproduction of everything that is wrong with it.

The first articles in Libération and Gamekult discuss at length the practice of crunch in schools, and for good reason. Even in schools that make great efforts to limit workloads, students are expected to work 60-hour weeks or more. And that is without counting “pools”, very intensive work periods with various names such as workshop, intensive week, project week, etc., or project submissions, which result in very busy work periods with no special working time arrangements. The deadlines for these projects very often fall just after weekends and holidays, with the implicit idea that these breaks will in fact be used to do very long days (and nights) of work until the last minute before the deadline. It is not uncommon for educational departments to value all-nighters and projects with scopes far greater than what is manageable by students, as we have witnessed on numerous occasions in emails and messages sent to students. This unacceptably high workload has, as everywhere else, serious consequences for health and social life. Many students are already burnt out by the time they leave school, even before they have worked in a company.

The multiplication of working hours is also often encouraged, indirectly, by the opening hours of the school facilities. It is not uncommon for school buildings to be open to students until very late in the evening and on weekends and, in extreme cases, to never close. If access to the facilities is important for students to be able to use the school’s equipment, especially for those who cannot afford to buy expensive equipment by themselves, the resulting abuses are unacceptable. Systematic open hours, keys to the buildings provided to students, educational directors present on the premises to encourage project groups: when a school explains that it is possible to work at night in their facilities, they are normalising an abnormal practice, which the students integrate into their work process.

Discriminations of all kinds are also widespread in video game schools. Sexism, racism, ableism, LGBTI-phobia, and all other forms of discrimination are commonplace, reflecting the present of the video game industry, and shaping its future. Numerous testimonies we received speak of discrimination and harassment suffered during the course of studies, going so far as to push students to quit their studies or, worse, to end their lives. The second articles published in Libération and Gamekult go back through numerous testimonies about these discriminations and about the failure of schools to react, when they are not themselves at the origin of these discriminations.

Indeed, schools have a lot to do to stop discriminating against students. And this starts with the admission process, as it has been reported to us on several occasions that some schools have deliberately sidelined applications from disabled and/or LGBT people, considering that integrating them into the school would be “too complicated” and that “it causes problems”. This intolerable and of course illegal practice shows that the problems start before the actual studies begin, but of course they do not end there. People with disabilities, chronic illnesses or, in general, who need special accommodations to their studying environment and rhythm, either temporarily or permanently, virtually always run into a brick wall: schools expect them to fit in or leave the school. Those who try to report discriminations to the administrations are at best ignored, and at worst their voice is belittled and questioned, and their future within the school is jeopardised.

Speaking out alone is not always without consequences. Too often, the perpetrators of discrimination (teachers, administrators, students) are protected by the educational management, which does not sanction them, sidelines the victims instead of protecting them, etc. Many educational departments actively participate in discrimination in this way, but also by being a direct actor in it. Testimonies of educational directors telling women that they do not belong in video games, or disabled people that they must adapt to the industry and not the other way around are not so rare, and some schools even refuse to pass a year without any real justification other than pure discrimination. Cases of favouritism at the expense of marginalised people and/or those who speak out about the schools’ problems are also legion.

There is also a great deal of sexism in schools from men teachers towards women students. All too often, teachers use the leverage that the student/teacher relationship gives them to make unwelcome comments or engage in asymmetrical and abusive sexual or romantic relationships with women students, and face no consequences. These predatory behaviours towards younger women who are more vulnerable due to their hierarchical position are reminiscent of behaviours that can be seen in companies and in the social circles of video game workers. In schools they are facilitated, among other things, by the lack of preparation and training of teachers, who are sometimes not even aware of the potential dangers of this student/teacher relationship, and think that they can behave with students as if they were friends.

Students also often follow the toxic examples of their teachers, and engage in forms of discrimination and harassment that are common in socially homogeneous environments, such as the video game industry. This happens at school, but also on social networks and students communication channels such as Slack and Discord servers, etc., which very often exist in students spheres and which schools pretend to ignore in order to absolve themselves. For example, in a testimony we received, a student suffers “increasingly frequent humiliations on the school’s Discord”: transphobic, sexist attacks, to which the school’s management responded “that they could not do anything about it because it was not happening at school”.

