One of the most popular booths at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco belonged to a labor union, the Communications Workers of America.
Last week, CWA organizers and unionizing Activision-Blizzard employees talked to scores of workers about unionizing, handed out free union merchandise, including a mouse pad with a slide from Activision’s law firm that said employees who want to unionize are “lazy” and “non-productive,” and let passersby play a pro-union arcade game. Workers also gathered at an off-site CWA workshop on organizing basics and building solidarity in the games industry.
The buzz about CWA’s presence at GDC follows a recent notable shift in the games industry that has long evaded unionization. For decades, workers in the industry have reported hostile conditions to women and other marginalized groups, extreme precarity for contract workers, and overwork or so-called ‘crunch culture' for low wages. Unionizing seemed impossible at the time, but in 2020, the communications workers’ union launched CODE-CWA, its campaign to organize digital workers in tech and games. Since then the first group of video games workers have unionized at Vodeo Games and elsewhere workers have led walkouts, strikes, and launched unions, at smaller shops, such as Paizo.
A major recent site of this worker dissent and organizing has taken place at Activision Blizzard, where Raven workers who do quality assurance on Call of Duty have asked for recognition of their union. (In late 2021, Raven terminated 12 QA workers involved in the union drive, triggering a walkout.) Now Activision is also facing a company-wide unionization effort. This week, Activision, which is in the process of being acquired by Microsoft, settled a sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought by the state of California alleging “frat boy workplace culture” for $18 million. CEO Bobby Kotick has also been under investigation for being aware of sexual misconduct allegations for years and not taking appropriate action.
Motherboard sat down with organizers who worked at the CWA’s booth at GDC last week: Amanda Laven, a test analyst at the video game developer Blizzard Albany, a subsidiary of Blizzard Entertainment in Albany, New York, and Andrew Carl, a senior systems designer at Blizzard Albany. We talked about what’s behind the upsurge in labor organizing in the games industry, advice for games workers who want to unionize their companies, and what to keep an eye out for in the coming year.
“We had so many people at our booth,” said Laven, the test analyst at Blizzard Albany. “We were constantly in conversation with folks.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Motherboard: How did you become interested in the labor movement and unionizing the games industry?
Andrew Carl: Personally, I came up from quality assurance and started on the game Skylanders: Swap Force. And it was a lot of very, very, very long hours. Generally QA testers are the last people to leave during a workday because the developers have to rush to get something in and then you generally have to spend that night and usually that weekend testing to make sure that it's okay. For most of my time people had been pre-approved for 10 hours of overtime all of the time.
I was always interested in the labor movement, and I both saw a lot of issues in the games industry, and the games industry acting as a microcosm of a lot of corporate industries, and all of the sorts of things that the labor movement should sort of be spurred on by: harassment, abuse, exploitation. And when I saw they were passing out [union authorization] cards, I signed one. Around the time that the article broke with allegations against Bobby Kotick and that definitely motivated me further. I actively advocated for forming a union at which point one of my coworkers messaged me and invited me to join the union’s organizing committee.
Amanda Laven: I became interested in organizing in December of last year. We had several walkouts already and Raven had started their strike after losing some of their workers to layoffs. Corporate kept making all the wrong moves, not making things better. I felt very beaten down. I felt very hopeless about everything. And then someone dropped the union authorization cards in one of our company wide Slack channels across all of Activision Blizzard. It felt like a concrete thing that we could do that would make a difference, a way to empower ourselves and our coworkers and to take back the power from the folks who were misusing it.
One of the big problems that we face in QA is the contract employment system. You're constantly in fear of your contract ending. And it's bad for the project, because it causes a break in continuity of who's testing. No one at the studio that I've ever talked to in any department is a fan of that system, but it’s not something we are allowed to change currently. That's yet another reason to have a union.
Tell me a bit about what happened at last week’s conference and the workshop at GDC.
AL: We arrived on Monday and on Tuesday, we spent all day training, doing the workshop, learning how to have one-on-ones, how to combat union-busting tactics, sharing stories with each other, just building solidarity. It was folks from across the industry and other tech industries as well. There are folks who've already succeeded in their union campaigns, or folks who are in varying stages of starting their campaigns. It was really a great opportunity to build solidarity amongst everybody in the industry.
AC: It was pretty substantial. People were coming up, even people who were like, “I don't work in the U.S., but I'm really watching this. And I'm interested to see if there are things that I can bring back home.” A lot of people who were interested gave us their contact information. We had a lot of people stopping by the booth to chat. We even got a call out on the award stage on Wednesday night, and the host was wearing a CWA pin.
What are the biggest concerns you hear from workers in the games industry about unionizing?
AL: Some of the biggest concerns that I've heard are from folks who are new parents and are afraid of potentially losing their jobs. Also from folks who are on contracts and maybe just moved to the area for work and they've just gotten here and are afraid of losing their jobs and then having to pick up and move again or find another place to work. Folks who enter on a contract do so with the hope that they will be able to secure a full time position, either get converted within the department they were hired into, or if they are working in QA be able to apply for and get a job in another department.
