Content warning: this article includes references to self harm and suicide.
In 2021, the games industry was in turmoil. A series of high-profile allegations rocked the world’s biggest studios, and a bombshell lawsuit from the state of California, filed against Activision Blizzard King, took centre stage. The lawsuit’s allegations exposed a deep-running culture of harassment and misconduct at the Call Of Duty developer, but it was the company’s response – which outright denied the claims – that exposed the fact that Activision’s leadership was not on the same side as its employees.
As workers reckoned with toxic working conditions and hostile executives, employees at Activision founded A Better ABK and organised a walkout to protest the company’s problems. Workers at Ubisoft, dealing with separate allegations of misconduct at their own company, also organised to demand change.
That organisation was the spark for something else on people’s minds, especially Activision employees: unionisation. When Activision Blizzard fired over a third of Warzone developer Raven Software’s quality assurance (QA) team toward the end of 2021, company-wide walkouts and strikes resulted in staff at Raven Software unionising as the Game Workers Alliance.
Months later, quality assurance testers at the Edmonton branch of Keywords Studios – a major BioWare contractor – voted to unionise with the support of employees at Raven Software. As even more studios begin the unionisation process, NME spoke to organisers across Activision Blizzard King, Ubisoft and Keywords Studios to explore the industry’s changing landscape. Though their employers varied, everyone who spoke to NME believed that COVID-19 had played a huge part in changing the way that unionisation was viewed.
“I think the pandemic really highlighted a lot of the anti-worker culture, especially in the United States,” shared Jessica Gonzalez, a former Activision employee and founder of A Better ABK, who now works as an organiser at Communications Workers of America.
“In the United States, workers are expected to absolutely bleed for their countries.” Gonzalez continued. “They have to dedicate their life and livelihood to this company, and you can just be let go at any time with at will employment. They can just say ‘thanks, you did great – but we’re laying you off’, which happens all the time – especially in game development.”
A Better Ubisoft (ABU) – a group made by Ubisoft developers with the aim of enacting positive change at the company – agrees that COVID was the industry’s first nudge towards workers organising for better conditions. “The COVID pandemic has shifted perceptions of workers everywhere,” a spokesperson for the group tells NME. “Many of us saw that a different world is indeed possible, that flexibility and [work from home] are feasible and beneficial, and most importantly that we, the workers, are the ones who create the value. It is our labour that pays our executives‘ salaries.”
“That shift, along with the never-ending media reports of crunch, abuse and bad working conditions in the games industry has made it clear: workers coming together is the only thing that can bring lasting change,” the group added.
For an anonymous member of Keywords Studios Edmonton United – the union formed at Keywords Studios Edmonton – the move to unionise was triggered by leadership at KWS Edmonton ordering a return to in-office working, despite the studio’s client being happy to allow QA testers to work from home.
“The mounting expenses due to inflation, stagnant wages, and now having to potentially pay hundreds of dollars more a month just to get to work was too much,” said the employee, adding that “while we really enjoy our jobs, we wouldn’t be able to live off them anymore – all while seeing the success that Keywords has had over the past few quarters.”
Across all companies, it became apparent that leadership and executives did not have their employees’ best interests at heart. For Gonzalez and ABU, this was intensified when the scale of misconduct at their respective companies was revealed.
“It’s something that in game development, women go into knowing that it’s kind of a predatory situation,” said Gonzalez. “It’s a boys club, I know so many people who have been groped at parties at Activision. Women are always the note takers in meetings, and it is just very unfair.”
“I started in 2015 at Activision, on Black Ops 3. I just remember going through horrible treatment – QA was not allowed to talk to the rest of game development, we had mandatory crunch hours, we were not able to waive those crunch hours – that’s how we made our money, so it was anywhere from 12 to 14 hour shifts to try and get Black Ops 3 out. People were sleeping in their cars, sleeping at their desk – it just became this really toxic rat race culture where people were stepping on each other to try to get full-time employment.”
