“Death From a Thousand Cuts”: ZeniMax QA Workers Share Why They’re Unionizing

Over 300 workers in the game developer's quality assurance department are hosting a union election this month.
Jules Roscoe
New York, US
fallout 4
Image Credit: Bethesda

A group of over 300 quality assurance testers are unionizing at ZeniMax Online Studios, the Microsoft-owned game developer that publishes the Elder Scrolls series, Fallout, and Doom, among other big-name franchises. The vote is currently underway, and if their union election this month is successful, the workers would form Microsoft’s first-ever union—and one of the biggest in the industry. 

Motherboard spoke to two workers in the developer’s Rockville, Maryland office, one of the four studios where QA workers are centered, to learn why they’ve decided to unionize now with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). 

Advertisement

“It kind of felt like death in a thousand cuts,” said Ashe Myers, a QA tester and part of the organizing committee for the union. “It was a lot of reasons. Low pay, forced overtime, little to no transparency with departmental changes and return to office. No word on COVID infections in-office. Lots of my colleagues and I are doing work above their pay grade and not getting promotions or pay increases to match or new responsibilities. It was issues like that.”

Forced overtime, or crunch, is well-known in the world of game development, and it’s something that ZeniMax developers have spoken out about in the past. During the final stages of a game’s development prior to its release, workers are typically required to work far beyond their regular hours in order to make sure the game is ready on time. 

“Crunch is something a lot of us have experienced in the past,” Myers explained. “A lot of coworkers have had to suddenly pick if they’d prefer to add Saturday or Sunday to their work week with just a few days' notice, or tack on another one or two hours to their workday. So people could be suddenly asked to work anywhere between 2-18 additional hours a week.” Myers noted that her project in particular had so far only had voluntary overtime. 

Advertisement

Video games have become larger and more complicated over the past few decades, turning into highly immersive experiences that might take a player dozens of hours to complete. Ensuring that kind of product is ready for launch has seen studio managers turn to crunch, with QA testers playing the games over and over again in order to suss out all the bugs. 

“It may seem like a dream job,” said Autumn Mitchell, another ZeniMax QA tester. “I mean, who doesn't like the idea of playing video games all day? But in reality, the work is incredibly technical and absolutely essential to the shipment of a working and enjoyable product. Acquiring those skills is not an easy task. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy.”

“The issues that we have here aren’t unique to just our studio,” Myers said. “They're happening all across the board. QA testers are chronically underpaid. We're largely considered to be at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to development. We've been getting wildly exploited for a long time—a lot of us have to work two jobs to make a living, and unionizing was the only way we could think of how to get where we need to be.” 

ZeniMax’s QA testers aren’t the first in their field to try to unionize. In May, QA testers at one Activision Blizzard studio unionized—this past Monday, a second studio in Albany won its union vote. Activision Blizzard tried to interfere with the union during the campaign and election processes, claiming that because the testers work on different games, they did not have the same interest in organizing. 

Advertisement

Mitchell said workers were organizing because they were sick of having to discuss their concerns in one-on-one meetings without them being addressed. 

“I think a lot of us have been trying to enact change on an individual level for a really long time,” she said. “Fighting for better conditions so far has just proven to be sort of a broken record situation. People have just been repeating themselves over and over and over again, and having one-on-one conversations that just go nowhere. By unionizing, we'll have this opportunity to really just collectively start coming into tune.” She also noted that turnover had posed a problem, and that the union would want to see better employee retention. 

The organizing effort first started in September of 2020, Mitchell said. “A group of 13 testers got together and said, ‘Enough is enough. We want a seat at the table. We want to make a difference. We're tired of these fruitless one on one conversations.’ And they started gathering people and listening to people. This past year, things really exploded. It's like everybody just got on board all at once.” 

“As soon as somebody heard about it, they wanted to get involved,” said Myers, who said she got involved in the organizing effort around six months ago. “So now that we're public, everyone's really enthusiastic. There's been a lot of positive response from my colleagues and I. I think it's only gotten better and better as it progressed.”

Advertisement

The workers say Microsoft has thus far honored the neutrality agreement it developed with the CWA in June, when QA testers at Activision Blizzard were forming their first union. Microsoft has not yet finalized its acquisition of Activision Blizzard.

“We didn't expect the neutrality agreement, but it was a huge and welcome surprise when we heard about it,” Myers said. “A lot of people worried about retaliation, so this was a huge load off our minds. As far as we can tell, all the management has been following the rules in terms of the neutrality agreement. So it's pretty smooth sailing.” 

CWA President Christopher Shelton said in a statement that the union was excited to support the ZeniMax workers, and said that they were “making history.” 

“We applaud Microsoft for remaining neutral through this process and letting workers decide for themselves whether they want a union,” he said. “The company is fulfilling the commitments they laid out in their labor principals earlier this year, while sending a resounding message to the video game industry: the right to freely and fairly make a choice about union representation should be in the hands of the workers, not management.”

“Other video game and tech giants have made a conscious choice to attack, undermine, and demoralize their own employees when they join together to form a union,” he continued. “Microsoft has made a different choice, which other corporations would be wise to emulate for the good of their corporate culture, their workers, and their customers.”

Advertisement

ZeniMax did not respond to a request for comment. 

The union election opened on Dec. 2, and will close on Dec. 31. The results will then be tallied and announced at the beginning of January.

“It’s looking good,” Mitchell said. “We have a lot of people that feel strongly and similarly. As a total in our unit, we’re organizing 306 people. It’s major. The numbers [of people who support the union] are always going up, which is great.”

Myers said the organizers were hopeful that their effort to unionize would empower other workers in the industry to speak up for themselves and lead to more peaceful unionization efforts throughout game development. 

“My coworkers and I are just eager for ZeniMax to reinvest in us,” Mitchell said. 

Update: This article was updated with comment from CWA President Christopher Shelton.