Degraded working conditions for teachers

These conclusions on the student side are accompanied, with no surprise when one is familiar with the working conditions in video games and in higher education, by similar conclusions on the teacher side: schools can be a hell for students but ALSO for teachers and lecturers. Precarious contracts, very low salaries, lack of time to prepare lessons and to mark assignments, little or no educational coordination, hierarchical pressure, illegal lay-offs: the working conditions are excessively bad.

Even more disproportionately than in game studios and other video game sub-sectors, the teachers of the various video game disciplines are largely employed via precarious contracts. Fixed-term contracts covering only one semester, hours of teaching paid a posteriori as freelancers, etc. : for many, it is impossible to project themselves on their teaching and their students’ future, and even less on their own finances or career development. This precariousness also hinders teachers who would like to improve the curricula, since schools can simply opt not to renew the contracts of people who might stand up to them.

This precariousness thus serves to pressure workers into accepting intolerable working conditions. Video game schools often offer lower salaries than in other sectors, which already pay very poorly, even if you only take into account the class hours. For one hour of class, there are also hours of preparation, course editing, marking of assignments, discussions with students, but also commuting and hours of waiting between classes (without access to a workstation). Compared to the actual number of hours worked, the salaries are so low that they are not enough to live on.

« Whatever the experience and qualifications of the teacher, if they do not agree with their working conditions, they can simply leave at the end of their fixed-term contract and be replaced by a younger teacher who will accept the job and its working conditions. (…) I was almost always made to sign my contracts after the classes had started. Signing contracts very late is also a means of pressure for HR. The teachers are up against the wall. »

When these conditions are not accepted by the teachers, the schools put even more pressure on them, for example by resorting to emotional blackmail by blaming them for abandoning the students. And if they do not give in, they are replaced. When they express concern about the school’s problems or bring up students’ problems to their managers, their concerns and even their suggestions beneficial to the students are at best ignored by the school management, and at worst suppressed with harassment and illegal firings. Our findings show that the latter is particularly true in cases of discrimination, making schools direct accomplices to it.

While these working conditions do not excuse the misconduct that some teachers may exhibit, they can explain some of it, and show how the whole system is a vector of discrimination and abuse. They also partly explain the low quality of teaching, since they do not allow professors and lecturers to stay for a long time, to gain experience and to follow students from one year to the next. Again, one may notice a loop: the low wages of the industry encourage young workers to accept precarious contracts in schools to supplement their income, regardless of the conditions (sometimes, ironically, to pay off the loan taken out for that same school).

Schools do not make students ready for entering the labour market at all

This article is a sub-section of a large report on French video game studies published by the STJV. You will find the table of contents of this dossier, and links to all its parts, here : https://www.stjv.fr/en/2021/09/report-on-french-video-game-studies/

Project-based learning is often an excuse to “build up students’ portfolios” with no further guidance from the schools as to what this means, or a way to learn to work “just like in the industry” without any educational oversight, and thus without any feedback on how their training matches the reality of the industry. This situation, which is very widespread in video game schools, can be explained in a relatively simple way: video game schools do not prepare students to enter the labour market.

It starts with the inadequacy between the number of students and the number of existing jobs. We feel it is important to stress that video games courses train more people than there are available positions. If it is true in almost all disciplines, it is even more so in certain fields such as game design, or in faculties that exploit the appeal of emerging disciplines, such as narrative design at the moment.

In particular, most of the year groups are very unbalanced in terms of the majors offered, often being composed of 50% of game designers and other design majors. However, there are relatively few jobs to be filled in these specialities in the French industry and internationally. These inconsistencies with the job market force students to over-specialise, to acquire a double expertise by their own means, or even to change direction completely or to give up the idea of working in video games in order to be able to find a job.

Because even at the finest of schools, there is no guarantee that students will find a job in the video game industry, if they even want to after surviving the conditions of their years in school. Many former students have made this observation themselves:

“Today, out of a class of 35, there are maybe 7 or 8 of us still in the video game industry.”

