For nearly three years, I served on the Board of Directors of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). I ran in the elections for the IGDA board because in 2009 I really believed in their mission, and I believed that as an organization it could improve the lives of individual game developers everywhere.
Three years later, in March 2013, with three days left in my term, I resigned: partly because of this debacle, but also because I simply couldn’t take it anymore. It has taken me months to collect my thoughts and feelings about the IGDA into something that I hope is coherent. Here it is.
“Fiduciary responsibility” and the status quo
During my board member orientation in March 2010, the absolute first thing I was told was that as a board member, my primary duty was my fiduciary responsibility to the organization. It seemed reasonable at the time: don’t spend the organization’s money irresponsibly, right? This is standard operating procedure for nonprofits in the United States, yet it’s an incredibly fucked up concept — particularly when it’s considered more important than the actual mission of the organization.
Here is the problem: fiduciary responsibility as a number one priority means that the most important thing for the organization is the continued existence of the organization. This means that any action we could take as an organization that carried any sort of significant risk of us losing a chunk of members (or god forbid, our corporate sponsorships) would be immediately shot down by a majority of board members with some variation of the refrain, “My fiduciary responsibility to the organization prevents me from supporting this.” What this translated to: anyone with an agenda that promoted anything but the status quo would be heavily challenged. Even something relatively innocuous like, “Instead of pointing out bad studios to work for, let’s highlight some good studios to work for!” was cause for alarm because it would surely alienate a never-specified number of people whose memberships we couldn’t stand to lose!
A helpful analogy is the enforced austerity that groups like the IMF impose upon countries that agree to massive loans. Austerity is the means that the IMF uses to impose a set of values on a country and force it to go in a direction it was not intending to head. For example:
Turning for credits to the IMF in 1975–6, [the UK's Labour government] faced the choice of either submitting to IMF-mandated budgetary restraint and austerity or declaring bankruptcy and sacrificing the integrity of sterling, thus mortally wounding financial interests in the City of London. It chose the former path, and draconian budgetary cutbacks in welfare state expenditures were implemented. The Labour government went against the material interests of its traditional supporters. (David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism)
By continuously repeating that fiduciary responsibility is the primary responsibility of a board member (rather than doing things that are on-mission for the org), the IGDA Board lives in a state of internally-enforced austerity. Even when we have extra money, that money is either saved rather than spent, or it is spent on maintaining the status quo. Financial stability is always chosen over the material interests of the individual developers the IGDA is supposed to represent.
The IGDA website is a good example. Traditionally the IGDA has offered forums or a big shitty enterprise CMS / social network that supposedly helped members but was always just a mess and a resource drain. We’d been putting off fixing the website for years because we didn’t have the money, and then one year we did have the money, thanks to careful cost cutting and corporate sponsorship and membership drives and other things. So someone brought up: we have some money now! Can we fix the website? I proposed nuking the site completely and replacing it with a simple blog. A (relatively) radical move, and one that would piss off some members, but one that would save us money and energy that could be spent on making changes in the industry rather than maintaining a website. Instead, the board voted to have a subcommittee create a proposal to overhaul the website, maintaining most of its original, bloated functionality, and trying to find a contractor that would do good work for the amount of money that we had set aside. Because heaven forbid we upset the status quo! We would rather spend money to not scare off members (who are considered long-term income) than save money and possibly lose some members in the short term. Even when the latter might cause us to gain members in the long term by using that money to create effective programs to help workers.
Know when to let go
The moral basis for all of this is the theory that an organization that exists can do more good in the world than an organization that does not exist. But that is a flawed assumption. Because the IGDA exists, when workers start to grumble about organizing, corporations can point to the IGDA and say, “You already have an organization. Be happy.” When workers start to talk about unionizing 1, corporations can point to the IGDA and say, “Join that organization instead.” If workers complain that the IGDA is not effective in advocating for developers, those in power can say, “But have you tried to make it better yourself? It’s community-run! Have at it!”
The worst thing is when someone joins this organization and starts to spend their energy trying to make it more effective. They don’t know when they come in that the IGDA’s number one priority is and always has been its continued existence, full-stop. It provides an energy-sink so that young people (like me when I was 19 and first joined the org) can waste their time on pointless bullshit when really they should be spending that energy on organizing labor and other forms of activism.
What I’m saying is: if the IGDA disappeared tomorrow, 1) there would be a vacuum that could and probably would be filled by other, better orgs, and 2) the amazing and wonderful volunteers whose energy keeps the IGDA running could put that energy into those organizations, or into their own solo activist projects. If the IGDA disappeared, conditions for workers would not change materially, and in the long term, these conditions might even improve since energy would no longer be spent on an org that is structurally unable to engage in collective bargaining 2. Given the current state of the IGDA, by buying into the idea of “fiduciary responsibility” to the organization as their primary duty, board members are working against the interest of the individual developers who pay dues. Better to just close up shop and deliver a prorated refund to people for their remaining memberships.
I want to be perfectly clear so that people understand my present position as a former member of the IGDA Board of Directors: I believe that it is in the interest of game studios and publishers 3 for an association of workers like the IGDA to exist in an ineffective state in order to drain the energy of people who could otherwise do effective pro-developer activism and to provide a straw man that can be pointed to in order to show that organizing will get us nowhere.
It is the fiduciary responsibility of IGDA board members to ensure that the organization continues to exist, but it is the moral responsibility of IGDA board members to ensure that it does not.
Because I have nowhere better to put this apology: to the people who elected me to the IGDA Board, I’m sorry that I was unable to enact much change during my tenure. I found it exhausting to go up against the refrain of austerity again and again. By the end of the second year of my term I was basically checked out. I should have resigned right then. I actually tried to resign on a couple occasions, but on each occasion another Board member convinced me that I could do some good by staying on the Board. Then I’d put some effort in, hit the same brick wall, feel like shit, and mentally check out again. I truly wish I’d been stronger.
- I don’t know how I feel about unions yet. I’m learning a lot more about them right now. What I do know is that this structure discourages both unions and other forms of worker organization. ↩
- From the IGDA FAQ:
Q: What is the “legal” status of the IGDA?
A: The IGDA is an independent, non-profit membership association and is recognized as a 501(c)6 tax-exempt organization by the US Internal Revenue Service and as a mutual benefit non-profit assocation under California-state law.
Q: Is the IGDA a union or guild?
A: No. The IGDA is an independent non-profit membership association. The IGDA cannot “transform” into a guild or a union.
- I’m not saying the studios are engaged in conspiracy, or that they actively hate developers. They are not that well organized. I’m saying that lack of labor organization favors studios, so the phenomenon of toothless, distracting organizations is aligned with their interests. ↩