I think we're a lot better off trying to take the power into our own hands and make that happen ourselves because it’s been proven time and time again that those who have the ability to make those changes are not interested in doing so because it's not good for the bottom line.
AC: This is probably common across industries, but there's a fear of what will happen. What might employers try as they’re watching Raven’s NLRB hearing? I think part of that is endemic to the games industry, which is the reticence to talk about things behind the scenes due to a nondisclosure agreements or this perception that if you step forward and talk about your work, you might get in trouble with your company, or even worse, you might be seen as like arrogant or a glory hound.
What do you say to workers who have these concerns about organizing?
AC: The contracting system itself is basically a way to take advantage of workers who are passionate about the industry. The only thing that's really going to give you leverage if and when that happens is having collective power. Right now every single day people are being run out of this industry because of abuse and harassment, or their contracts are ending or they're being consistently underpaid and they didn't get a raise to cover inflation. If you had the protection of solidarity with your co-workers and the ability to affect change collectively, you could probably actually build a more sustainable industry where people can have careers and maybe even long careers at specific companies.
Having a CODE-CWA booth at GDC that was popular seemingly would have been impossible just a few years ago. What’s changed in the past few years?
AC: A global pandemic shut everyone inside their houses and exacerbated the structural cracks within the free society around the world but especially in America. Everyone got much more uncomfortable. Everyone's job got more precarious. People are paying more, because corporations are using this as an excuse to tack a 7 percent price increase on everything. It's getting to a point where it feels like a lot of things that you can't change but there’s this one way where you very much can change it, right?
It was really great to have the New York Times Tech Guild and the Alphabet Workers Union at our booth. People who had been in the fight longer than I'll see in their specific sector of the tech industry, who were able to show us like, “hey, here are the collective actions we took to improve our working conditions,” even before we had the union contract, or during the fight to be recognized. There's a lot of examples, both historically, and now that your working conditions are something you can change if you can work together with the colleagues that you already have a relationship with and you already trust them. If we want our opinion to matter, and the opinion of the people who are actually making the games on the ground to matter, we all need to come together to protect ourselves, and especially our more vulnerable colleagues.
AL: We've also been seeing for many years now, stories of abuse and harassment come out of this industry repeatedly and every time a story comes out, it triggers more people coming forward and sharing their stories as well. We see these issues exacerbated a lot because it's easy to exploit people who are passionate about what they're doing. I think that the issues that we're seeing right now, with the pandemic, with inflation, with rising prices on everything, the housing crisis, all of this is just serving to really bring to light these issues that are everywhere, and that are especially prevalent in our industry. We're reaching a tipping point where people are realizing we are the workers. We are the ones producing the products that are making all this money. We are the ones keeping society running. We are the essential workers. Not us in games, but people more generally. And it's time for us to take back that power and to work together and to protect ourselves.
AC: The media coverage has made a huge impact. The one that really made a big impact were the articles about Riot Games. This constant pressure of articles made it more and more difficult for people to continue telling everyone else that it was a series of unconnected isolated incidents. If it keeps happening everywhere, then they're not isolated incidents. It's a pattern. It's a culture.
Any advice for workers who are unionizing?
AC: Contact CWA. Also talk with your co-workers that you know, and trust and ask what the issues are, because you want to make sure that you're speaking to change your issues. If you do decide to unionize, it's not the union that comes in and tells you what to care about. You become the union, which means you need to know what you're fighting for. There are all these industry-wide problems, but different people might see different solutions, and people are in all sorts of different situations, which might necessitate addressing other problems.
AL: One simple step that anyone could take is start talking about your wages. It's illegal for your employer to tell you you can't do it. You are well within your legal rights to discuss your compensation with your coworkers. And you absolutely should, because you'll be very surprised at what you learn.
AC: And step up for your, for your colleagues. There are a lot of people who say QA aren't developers. A lot of them are just vocal people online who don't work in the industry, but some of them are people who are who work in the industry. That is one of the issues that you have to overcome, building solidarity and making sure that everyone appreciates everyone else's efforts. Be part of the group of people who try to be inclusive and try to help make sure that others are taken care of as well, because that's what collective action is about.
How can workers protect themselves from retaliation?
AL: Don’t say the “u” word on Slack. Communicate somewhere else.
AC: Know what you're allowed to speak about publicly and not. I won't say that it's right for everyone to go public with their union campaign as immediately as we did because it's not. If you do connect yourself with an organizer, they can help you navigate that. But I do know that, especially for ADK workers right now, with all the media scrutiny, and the legal scrutiny around the merger, being public protects us better, because if you aren't public, and the company finds out, it is much easier for them to take action. And not necessarily have it connected to unionization efforts if you weren't public.