Features

The Worker-Owned Studio Making a Game About the Revolution

This revolutionary development studio thinks worker ownership will change the games industry for the better.

We live in a Capitalist society. As a result of that, many companies share a similar business structure: workers, managers, executives, and a CEO. It’s hierarchical in nature, allocating tasks from the top to the bottom. The video games industry as a whole isn’t very different at all, with large development studios and publishers like Bethesda, Rockstar, and EA following what has become the standard for running a company. But this isn’t the only way to run a business.

“I felt like a team could be run better if everybody had a voice in making major decisions.” Ted Anderson is the founder and art steward of Pixel Pushers Union 512, a worker-owned independent games studio currently working on Tonight We Riot, a crowd brawler game about a people’s revolution. He’s worked in the industry for a long time for various companies, “but I’ve never seen one where a lot of people had a lot of voices, or there was any kind of real democracy in production.”

“So I figured that I might take some of the things I was kinda getting interested in, and one of those things was the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, and their method of having shop democracy really appealed to me.” Shop democracy is a socialist principle wherein a workplace applies concepts like voting, equal pay, and flat hierarchy to the workplace, and Ted had been toying with the concept for a while. “I think the idea for the company is something I’d been chewing on probably ever since my first layoff. At least in some formative way I thought, ‘this could be better.’”

“And then over the years as I drifted further and further left myself, I eventually decided, this structure that currently exists is really untenable. It’s not fair to the people working in those companies. I was watching benefits disappear. When I started in the game industry, there were actually still royalties: you’d make money off the game you worked on. That doesn’t [really] exist anymore.”

“You’re much more willing to do something that you’re self-motivated to do without getting tired of it”

Ted’s of the opinion that as it currently stands, much like many countless Capitalist business structures, the games industry is exploitative of workers in their worth and their disposability. “One of the biggest issues I’ve run into in games in the past has been the boom and bust cycle of game development, where you throw a bunch of warm bodies at a problem and then lay everybody off after the project is done.”

“One of the things I hope pans out with the way we’re doing stuff is with the cost-sharing, the flat hierarchy, the ability for everybody to be democratically-involved in the process of making the game and decisions regarding its sale and release date, that we all have an impetus to make sure that the company never grows larger than it needs to be, and that the projects that we take on aren’t bigger than what we can do with the team that we have.”

For Ted, the equal share of profit made by Pixel Pushers through both their own work and their contract work isn’t just beneficial for the wellbeing of his co-workers. “it’s a much cheaper way to operate a company. We have no executive staff…say the game makes a decent profit. That profit isn’t immediately soaked up by one branch of the company. Instead, it’s divvied up equally amongst everybody who actually had a hand in working on it. And I’d much rather have that happen, I hope it takes off.”

Not only has shop democracy and worker ownership been good for Pixel Pushers both financially and in terms of productivity, but it’s also improved Ted’s general happiness through being involved in the company. “if some boss was telling me, ‘hey, fix this thing.’ And it’s so ridiculously broken, and I’m having trouble with it… it’d get kinda miserable. But the fact that it’s us, that I’m not being told to do this by some boss on high, that I’m choosing to do this because as a team we’ve decided that it’s the best idea… you’re much more willing to do something that you’re self-motivated to do without getting tired of it.” It’s improved interpersonal relationships between the staff too. “If someone’s having a hard time, I have genuine concern for them as a friend and I want to make sure that they’re having a good time working on this game, and we try to make it better.

“It’s not, ‘Okay, well that sucks, but chop chop we’ve gotta get things done!’ It’s more, ‘Let’s see how we can triage some of these issues, or table them for now, come back to them maybe later, and find something fun to work on.’ People don’t get burned out, people don’t get resentful, so it’s never me or anybody saying ‘you have to do this now.’” It’s a rather positive perspective, and it’s not just limited to Ted.

“a sort of growing foxhole mentality, a sort of fellowship”

“I do think it’s something fundamental about the structure.” Stephen Meyer is one of Pixel Pushers’ programming stewards, and has had extensive experience in a number of different industries, not limited to insurance and construction companies. Working on Tonight We Riot is his first professional foray into the games industry, and his first time working under a shop democracy. “Even if I had a very considerate boss who was taking feelings into consideration and making sure I don’t get burned out, doing this amount of work in this sort of schedule… I think on some level I’d start to resent that boss.”

“But because of the structure as it is, rather than resentment I’ve been feeling a sort of growing foxhole mentality, a sort of fellowship. It’s something fundamental about not having one person be in charge, not having a command given on high for you to do this or that.”

Despite there being a heavy focus on the ‘democracy’ aspect of Pixel Pushers’ business structure, Stephen thinks this working environment helps to keep everybody on the same page. “It sorta breeds consensus. There are votes, but usually because we realise that we all have the same stake in everything and that we respect each other, there’s not often a contentiousness. We’ll put things to a vote, but it isn’t angry. Very positive compared to previous companies.”