The 2019 Video Game barometer published by the SNJV, a French employers’ lobbying organisation that also includes schools, tells us that 57% of students find a job in the video game industry within a year of finishing their studies, which is a far cry from the 80-90% job placement rate claimed by the vast majority of schools. These employment figures for the first year or two after graduation, when there are any available, are purposely distorted by school managements to impress: they include former students who have been pushed to take up a freelance status without worrying about whether they can make a living out of it (which is rarely the case), and the jobs of former students who have moved on to other industries.

Some schools even introduce job blackmail right from the start of training, encouraging students to accept exploitative internships and/or to take internships without an internship agreement, insinuating that you have to accept everything without question to make video games. It even happens that some of them provide students with forged documents, in particular to satisfy the (illegal) demands of companies.

As a reminder, in France an internship is not an employment contract, it is not supposed to replace a job. A member of the teaching staff is responsible for overseeing the internship, with an interview with students during the course of the internship, to ensure that it is going well (for example, checking that the student has a mentor, that the company provides him/her with the necessary equipment and that he/she is in the right conditions to work). Internships are very much regulated by law, this fact sheet from the Ministère du Travail gathers important information.

Schools regularly give very bad “advice” to their students, encouraging them to enter the industry by accepting very precarious, unpaid or underpaid jobs. Among the comments we received were these chilling words from a member of the teaching staff to an entire class:

“To be hired for sure, you take an auto-entrepreneur (freelance) status and you ask for half the minimum wage for a full time job.”

The lies, whether explicit or of omission, of private schools are playing on the cool image of the video game industry. They sell dreams by talking about a rich, growing industry where creativity is limitless, while students will discover after graduation that salaries are low, the jobs they fantasized about are rare, opportunities for career advancement are limited, and most jobs are in companies that are peripheral to mainstream game production.

Many of these students will have taken out loans to cover the ridiculous cost of their studies, which they will then have trouble paying back because of the precariousness of the industry, low salaries, or simply because they will not have found a job.The few who manage to get a job in the video game industry will, after a few years, reorient themselves towards industries with more interesting conditions and salaries, leaving room for students from schools who will in turn flood the market… Thus, the loop is completed.

Our presentations in schools, and our discussions with students and professors, have revealed that students are almost never aware of the basics of internship and labour laws when they start looking for a job, sometimes not even really knowing the difference between a salaried and a freelance status. These gaps show a lack of teaching, as students should be prepared to be able to defend themselves when they leave school, if only to enable them to know the different employment statuses and to identify an abusive contract… It is essential that labour laws and economic concepts related to wages be an integral part of the training of any higher education institution.

National day of action on October 5, 2021: call for a strike in the video game industry

While it may have seemed to be put on pause during the Covid-19 epidemic, the government has never abandoned its policy of destroying the French healthcare system and the welfare infrastructure which helps the majority of workers and unemployed people, whether they are looking for a job or have retired. On the contrary, the pandemic has become a convenient excuse for upcoming austerity policies resuming and continuing this destructive policy.

The enforcement of the last elements of the unemployment benefits reform will continue to impoverish hundreds of thousands of people, while state benefits are being further reduced, especially direct benefits for young people. If the lines of people in precarious situations looking for food still exist, the state aids to feed them have disappeared.

The comeback of the pension reform, defeated at the beginning of 2020 by a large social movement in which the STJV had actively participated, has already been announced.
With their desire to constantly raise the retirement age, bosses show once again that they have no problem with seeing workers die at work or live in misery in their old age and that, on the contrary, they consider these to be collateral effects necessary to develop their own capital.

There is no doubt that the government will use these counter-reforms to serve its presidential ambitions. The upcoming campaign and the 2022 election will see our rights and freedoms debated and negotiated, with a majority of candidates having only one wish: to reduce them. Rather than waiting to analyse the programmes to see who will be willing to leave breadcrumbs for the precarious, the young, retirees and workers, we must take the lead and impose clear demands.