Gonzalez has worked in QA for seven years, and says that even beyond AAA companies such as Activision, harassment and predatory behaviour is endemic. Gonzalez shares that her time working at an unnamed indie company involved being subject to unpaid work and kicking out men who chose to have meetings in breastfeeding rooms. Gonzalez also says she was rejected for a design position due to “textbook harassment” – namely being turned down once the manager found out she was married.
“I got to a really dark place where I wanted to take my life,” Gonzalez says. “I remember I was texting suicide hotlines almost every day in the bathroom at work. Like, ‘I cannot get through this day – I’m very exhausted, I’m postpartum, I can’t pump for my child anymore. I just felt horrible, and like I didn’t belong in the world.”
Because of this, Gonzalez was particularly affected by California’s allegation that Activision Blizzard’s toxicity had caused an employee to take her own life. Likewise, ABU says that news of Activision’s misconduct “hit us extremely hard,” adding that the group had “seen it all before” and “knew how little had fundamentally changed in our own company”.
All parties told NME that games industry workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because the industry attracts those who are passionate to be there.
“What makes the games industry different than many other industries is that for most of us our careers start out of passion: We love games, we love making them, and there are many other people out there who would love to do the same for a living,” shared ABU. “Unfortunately that has lead to a culture of games workers being expected to work under exploitative conditions; our drive to create and be part of this industry is supposed to make up for overtime, low salaries, burnout and abuse.”
Likewise, the anonymous KWS Edmonton employee said that “There are a lot of very passionate people in the industry that it seems some companies rely on in order to take in a higher profit, despite everyone knowing passion does not pay the bills.”
This photo is so cool. We were setting up for the walkout. Activision Blizzard hired security to watch us. This is me bringing the Workers Alliance flag to the picket line. pic.twitter.com/7OrqkupTIP
— Jessica Gonzalez (@_TechJess) July 22, 2022
Facing the industry’s deep-rooted toxicity, the answer for all parties seemed clear: organising. ABU heaped public pressure on their employer’s problems and supported protests at Activision Blizzard, Gonzalez led walkouts and encouraged unionisation at Activision Blizzard King, and QA workers at KWS Edmonton voted unanimously to unionise as a means of standing up for themselves. For everyone, it was clear that organising together was the best way of combating these issues.
“If we try to fight this alone, we will easily be replaced,” shared ABU. “Only when we organise and stand together do we stand a chance, solidarity is our only tool against exploitation”. An anonymous member of ABU, who doesn’t represent the group, added that “we can’t trust companies to defend us” from the industry’s predatory behaviour:
“With Ubisoft’s global scale, it’s someplace where a previously sheltered American game developer can really see the difference that comes from unions and proper labour laws in other countries. It was a huge education when I first started working at Massive Entertainment in Sweden. Even though I had already been broadly in favour of unions, seeing real labour laws and how it was possible to work made me angry that I had spent so long putting up with the conditions in the States.”
However, unionising comes with its own challenges – even in Canada, where anti-union propaganda isn’t quite as vitriolic as it is in America. KWS Edmonton United says that the first challenge of organising “was to get a feel of how much everyone knew about unions and how they would react to being approached, which was inherently risky. Luckily for us, we were able to secure a unanimous vote [to unionise], but I imagine a larger group of workers would have different difficulties organising.”
BREAKING! We’ve received the results of our vote count and we have UNANIMOUSLY voted 16-0 and will be forming a union. More details incoming, so follow for updates.
— KWS Edmonton United (@KWSUnited) June 6, 2022
ABU agrees that reaching out to fellow employees was the group’s biggest challenge: “With management having a vested interest in avoiding organising efforts by workers it is not always easy to reach out to fellow workers for broader support of our cause. Workers in some Ubisoft studios face consequences from HR departments for speaking up, so a base level of security that slows our outreach efforts has to be maintained.”
