A vote by Activision workers could give unions a foothold in gaming

Jessica Gonzalez, who formed ABetterABK, a group of Activision workers who have been pushing the company to improve its culture, in San Pedro , California, on May 20, 2022. Employees at a company subsidiary complain about long hours and low pay but on Monday, May 22, they could vote to form the first union at a big US gaming company. Adam Amengual/The New York Times
Jessica Gonzalez can sometimes still hear the eerie theme music for one of the “Call of Duty” video games in her mind. She jokes that the soundtrack will play on a loop in her subconscious when she gets older.

Throughout the mid-2010s, Gonzalez spent months working gruelling, 14-hour overnight shifts at Activision Blizzard’s offices in Los Angeles as a quality assurance tester, combing the video game developer’s shooter game for glitches while trying to stay awake.

“It is dystopian,” said Gonzalez, 29. “It really is exhausting sometimes, because you feel like you’re pouring from an empty cup.”

Gonzalez and other quality assurance testers were “crunching,” a term in the video game industry for prolonged stretches of intense work before a game’s release. Employees are often given shifts of up to 12-14 hours each day, with only one or two days off each month, all in the name of meeting a deadline to ship the title to players.

Discontent over working conditions at video game companies has been growing for years, driven by anger about the crunch periods experienced by Gonzalez, as well as by poor pay, temporary contracts and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Now some game workers are considering unionisation, which would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Their interest has also been fueled partly by low unemployment rates, which have led workers to believe they have more leverage over their employers, as well as a lawsuit last year that thrust Activision’s problems with sexual misconduct and gender discrimination into the open,

About 20 quality assurance workers at Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision, will vote on whether to unionise Monday. If successful, the Raven workers would form the Game Workers Alliance, the first union at a major North American video game publisher. Although it is a small group, it would be a symbolic victory for organisers who think gaming industry workers are ready for unions.

“It’s going to be the spark that ignites the rest of the industry, I believe,” said Gonzalez, who formed ABetterABK, the activist group of Activision workers who have been pushing for the company to improve its culture after the lawsuit in July. Gonzalez quit Activision last year and now works at the Communications Workers of America, the union that has been helping Raven organise.

Activision, which has about 10,000 employees around the world, has challenged whether the quality assurance workers can unionise without all the 230 employees at Raven taking part. Kelvin Liu, a spokesperson for the company, said it thinks “everyone in our studio should have a say in this important decision.”

Workers in the gaming industry often hear from those outside the industry that conditions cannot be so bad because they are making money playing games. But to Blake Lotter, another former Activision quality assurance worker, who crunched during development of “Call of Duty: Cold War” in 2020, clicking through the game for up to 14 hours straight while chugging energy drinks to stay alert was mind-numbing.

“You could really like food, any kind of food, but if you only eat that same food for months to a year on end, you’re going to start to hate it,” he said. “It’s going to feel like work or a punishment.” (Liu said the company was creating a “flexible workplace culture where our teams are able to balance their work with their personal needs.”)

In other countries, like Australia and the United Kingdom, it is common for game workers to be unionised. But in North America, unions have not yet caught on among game studios.

But in 2018, a group of game developers formed an organisation called Game Workers Unite, which created local chapters to encourage unionisation efforts in various cities. The year after, dozens of workers at Riot Games walked out to protest the company’s handling of lawsuits accusing it of having a sexist and toxic culture. Female employees later won $100 million in a settlement over gender discrimination. Large game studios like Ubisoft have faced lawsuits and activists demanding improvements.

Workers at a small studio called Vodeo Games formed the first gaming union in North America in December. Outside the Game Awards that month in Los Angeles, a glitzy show of industry executives, developers and celebrities, a handful of picketers drummed up attention for a rapidly growing labour group, the Game Workers of Southern California.

In April, contract workers at BioWare, a Canadian development studio, said they would form a union. Around the same time, an employee at Nintendo filed a charge against the company with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Nintendo of firing them because they “joined or supported a labour organisation.”

The news prompted renewed attention to Nintendo’s treatment of its employees, particularly quality assurance workers, who are often on temporary contracts and relegated to the bottom of the totem pole at development studios, causing many to feel like second-class citizens.

In a statement, Nintendo said the employee had been fired for disclosing confidential information and that the company was “fully committed to providing a welcoming and supportive work environment.”

It all adds up to an environment in which gaming employees are more willing to speak out about perceived injustices and more curious about collective organising than ever before, especially as they watch labour campaigns at companies like Amazon, Apple and Starbucks.

“I would frame this time as one of real experimentation, where game workers are exploring their options in what seems to be quite an open-minded way,” said Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at Western University in Ontario who studies labour in the game industry.

Weststar attributed part of the interest in activism in gaming to campaigns led by unions like CWA, which have found the gaming industry to be a “massive, untapped market.” Monday’s vote is “low-hanging fruit” for union activity, she said, because it is affecting a small group of temporary workers who are the most likely to want to organise.

“It will be more telling or more formative when a larger studio with a more permanent and more stable workforce, when they actually unionise,” Weststar said.

The vote Monday comes months after employees at Raven, the Wisconsin studio that helps develop Activision’s flagship “Call of Duty” game, walked out of work in protest after the company ended about a dozen Raven quality assurance workers’ contracts, which the workers said was abrupt and unfair. After the workers announced their intent to unionise in January, Activision, which is being acquired by Microsoft for $70 billion, said it would not voluntarily recognize the group.

Soon after, the company said it would disperse the quality assurance workers across various departments at the Raven studio. It also said it would convert more than 1,000 temporary quality assurance contractors at Activision to full-time status and give them a pay raise, to $20 an hour, and more benefits. Activision said the unionising workers would not be affected, because federal labour law prevented them from inducing workers to vote against a union by increasing pay or benefits before an election. (CWA rejected this assertion.)

Activision also argued to the NLRB that because Raven quality assurance workers had been spread across the studio, they were no longer a bargaining unit, and that all Raven studio workers should be eligible to vote. The board rejected those claims and told workers to mail in their ballots, which will be counted Monday. If a majority are in favour, the workers will unionise, pending objections over the voting process.

Workers at Activision and elsewhere will be watching closely. Already, they say, they are seeing the benefits — like the pay increases — of pressuring their employer to improve.

“Those things only happened because of how hard we’ve been pushing and how much pressure there has been on upper management,” said Jiji Saari, an Activision quality assurance worker in Minneapolis. “We know we can’t get complacent or lose too much steam.”

©2022 The New York Times Company