Good Conditions Make People Want to Stay

Financially the gaming industry has been a success story. But working conditions for the developers are often tough. Stress and unpaid overtime are common. But things can improve, and that is a win-win-situation. “With good conditions, it’s easier to both attract people and make them want to stay,” says Petter Karlsson at Toca Boca.

Detta är ett innehåll från Unionen Opinion.

Publicerad 03 mars 2023

Petter Karlsson, at Toca Boca.
Photo: Peter Jönsson

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Global, creative and expansive. The gaming industry has been hailed as a success story, with new records broken year after year. Many Swedish companies have made a mark on the world market, while continuing to grow at home. But behind the scenes, the industry faces a number of challenges. For some who work there, the price has been high.

“I hear horror stories about how bad things are at some companies – from systemic exploitation of interns to pushing people so hard that they burn out. It makes me angry. How can you continue to exploit people in that way?” says Petter Karlsson, chairman of the local trade union branch at Toca Boca.

When we meet, he has just come back from a few days of absence nursing his own cold as well as looking after a sick child. “My child started nursery school a few months ago, so I knew this would happen. It’s not great, but I’m pleased that I work for a company that understands what it’s like. Taking time to drop off and pick up my child at nursery, as well as taking dependency days is not a problem.”

50 million players per month

Karlsson has worked at Toca Boca for almost eight years. He has long had a great interest in games, both board games and role-playing games, but despite an education in game design, he worked with other things for several years. “I did fear that my interest would fade when my hobby became a job, but I ended up working for the company of my dreams, and still enjoy it.”

Toca Boca makes games for children and has around 50 million players per month. “It’s not just a paper product, the company has real values and believes in the inherent power of play. We also work a lot with inclusion, and our characters come in all shapes and colours – everyone should feel included.”

One of few that has a collective agreement

One reason he enjoys working for his employer is that they offer decent conditions, as the company is one of the few in the industry with a collective agreement. “That’s perhaps because we started as a project within our previous owner Bonnier.”

Even though the Swedish computer games industry today is an export success with thousands of employees, it suffers from teething problems. There have been reports of everything from sexual harassment to unacceptable overtime – sometimes because it’s embedded in the culture and sometimes because the shareholders expect a product to be released on a certain day. “Rushing to release a game before it’s ready could easily disappoint the players, which is stressful for the developers. Then, fixing the bugs in a hurry means that already tired staff have to work even harder. It becomes a vicious circle.”

“Ironically, even the companies lose out. The absence of an employee, regardless of whether it is due to stress-related illness or departure from the company, means that unique competence is lost. It also means that remaining colleagues have to work even harder, which in turn increases the risk of illness. It is neither financially clever nor morally decent.”

Sustainable companies where people stay

Karlsson believes that the solution is to build sustainable companies. Getting involved in a trade union has been a way for him to not just sit and wait for change. “It took a long time before I got my act together and joined the union. But once I became a member, I realised that if we have a collective agreement, maybe we should have a health and safety representative as well. And why not set up a local branch?”

The local branch was formed in 2017, and Karlsson was elected chairman. Both he and the company embarked on an educational journey. Amongst other things, Karlsson had to take a computer course about basic trade union work. “That put flesh on the bones, and I learned a lot about our rights as well as our chances to influence. I have benefited with regards to my own workplace, and have also been able to help friends who work for other companies,” he says and adds with a laugh: “the course was good, although as a game developer I can see that it had development potential.”

Since then, they have worked at finding good ways to cooperate. He says that the trade union does not always agree with the employer, and vice versa. “But both have understood the advantage of happy employees. It’s great when the company listens to our suggestions and makes actual improvements. One example is when we were hit with the pandemic and got the company to remove the rule of an unpaid first day of sickness. Surely, they did not want people to come in if they were ill and could infect others?”

Satisfying to change things for the better

Communication improves when both the company and the branch members have confidence in the trade union. “When members feel they can talk about unsatisfactory conditions and we raise the matter with the employer and the situation changes – yes, that is very satisfying.”

Communication works both ways. “Of course, the company can get information through various surveys, but sometimes the local union becomes aware of issues that don’t always come to light in these.”

When asked what the most difficult thing about being chairman is, Karlsson replies that it is not always being able to be there for staff when he himself has a lot on his plate.

Benefits you don't risk losing 

Yes, Karlsson believes that collective agreements are essential for the industry to carry on growing. “The gaming companies are crying out for good people, and some key skills are really hard to find. Having decent conditions can be a way to attract people.”

He adds that thinking there is no need for a collective agreement because one’s benefits are great already is a misconception, as they can basically be withdrawn overnight. “And there is nothing that prevents a company from offering more than what is stated in the collective agreement, such as improving benefits or even raising salaries. They just can’t offer less than what is agreed.”

3 good things about being an elected official:

1. The meaningfulness. It feels good to do something useful.

2. The branch colleagues. At times, the meetings are really enjoyable, like when we manage to overcome problems and find solutions.

3. The ongoing training. When we solve problems, ask Unionen for guidance or take courses, we learn more about our rights, which feels rewarding.

3 good things about forming a local union branch:

1. A stronger voice. By gathering our members’ opinions, they become stronger. Queries and issues rise to the surface and can be answered.

2. Easier to influence. Being a unifying force and counterpart to the employer is an incredibly good way of influencing, instead of just watching changes happen.

3. The bigger picture. We are a part of the trade unions’ achievements, rights that we take for granted in Sweden. And we have to continue, on every level, so that we don’t lose these rights, and fight for further improvements in the future.