This is why we demand more social justice, a real campaign against poverty and an improvement of public services. We share the demands expressed by the CGT- FO – FSU – Solidaires – FIDL – MNL – UNEF – UNL inter-union organisation:

  • an increase in salaries ;
  • the definitive withdrawal of the pensions and unemployment benefits counter-reforms ;
  • a real job with a real salary for everyone, and professional equality between men and women ;
  • the conditioning of public grants according to social and environmental standards allowing the preservation and creation of jobs ;
  • a ban on layoffs and an end to exemptions from the Labour Code and collective agreements ;
  • a stop to the increasing precariousness of employment and the instability of young people and students, and an ambitious reform of scholarships ;
  • an end to the closure of public services, job cuts, dismantling and privatisation in the public and civil service, and an increase in their resources ;
  • the reinstatement of all civil rights and freedoms for young people and workers.

The Syndicat des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Jeu Vidéo thus joins these organisations in calling for a strike on October 5, 2021, and calls on video game workers, jobseekers, retirees and students to rally at their companies, in general assemblies and at demonstrations across France.

We would like to remind everyone that this call to strike applies to the STJV’s area of action in the private sector, and therefore includes anyone employed by a company that publishes, distributes, provides services and/or creates video games or video game equipment, whatever their position or status and whatever the type of production of their company (console games, PC, mobile, serious games, VR/AR experiences, game engines, marketing services, game consoles, streaming services, etc.), as well as all the teachers working in private schools on courses related to video game production. For all these people, and since this is a national call to strike, no action is necessary to go on strike: you can just not come to work on the days you want to strike.

Studying conditions are often appalling

This article is a sub-section of a large report on French video game studies published by the STJV. You will find the table of contents of this dossier, and links to all its parts, here : https://www.stjv.fr/en/2021/09/report-on-french-video-game-studies/

Content Warning: In this article, we will discuss situations of abuse, harassment, assault, suicide, etc. which may be violent to read for those who have been subjected to such situations.

First of all, just like the video game industry, the studying conditions in video game schools and programs are very poor. While they vary from one school and program to another and from one year to the next, they come to impact every student’s education.

In terms of equipment alone, the STJV was able to identify many shortcomings: obsolete or broken computer equipment and office furniture, sometimes simply not supplied to students, accentuating the differences between students, with the more wealthy ones having access to personal equipment allowing them to work, while the poorer ones have to struggle with what little is made available to them. Some schools go so far as to lie on open house days: we have heard of schools that rent new equipment only for these days, in order to impress parents and future students. Elsewhere, facilities with high humidity, poor ventilation or no heating at all directly harm students’ health.

Although it seems to be becoming less common, many schools do not provide licences for software needed for courses. The installation of cracked (pirated) software on school computers or directly on students’ computers is a practice repeatedly addressed by the respondents. As in this testimony from a former ISART Digital student:

One of the compulsory steps before the start of the school year consisted in bringing one’s personal PC to the school’s IT department, so that the latter could install several cracked versions of software – normally not free – on it.

As reported in detail in the first articles published at Gamekult and Libération, the workload is far too high in video game and animation education, replicating the worst of the “crunch” found in the industry. The lack of teaching coordination leads to an accumulation of projects that cannot be completed and submitted under normal conditions, and the submission dates chosen (just after weekends or holidays) lead to overwork. When it is not the pedagogical management itself that pushes students to work themselves to death: we were able to consult numerous emails and messages sent to students in which they are pushed to work more and more, and where sleepless nights are presented as the norm, or even an ideal to be reached.

Expectations in terms of quality and quantity are also far too high, and exceed what would be expected of students in the midst of learning. Schools and teachers encourage them as much as possible to “produce” projects that look like finished products. The pedagogical aspect of the assignments is completely sidelined: the marketability of the projects (and thus the free work of the students) is the only thing that counts, without taking into account the consequences on studying and living conditions. Overwork is bad for one’s physical AND mental health, and is particularly dangerous at an age of social and intellectual construction.

