How the video game industry got the labor movement

With just weeks until Christmas, Ona Rongstad has been working around the clock to prepare for the release of new content in Call of Duty: Warzone, part of the best-selling first-person shooter franchise.

The 26-year-old worked as a tester at Raven Software, a Wisconsin-based video game studio owned by Santa Monica-based gaming giant Activision Blizzard. She and her teammates were responsible for making sure everything in the game ran smoothly for the players – every weapon, animation, character, map, and event.

For five weeks, Rongstad put her life on the back burner. From Monday to Saturday she worked at least 10 and sometimes more than 12 hours; several times she worked on Sunday. Unable to find time to go to the grocery store or prepare meals, she ate takeout.

Then, on Dec. 3 Almost a third of her department was fired.

As they gathered to support each other, Rongstad and her colleagues wept, sympathized, and discussed their plight. Gradually, they came to a consensus: it’s time to go on strike.

The following Monday, more than 60 Raven testers quit. A few weeks later they started 2022 with vote for union.

We “realized that if we come together and demonstrate that our department is not disposable and that the people here are not disposable, we may have the opportunity to undo what has been done,” Rongstad said.

For decades, workers in the video game industry have suffered conditions similar to those preceding Rongstad’s dismissal. The brutal stretch before a game’s release, known as the “crunch”, is an industry rite of passage. Workers say they work 20-hour days, sleep in their offices and barely see their families — all without paying overtime.

But lately, a growing segment of the industry’s workforce has made it clear that they are unwilling to abide by the status quo. In an effort to change it, they began to use the traditional tools of trade union organization, including petitions, strikes and full-scale unionization.

To the extent that these developments represent a movement, it is in its infancy. But even a small transition of power into the hands of workers would be historic for an $85 billion industry that has long relied on contract labor and exploitative practices. And the conditions for this are becoming more and more favorable, some game reviewers say.

“We have a confluence of events and factors that make it possible for this to happen now that may be different from what it was 10 years ago,” said Dimitri Williams, University of Southern California professor of technology and society studies. . “This is not a slam dunk. But between the important labor issues that have been in the press and those that have always been in the industry, there has always been a need and desire for workers to have more power over management.”

Industry in turmoil

The labor awakening in the video game industry has its roots in the 2018 #MeToo movement. As women in the entertainment industry and other professions came forward about their abusers, employees at League of Legends developer Riot Games painted a picture of the workplace. replete with sexism and harassment. In the coming months, equal pay and gender discrimination lawsuits were filed.

In mid-2020, Ubisoft, the French company behind hits like “Assassins Creed” and “Just Dance”, noticed that employees came forward with allegations of abuse in their studios around the world. Several top managers have resigned, and the company has vowed to do better.

Activision Blizzard, which developed Overwatch and Diablo, saw a lot of news in the second half of 2021 in the second half of 2021 detailing allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination that led to several worker strikesincluding one demanding the resignation of CEO Bobby Kotick, whom the Wall Street Journal informed knew, but did not report to the board of directors, several alleged cases of sexual harassment, including alleged rape. Activision’s troubles were reportedly a factor in the company’s decision to agree $68.7 billion acquisition offer from Microsoft in January.

This month, the parents of an Activision Blizzard employee who killed herself during a work retreat sued against a company alleging misconduct and sexual harassment.

“It’s been in the public mind for so long that people can’t just pretend it’s a problem with one or two studios,” said Steven, a Southern California member of Game Workers who declined to give his last name for fear of retaliation from his employer. “Now everyone knows.”

As with other creative fields, the desire of many workers to be involved in creating the products they love has long played a role in their exploitation, and studios can fill jobs despite low wages and no guarantees.

But the pandemic has changed that dynamic, causing workers of all stripes to question their working conditions as the global health crisis hits the most vulnerable in society. As the economy recovered, widespread labor shortages served as leverage to fight back.

“Right now we have a pretty tight job market and low unemployment,” said Jessie Hammerling, a researcher at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor. “And I think it helps give workers more confidence to stand up.”

She pointed to a spate of high-profile strikes and union action last year at companies like Starbucks, Amazon, REI and John Deere.

An annual survey conducted by the International Game Developers Association, an industry group formed in the 1990s, found an increase in interest in unionization. In 2009, a poll showed that only a third of hunting workers would support a union in their company. In 2019 this number was 47%, and by 2021 it has risen to 78% in favor of unions and just 9% against them.

