Jessica Gonzalez can sometimes still hear the creepy theme music for one of the Call of Duty video games in her head. She jokes that the soundtrack will loop in her subconscious as she gets older.
In the mid-2010s, Mrs. Gonzalez spent months working grueling 14-hour night shifts at Activision Blizzard’s Los Angeles offices as a quality assurance tester, combing the video game developer’s shooter for malfunctions while trying to stay awake.
“It’s dystopian,” said Ms. Gonzalez, 29. “It’s really exhausting sometimes, because you feel like you’re pouring from an empty cup.”
Ms. Gonzalez and other QA testers were “pinching,” a video game industry term for lengthy hard work before a game came out. Employees often get shifts from 12 to 14 hours a day, with only one or two days off per month, all in the name of meeting a deadline to ship the title to players.
Dissatisfaction with working conditions at video game companies has been growing for years, driven by anger at Ms. Gonzalez’s crisis periods, as well as poor wages, temporary contracts and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Now some game workers are considering unionization, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Their interest has also been fueled in part by low unemployment rates, which make employees believe they have more influence over their employers, as well as a lawsuit last year that exposed Activision’s problems with sexual misconduct and gender discrimination.
About 20 quality employees at Raven Software, an Activision subsidiary, will vote Monday on whether or not to join a union. If successful, the Raven workers would form the Game Workers Alliance, the first union at a major North American video game publisher. Though a small group, it would be a symbolic victory for organizers who believe gaming industry workers are ready for unionization.
“It will be the spark that ignites the rest of the industry, I believe,” said Ms. Gonzalez, who founded ABetterABK, the activist group of Activision employees that has pushed for improving corporate culture after last July’s lawsuit. from the company. † Ms. Gonzalez quit Activision last year and now works for the Communications Workers of America, the union that helps Raven organize.
Activision, which has about 10,000 employees around the world, has questioned whether the QA staff can unite without all 230 Raven employees participating. Kelvin Liu, a spokesperson for the company, said it believes “everyone in our studio should have a say in this important decision.”
Workers in the gaming industry often hear from people outside the industry that the conditions can’t be that bad because they make money playing games. But for Blake Lotter, another former Activision QA employee, who cracked through the game during development of Call of Duty: Cold War in 2020, clicking through the game for up to 14 hours while drinking energy drinks to stay alert was mind-numbing.
“You could really love food, any kind of food, but if you only eat that same food for months to a year, you’re going to hate it,” he said. “It will feel like work or punishment.” (Mr. Liu said the company created a “flexible workplace culture where our teams can tailor their work to their personal needs.”)
In other countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, it is common for game workers to join a trade union. But in North America, unions haven’t caught on at game studios yet.
But in 2018, a group of game developers formed an organization called Game Workers Unite, which set up local chapters to encourage union efforts in several cities. The following year, dozens of Riot Games employees walked out to protest the company’s handling of lawsuits accusing it of having a sexist and toxic culture. Female workers later won $100 million in a gender discrimination settlement. Major game studios like Ubisoft have faced lawsuits and activist workplaces demanding improvements.
May 23, 2022, 10:28 AM ET
Employees of a small studio called Vodeo Games formed the first gaming union in North America in December. Outside of that month’s Game Awards in Los Angeles, a glitzy show of industry executives, developers and celebrities, a handful of picketers drew attention to a burgeoning labor group called the Game Workers of Southern California.
In April, indentured workers at BioWare, a Canadian development studio, said they would form a union. Around the same time, a Nintendo employee filed a lawsuit against the company with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Nintendo of firing them for “membership or support of a labor organization”.
The news sparked renewed attention for Nintendo’s treatment of its employees, especially QA employees, who are often on temporary contracts and relegated to the bottom of the totem pole in development studios, leaving many feeling like second-class citizens.
In a statement, Nintendo said the employee had been fired for disclosing confidential information and that the company was “completely committed to providing a welcoming and supportive work environment.”
It all adds up to an environment where gaming workers are more willing to speak out about perceived injustices and curious about collective organization than ever before, especially when they watch labor campaigns at companies like Amazon, Apple and Starbucks.
“I’d frame this time as one of real experiments, where game workers explore their options in what seems like a rather open-minded way,” said Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at Western University in Ontario who studies labor in the game industry.
Professor Weststar attributed some of the interest in gaming activism to campaigns led by unions such as CWA, which have seen the gaming industry as a “huge, untapped market”. Monday’s vote is “low hanging fruit” for union activity, she said, as it affects a small group of temporary workers who are most eager to organize.
“It will be more telling or formative when a larger studio with a more permanent and stable workforce, when they actually unionize,” said Professor Weststar.
The vote Monday comes months after employees of Raven, the Wisconsin studio that helps develop Activision’s flagship Call of Duty game, resigned in protest after the company terminated a dozen Raven QA employment contracts, which the employees say were abrupt and were unfair. After the workers announced their intention to unionize in January, Activision, which will be acquired by Microsoft for $70 billion, said it would not voluntarily recognize the group.
Shortly after, the company said it would spread the QA staff across various departments of the Raven studio. It also said it would convert more than 1,000 temporary QA contractors at Activision to full-time status and give them a pay increase, up to $20 an hour, and more benefits. Activision said the unionized workers would not be affected because federal labor laws prevented them from getting workers to vote against a union by raising wages or benefits ahead of the election. (CWA rejected this claim.)
Activision also argued to the NLRB that because Raven QA employees were scattered throughout the studio, they were no longer a bargaining unit and all Raven studio employees should be eligible to vote. The administration rejected those claims and told workers to send in their ballot papers, which will be counted Monday. If a majority is in favour, the workers will unite, pending objections over the voting process.
Employees at Activision and elsewhere will be watching closely. They already say they see the benefits — such as the pay increases — of pressuring their employer to improve.
“Those things just happened because of how hard we pushed and how much pressure there has been on senior management,” said Jiji Saari, an Activision QA employee in Minneapolis. “We know we can’t get complacent or lose too much steam.”