In terms of socialisation during studies, the same major pitfalls were found in each of the schools for which we received testimonies. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and all other kinds of discrimination based on students’ identity, culture, place of living, disability, health, etc. are present everywhere, to varying degrees. Under the guise of ‘jokes’ a constant atmosphere develops in which anyone who falls outside the industry norm is reminded that they are not welcome. This sometimes leads to discrimination in school grades and promotion to the next year of school. Harassment by students, teachers, staff and/or management is not uncommon and every year leads to students dropping out of school, becoming depressed or, in rarer and more extreme cases, committing suicide. The second articles published by Libération and Gamekult address the case of sexism in more depth.

These abuses are made possible by the all-too-common lack of supervision of students. The lack of time and resources allocated to professors is partly to blame, and this situation is caused by the inaction of management, which considers all this supervision to be “secondary”, denying that student life is an integral part of the studies. Some schools go so far as to consider that everything that happens outside of projects and grades does not concern them: this has sometimes been explicitly said to teachers and students. This allows them to sweep aside reality and the direct responsibility of schools in the lives of students, be it their personal needs (disabilities, social situation, health, financial precariousness, etc.) and their relationships with other students (on social networks, between courses, at parties and events, etc.). The consequences of this lack of accountability are devastating, leading to students committing suicide when their schools’ management deliberately ignores repeated reports of harassment or attacks.

Performance reviews & wages at Ubisoft : We want fairness !

This statement was written by French Ubisoft employees, including the STJV sections at Ubisoft Annecy, Ubisoft Montpellier and Ubisoft Paris, and adresses the situations we face in our day-to-day lives. While our conclusions may not apply to everyone within the company (due to legal differences between countries, for example), we believe that the principles described here remain valid and would be happy to get in touch with workers leading similar struggles outside of France.

To our fellow workers at Ubisoft,

As you surely know, we just went through the performance reviews and wage raises period, which comes with its share of questions. Since we know this situation all too well, the STJV members who work at Ubisoft have put together their thoughts and observations, and we wish to share them with you.

Let’s start with some analysis. Compensation policy is a complex topic, and to us it seems that Ubisoft top management is counting on diffusion of responsibility to skirt criticism. The process as it is presented to us is that HQ negotiates a remuneration budget with local HR, who then attribute it to projects. Managers would then attribute raises to their teams based on all that.

This process makes it so no one can really be held accountable for the decisions. HQ can explain that local HR didn’t argue their case well, local HR can explain that HQ didn’t allocate a good enough budget, managers can explain that HR didn’t give them any leeway…At the end of the day, the buck gets passed endlessly, and an individual’s wage is presented as an established fact, as if nothing could be done about it.

Beyond the smoke and mirrors, we reject the explicit link between one’s performance review and their raise. This may seem counter-intuitive: if someone makes efforts and improves their professional skills, shouldn’t they be rewarded? And yet, we believe that this causes two major problems.

  • First, this doesn’t solve the inequalities that are created at hiring level, arising from discrimination, from circumstances that make it so some local Ubisoft entities can afford to hire at a higher wage than others, or other elements that shouldn’t have such an impact.
    Raises are proportional to the current salary and only deepen existing inequalities : we want to center the debate on the value of wages.
  • Moreover, since the total amount of raises is capped, creating a zero-sum game where managers have to apply evaluation “quotas” and justify (sometimes poorly) underrated performances. As if their teams could never have globally overperformed over the past year.

It is also important to point out that even with all of the decorum surrounding performance reviews, the standards used to evaluate us aren’t always easy to track or anticipate. Evaluation criteria are vague at best, and pre-requisites for seniority or position progression never made explicit. This only serves to reinforce a feeling of arbitrariness that frustrates everyone in the company, to the notable exception of the top management that can justify any of their decisions by leveraging this vagueness.