Stephen thinks that indie games have been championing shop democracy in a sense, whether labelling it or not. “In a lot of ways I think we’re just putting something explicitly that people were starting to intuit among indie games anyway…It’s definitely the testing grounds with these smaller groups.” Working in a company with shop democracy can also give people a greater feeling of job security. “Not having that extra dead weight on the top saves money.”

“It doesn’t completely break you free of the boom-bust cycle, but by saving that money, whatever money is to be made in games, there’s more to be spread out. And the individual employees can put away what they need to put away so that they can deal with it if there is still a cycle of profit and lack of profit.”

The resulting expansion of shared creativity that comes with giving everyone’s voice in a company equal weight can lead to some interesting things, and Stephen recalls one such example. “Our sound guy George recently had made a passing comment about how we could reuse these assets that we’d made for something else as an extra mini-boss that we could reskin as a crab as this silly little in-passing suggestion.”

“we’re just putting something explicitly that people were starting to intuit among indie games anyway”

“If it’d been some other company? He’s not the designer, he’s not the person in charge, it’s not his department… it might’ve just gotten lost in the shuffle, but because everyone has an equal voice, everybody took him seriously and said, ‘y’know what? Let’s think about it.’ And now it’s in the game. It’s really easy for anyone to have an idea about anything and they’re taken seriously.”

We hardly ever see worker-owned companies, let alone in the mainstream, and even rarer do we see unabashedly-leftist video games like Tonight We Riot. But more and more are coming out of the woodwork, and this is likely down to society’s shift in perception of left-wing theory. “Socialism isn’t a dirty word anymore. I think we’re kinda finally getting over McCarthyism fifty years later. Especially the younger now generation is realizing, whether they agree or not with the feasibility of this structure or that structure, they’re realizing that Leftists aren’t some boogeyman, they’re not the bad guys.”

“Part of it is probably the political climate in the last three or four years.” Michael Taylor is the AI programming steward for PPU, and joined the team a little over a year ago after finishing his associate’s degree. “It’s not been great for the last decade and a half, but the last three or four years specifically. And given that we are in a country that isn’t winning a lot of popularity polls right now, I think it’s kinda starting a punk-rock incentive in a lot of game developers to push back and tackle more and more political themes.”

Despite not having as much experience as the other members of Pixel Pushers, he can already feel the stark differences between working with them and working elsewhere. “I’ve taken a lot of personal contract work to make ends meet and I can say that the structure here is different from the rest of the contract work I do. Overall, I do enjoy the structure. It gives me a lot of leeway…we may not have a boss in the traditional sense, but we still have deadlines with enough space to feel like we have enough breathing room.”

Their upcoming game Tonight We Riot is rather thematically-suited to the ethos of PPU, as Ted explains. “You literally seize the means of production and have workers join your cause, and they in turn become your living health bar. So any time your main character dies, you’ll snap to being another person in your crowd until you run out of crowd. But your crowd also acts as a weapons modifier, so every time you attack they attack too, which generally means the larger the crowd you have, the better off you are.” The idea for the game developed alongside Ted’s growing desires for better working conditions. “About two and a half years ago I started tinkering with pixel art after making a Minecraft texture pack.”

“It kinda got me started on working with pixels, and I thought ‘Huh, this could be something. This could be a game.’ A sort of Marxist Mario Brothers, is what I liked to call it. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be kinda funny if you were hopping and bopping on riot cop heads, and you’re this little 8-bit character. Maybe there could be something here.’”

What’s certain is that Tonight We Riot wears its political message on its sleeve, and it does so to fill the gap in the market of explicitly left-wing games, a gap resulting from a reluctancy that Ted has seen in the industry. “when I was playing Bioshock Infinite, I absolutely loved the first half of the game. One of the coolest experiences in a game I had ever was charging a factory with armed workers. I’d never experienced this before, it was so blatant and wonderful and over-the-top and amazing. I had such a good time, and then they kinda pulled the punch in a way, which left me a little bit disappointed.”

“I’ve never seen an unabashedly Leftist game, pretty much ever. One that didn’t make apologies for things like seizing the means of production, or make apologies for its content, or watering it down. So I said, ‘yeah, let’s do this, let’s try and make that happen.’”

“Socialism isn’t a dirty word anymore”

Stephen looks forward to seeing people try out what they’ve been working on. “It’s been a while since I’ve played a game that had a real statement that it was trying to make, and was also fun. It’s tough to combine both of those things, and I think we’ve got the fun part down and we’re getting the statement part down. We’re getting that narrative down, we’re getting those themes out, and the fun is definitely flowing too. I’m excited.”

Ted, Stephen, Michael, and the rest of Pixel Pushers Union hope that Tonight We Riot will spread the message and make people think about Leftist politics in a way they may have not considered before, and they want to convey this through a really fun game. In essence, as Ted puts it, “a lot of fun, interesting, cool experiences in it that’ll hopefully carry the day if you’re not ready to let your red rose blossom.”

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