However, it is a long and winding road to real unionization. “Union is one of the last steps in a very long fight,” Steven said.

An offshoot of Game Workers Unite, an employee advocacy group formed in 2018Game Workers of Southern California basically helps workers access the resources they need to organize or facilitate conversations about workplace abuse and worker rights. It has about 160 members at 25 studios in the Los Angeles area.

Over the past three years, dedicated working groups have formed at several major studios, now including A Better ABK (Activision Blizzard King), A Better Ubisoft and Rioters for Change.

In North America, the first video game union formed in late 2021 at Vodeo Games, an indie studio with about a dozen employees. Despite the company’s small size and relatively employee-friendly practices, including a four-day work week and unlimited vacations, producer Miriam LaChapelle, who helped organize her workplace, said she thinks all workers deserve a union.

“We love working at Vodeo Games and we want the studio to succeed and be the best it can be,” LaChapelle said, “so we feel it’s vital for us as employees to have a seat at the table.”

But for now, Vodeo is an anomaly.

Activision Blizzard did not voluntarily recognize the union formed by the Raven QA testers, forcing workers to petition the National Labor Relations Board, which could eventually lead to union elections. The NLRB’s hearing on the petition began last month.

Activision Blizzard stated that its discussions with the group seeking union status did not result in a “mutually acceptable solution” that would result in immediate recognition.

“We believe that all Raven Studio employees should be able to vote and be heard,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. one department.

The company also pointed to changes that have taken place over the past couple of years, including a 41% increase in the minimum wage for Raven QA employees and the transition of more than 60% of temporary employees to full-time employees.

Arguments against unions in the creative sectors relate to issues of innovation, flexibility, individual rewards, and impact on the bottom line.

“The union is doing nothing to help us deliver world-class games, and the negotiation process is generally slow, often less flexible, can be competitive, and lead to negative publicity,” said Christian Ahrendts, Vice President of Quality Assurance . in the screenshot of the company’s Slack message posted on social networks following the news of Raven’s unionization. “All of this could hurt our ability to continue making great games.”

The lowest class of games

QA testers bear the brunt of the cost-cutting measures in game studios, working the heaviest hours — often without the benefits of full-time employees — and earning an average of about $50,000 a year nationally. Glass door. They are responsible for trying out every possible way for the player to interact with the new version or feature of the game in order to identify bugs before players encounter them during the game.

One quality control manager from A Better ABK, who asked not to be named because she was a temporary employee, said she had a typical 12- to 14-hour workday with one day off every few weeks. As a fixed-term employee, she must continually reapply for new positions within the company when her contracts end.

Rongstad has described crisis periods in her life as traumatic, stating that she and many of her colleagues “have no memories of that time because everything we did was work.”

When the Raven QA testers quit their jobs, A Better ABK set up a strike fund that accepted more than $200,000 on the first day and handed out union authorization cards to employees to sign. More recently, with the fate of their union still up in the air, Rongstad and her remaining colleagues have reopened.

In the long term, labor organizers in the gaming industry see the entertainment business as a model of what is possible.

It also took decades for Hollywood workers to organize, and there are still non-union groups like visual effects workers, said Emma Kinema, an organizer for Communications Workers of America. While the earliest recorded union in Hollywood was recognized in 1926, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that they took root in the industry.

The growth of organizational activity in the video game industry may be part of the natural maturation of a relatively young industry.

“The gaming industry is much younger,” Williams said. “It really only started in earnest in the late 70s, early 80s… And the gaming industry has only become a major corporate industry in the last 30 years. And just in the last 10-20 years it has become very big” – more than cinema and sports combined, according to one analysis.

Video game workers on the other side of the world are also organizing. In the United Kingdom, any worker can join the Game Workers Unite, which opened in 2018. South Korean online gaming company Nexon Korea formed an alliance in 2018 and Paradox Interactive in Sweden. signed a collective agreement with two unions in mid-2020.

As organizers learn from successful and unsuccessful campaigns — in video game studios as well as in the tech sector, where similar efforts are underway at Google and others — they will become increasingly effective, Kinema predicts.

She spoke of a worker who participated in an unsuccessful union campaign at Mapbox, a Silicon Valley location data startup that then helped workers unionize board game publisher Paizo.

“That’s the point of organizing at the industry level because, you know, no matter how big or small the fights are, they’re all connected.”