Thus, we make the following demands :

  • Individual performance reviews should no longer be directly tied to wages. Compensation is limited by budgets which are, by definition, finite, whereas a whole team (or even a whole entity within the group) could very well have met and even exceeded expectations.
    • It follows that evaluations should no longer be limited by quotas.
    • Performance reviews should only be established by someone’s direct manager. That some of us are evaluated by their higher hierarchy, or that HR would be able to modify a manager’s assessment, is abnormal. Decorrelating wages and evaluation would allow the latter to be used for its original purpose as a tool of personal progression.
    • Finally, performance reviews should come with training opportunities, in order to allow everyone to get better at their jobs and keep sharpening their skills.
  • Seniority level progression conditions should be made explicit. This kind of acknowledgement is very important in our industry, and it is unacceptable that some may be left out on that front despite having good reviews.
    • More precisely, not only should the expected skills to obtain a given seniority level be made clear, the means through which to nurture said skills and have them acknowledged at Ubisoft should also be clearer.
    • It is certain that, once the previous need has been met, some people will find themselves with a job title that does not match their actual skills. Such discrepancies would have to be corrected through the appropriate promotions.
  • We want equal pay for equal work. This requires the following:
    • Obviously, we oppose any kind of discrimination in salary. Particularly, no one should ever be paid less for belonging to a marginalized group (as the law already forbids!).
    • Transparency in wages is vital. HR have adopted a very ambiguous stance: they pretend that there is no salary guidance grid and explain that wages are left to individual negotiations, but through opacity and rigidity make it so most of those demands are not met. Who stands to gain from this misdirection?
  • An impartial process must be created to guarantee accountability in case of dispute. We must make sure that each worker is fairly compensated for the value they create for Ubisoft (thus making it one of the leaders in the market), and that an end is put to all arbitrary and discriminatory practices.
    • Any employee should be able to request to be reevaluated by a neutral third party, based on criteria now made explicit and a transparent salary grid.
    • Outside of the control of local direction and HR.

Ubisoft is a very wealthy company, and is not shy about it. This makes any situation where employees face precariousness unacceptable. Our statement establishes our guidelines on this topic for future actions.

We invite everyone who works at Ubisoft to contact us if you want to join our efforts, or discuss this topics with us. In particular, we invite all Ubisoft employees who have noticed discrepancies or discriminations against them during the last review period to contact their union representatives or to write us directly at contact@stjv.fr. The STJV stands ready to defend anyone who needs our help within the industry, whether unionized or not. We are stronger together!

Naughty Dog, content leaks, and what they tell us about our industry

As everyone is now aware, someone recently leaked the cutscenes from the highly anticipated game The Last of Us part II. While we do not feel like adding to the pile of reactions on the topic, this is a good time to take a step back and talk about what is really at stake: the video games industry’s obsession with secrecy and the developers’ emotional involvement in their work.

But first things first, let’s be clear: this article is not meant to clear the leaker of any responsibility. Much of the online discourse surrounding this event has been about finding out whether this was done as revenge against Naughty Dog (which, as you may know, is known for its practice of crunch), and this in turn has led to many mild reactions such as this one: https://twitter.com/jasonschreier/status/1254832952057434113

Again, our goal is not to find excuses for this action when we have no knowledge of the ins and outs of the leaks, but to remember that workers can – and will – break down under pressure, and that policing manners in such a way doesn’t help anyone.

But we must ask ourselves, why so much noise and heated debate around these leaks? Sure enough, spoilers are annoying, but the spoilers culture is first and foremost a marketing tool that has been (over)used very extensively by various entertainment industries. A blatant example can be found in this trailer (where it’s the only thing being discussed!), but one could also think of the huge wave of spoilers when Star Wars 7 released.

Let’s be realistic: spoilers have always been here, and there’s good reason to believe they’re here to stay. « Cutscene movies » of most games are up on YouTube on release day, or even earlier (when games are sold before street date for example). And this is without even touching on the topic of planned leaks.

So, why do spoilers matter so much? And why, in general, does the industry put so much stock in secrecy? One could think of it as a way to avoid negative reactions before release when most full-price sales happen. There is certainly a noticeable trend where big publishers and studios shun journalists by not holding preview events, or by putting embargo dates on reviews on the game’s release date. But since nowadays games have revenues smoothed over their lifetime (with the emergence of games as a service, patches, etc), does this argument really make sense on its own?

Clearly, the perception of a game is influenced by what relevant information is made available, and that can lead to missing the creators’ intended effect on the players. This is something you hear a lot from video game workers who want to see those leaks kept under wraps. But information filtering is also a technique companies use to assert their control over their workers!

