Jessica Gonzalez can sometimes hear the creepy theme music for one of the Call of Duty video games in her mind. She jokes that the soundtrack will run on the loop in her subconscious when she grows up.
In the mid-2010s, Ms. Gonzalez spent months in a 14-hour overnight shift at Activision Blizzard’s office in Los Angeles as a quality assurance tester, trying to stay awake while combing the video game developer’s shooter game for losses.
“She’s a dystopian,” she said. Gonzalez, 29. “He gets really tired sometimes, because you feel like you’re pouring out of an empty cup.”
Ms. Gonzalez and other QA testers were “crunching”, a term in the video game industry for long-term hard work before the game’s release. Employees are often given 12 to 14 hour shifts per day, with only one or two days off per month, all in the name of fulfilling the deadline for sending titles to players.
Dissatisfaction with working conditions in video game companies has been growing for years. Gonzalez, as well as poor pay, through temporary contracts and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Now some sports workers are thinking of unification, which would have been incredible a few years ago. Their interest has also been driven in part by lower unemployment rates, which have led workers to believe they have more leverage on their employers, as well as a lawsuit last year that exposed Activision’s sexual misconduct and gender discrimination issues.
About 20 quality assurance workers at Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision, will vote on whether to unionize on Monday. If successful, Raven Workers will form the Game Workers Alliance, the first union of the largest video game publishers in North America. Although it is a small group, it will be a symbolic victory for the organizers who think that the workers of the gaming industry are ready for unions.
“It will be a spark that will ignite the rest of the industry, I believe,” she said. Gonzalez, who founded ABetterABK, is an activist group of activists who have been pushing the company to improve its culture since the lawsuit was filed last July. Ms. Gonzalez left Activision last year and now works at Communication Workers of America, which helps organize the Union Raven.
Activision, which has about 10,000 employees worldwide, has challenged whether QA workers can unionize all 230 employees of Raven without participation. “Everyone in our studio should have a say in this important decision,” said Calvin Liu, who thinks for the company.
Workers in the gaming industry often hear from people outside the industry that conditions may not be so bad because they are making money playing games. But for Black Lotter, another former Activation QA activist, who was crushed during the development of Call of Duty: Cold War in 2020, was stunned to click through the game for 14 hours straight while sipping energy drinks to stay alert.
“You can really choose food, any kind of food, but if you eat the same food for months to a year, you start to hate it,” he said. “It feels like work or punishment.” (Mr Liu said the company was “building a flexible workplace culture where our teams are able to balance their work with their individual needs.”)
In other countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, it is common for sports workers to form unions. But in North America, unions are not yet caught between game studios.
But in 2018, a group of game developers formed an organization called Game Workers United, which created local chapters to promote consolidation efforts in various cities. A year later, dozens of Riot Games workers went out to protest the lawsuits against the company, accusing it of having a sexist and toxic culture. Female employees later won $ 100 million in a gender discrimination settlement. Big game studios like Ubisoft have faced lawsuits and activist workplaces demanding improvements.
Workers at a small studio called Video Games formed the first gaming union in North America in December. Outside of sporting awards that month in Los Angeles, at a glittering show of industry executives, developers and celebrities, a handful of picketers drew attention to the fast-growing labor group, Southern California Game Workers.
In April, contract workers at the Canadian development studio, BioWare, said they would form a union. At the same time, a Nintendo employee sued the company at the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Nintendo of “joining or supporting a labor union” and firing him.
The news drew renewed attention to Nintendo’s employees, especially QA workers, who are often on temporary contracts and descend to the bottom of the totem pole in development studios, making many feel like second-class citizens.
In a statement, Nintendo said the employee was fired for disclosing confidential information and that the company was “fully committed to providing a welcoming and supportive work environment.”
All of this adds to the atmosphere in which gaming employees are more willing to talk about alleged injustices and more curious about mass planning than ever before, especially since they see labor campaigns in companies like Amazon, Apple and Starbucks.
“I will frame this time as a real experiment, where sports workers are exploring alternatives that seem to be quite open-minded,” said Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at Western University in Ontario who studies labor in sports. Industry.
Part of Professor Weststar’s activism in gaming is attributed to a campaign led by unions such as the CWA, which has identified the gaming industry as a “huge, unusable market.” Monday’s vote is a “low hanging fruit” for union activity, she said, as it is affecting a small group of temporary workers who want to organize.
“A larger studio with a more permanent and more stable workforce, when they actually do union, would be more telling or more creative,” said Professor Weststar.
Employees of Raven, a Wisconsin studio that helps develop Activision’s flagship Call of Duty game, quit their jobs in protest after terminating the contracts of nearly a dozen Raven QA workers, who said the vote was accidental and unfair. Is. . After workers announced their intention to unionize in January, Activision, which is being acquired by Microsoft for 70 billion, said it would not voluntarily identify the group.
Immediately, the company said it would disperse QA workers in various departments at Raven Studios. It also said it would convert more than 1,000 temporary QA contractors at Activision to full-time status and give them pay increases, benefits of $ 20 per hour and more. Activision said unionizing workers would not be affected, as federal labor laws prevent them from inciting workers to vote against unions by raising salaries or benefits before elections. (CWA denied the statement.)
Activision also argued before the NLRB that because Raven QA workers were scattered throughout the studio, they were no longer a bargaining chip and that all Raven Studio workers should be eligible to vote. The board rejected those claims and asked workers to mail in their ballots, which will be counted on Monday. If the majority is in favor, the workers will form a union, with the remaining objections to the voting process.
Workers at Activision and elsewhere will keep a close eye. Already, they say, they are seeing the benefits of forcing their employer to improve – such as a pay rise.
“These things have only happened because of how hard we are working and how much pressure there is on top management,” said Gigi Sari, an Activation QA worker in Minneapolis. “We know we can’t be complacent or lose too much steam.”