Many of us have heard a variation of “think of your colleagues” when the topic of leaks comes up. By ordering us to stay silent, we are made to depend on the goodwill of our employers, our managers, our publishers and their marketing teams, to speak in our place, about the games WE make, under threat of punishment, firing or other legal consequences. This is a very strong form of control over all game workers, who end up being deprived of any power over how their work is displayed and perceived, or otherwise made to face unwarranted risks. The issue isn’t so much about forbidding any control over games information, but to know WHO is in control, and to wonder why such control is so omnipresent and widespread. Forbidding us to talk about our work to colleagues or friends is absurd and shameful for us. We are not secret agents!

Likewise, while calls to respect “the developers’ passion” are for the most part well-meaning, these miss the fact that said (undeniable) passion very often ends up breeding alienation in the same workers, in that it gets used to justify bad work conditions and low salaries. No one wishes to do away with passion, but we have to face the fact that our passion is used as a tool by company owners. As such, as workers, we need to distance ourselves from it in order to care for our own well-being and get back to the idea that a spoiler, as annoying as it may be, is only a minor bump on the road when compared to the product’s actual quality or the meaning it can convey to the audience.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that workers will feel affected by leaks. What else do we get from the games we make, since fame is reserved to “authors”, company owners and creative directors, and wealth to investors and shareholders?

We understand the pain one feels from such a loss of control over the one thing we’re left with: the pride of making a product people will enjoy. But this goes to show that our passion is exploited by employers. It allows them to obfuscate the hierarchical differences that exist within capitalist organizations, and to keep pushing the myth that games can be collective works made by & benefited from by equals even in such contexts.

Passion helps us cope with alienating work conditions, but if people are emotionally involved in a production, they should also be democratically involved in the decision making surrounding it, and also in sharing the profits. We cannot accept the status quo which dictates that because of the passion we hold dear, we should be made to suffer in silence.

About the Naughty Dog leaks: one person spoiling the whole game will have a relatively small impact on the studio as a whole, or on its owners, and the benefit of the action is dubious at best. But if the culture and myths surrounding secrecy didn’t exist, the same leaks would have sounded a lot less meaningful to the leaker. This seems like yet another instance of the Streisand Effect in action!

In conclusion, before we set out to condemn something that is, all things considered, quite benign, and someone who it seems wasn’t working at the studio anyway, let’s take the time to wonder why leaking the game may have looked to them like it could “hurt” the company.

To those who feel like they have their backs against the wall: unions exist for such a purpose. Contact us or other unions, depending on where you work, in France or abroad. Let’s organize together to defend ourselves, fend off loneliness and despair, and change the industry!

End of the strike at Eugen Systems

We are once again relaying a communiqué written by our fellow strikers from the Parisian studio Eugen Systems. You can support them through their strike fund, all participations are welcome : https://www.lepotcommun.fr/pot/kfy5g3ta

[Version française]

Second Wave

As you were able to read in our previous statement, negotiations with management are at a standstill.
We do not think we will gain any additional ground with this strike, despite the fact our grievances are simply about conforming to labour laws and collective labour agreements.

Thus, we have stopped striking Tuesday, April 3rd, after more than a month a half, to conserve our resources for the future. But this clinical observation does not stop at all our determination: even if the strike is over, the struggle isn’t. We will continue to fight for our rights with the legal means at our disposal. Therefore, approximately fifteen Eugen Systems employees and ex-employees have seized the prud’hommes (French labour tribunal). We do not forget also that this movement for a betterment of everyone’s working conditions was shouldered by a collective of 24 employees out of 44 employed at the company.

It is thanks to the support we received that we were able to hold out for more than a month and a half, be it encouraging messages or donations from all of you.
The public interest (media, politicians, players…) for this novel social movement reinforces us in the idea that it was not in vain, and that we were right to fight for our rights. We want this industry to mature, to recognize the value of our work and of our skills.

And we will continue to do so, whatever the intimidation attempts.
 

Eugen Systems strike workers


About the strike fund, we have decided to leave it open to donations for a while still for those that still want to pitch in. We will close it in a few days.
We will then proceed with a similar distribution than the one we discussed in a previous statement.