Gonzalez also identifies that encouraging solidarity between workers posed a major challenge. “Getting people on board [meant saying] yes, this issue is not affecting you directly, but it absolutely can – and you know, people are hurting right now. We need to help them. When organising the Raven strike and work stoppage for Raven proper, a lot of people were upset because they’re like ‘well, this isn’t Activision Blizzard ‘ – no, it is, it’s under ABK and this can absolutely happen to your department.”
Even now, Gonzalez says workers at Raven Software are “essentially being punished for daring to organise” with “little slights” by executives. “It’s really why we feel so inspired to keep holding them accountable. [ABK] has shown their cards, time and time again, that they are anti-worker and they only really care about the bottom line.”
One of the slights that Gonzalez touches on includes excluding unionisers at Raven Software from company-wide pay raises, for which she says the company is facing one of three unfair labour practices. She claims the company is also engaged in “blatant, illegal union busting”, such as “surveilling organisers and trying to corner them into quick chats with HR without any representation,” which she slams as a “quick intimidation chat”.
— A Better Ubisoft (@ABetterUbisoft) March 29, 2022
Though the challenges of unionisation are numerous, it has already had a positive effect for the groups who have stepped forward to lead efforts. ABU says that although the company’s management has “failed” to work with the group, results of their organisation can be seen.
“We do know that our presence is felt and we believe our campaign has altered the company’s course. A rumoured high profile role for one serial abuser never materialised, and more have quietly left the payroll.”
“While the response by management to the employee demands voiced through ABU has been lacklustre, ABU has succeeded in one crucial aspect: Bringing workers closer together, connecting Ubisoft employees from all over the world to exchange experiences and bond through shared struggles,” added ABU, which says it has “created a new sense of solidarity and mutual support” which “forms a solid foundation for building a better future at the company.”
Since unionising, KWS Edmonton United has also celebrated a big win for its members: “We were able to get the in-office work requirement rescinded, and it’s been very helpful to know that they would not be able to change the parameters of our jobs without consulting us going forward.”
Keywords Studios has posted a statement and has accepted our vote. We look forward to moving through a cooperative bargaining process together! https://t.co/Ozn61LaDqD
— KWS Edmonton United (@KWSUnited) June 6, 2022
“We are looking forward to entering the bargain stage soon in order to begin the process of better work conditions in our contract. What we’ve learned first hand is that while we couldn’t get a lot of action when we brought up concerns before we unionised, unionisation has given us the power to be heard, We’ve had some great successes so far in our campaign and we are moving into bargaining on a high note for sure. In general, this has connected us as co-workers and given us the ability to speak out as a group with power about our working conditions. It has also opened the door for us to connect with a wider community of video games workers across the globe.”
For Gonzalez, whose vocal leadership is one of many voices that has inspired much of this year’s discussion about unionisation, she says “it’s wild to see a lot of places announcing unions because they’re seeing the work that’s going on in A Better ABK.”
“Vodeo Workers United is the first U.S. game union and they cited A Better ABK as an inspiration. It’s cool because in the industry, everyone knows [there’s] a problem […] They’re finally seeing someone speak up against it, so they’re feeling empowered to do the same thing.”
Within Activision, A Better ABK has also won major victories for workers. “I feel like all of our work that we’ve done already – even though we’re not a full union yet – has had a huge positive impact on the industry,” reflects Gonzalez. “We’ve converted all contract QA testers to full time which is amazing, and we also won holiday pay for them – and that just shows collective action works – even when you’re not a union! Just get together and share.”
Activision Publishing – Eden Prairie, Minnesota pic.twitter.com/jR6ZoGadXR
— ABetterABK ABK Workers Alliance (@ABetterABK) July 25, 2022
“It’s the year of worker power,” decrees Gonzalez, who points to increasing unionisation beyond the games industry – including Starbucks and Amazon, two global giants who face their own allegations of union busting. Back in June, 79 per cent of video game industry workers surveyed said they support unionisation – could there be a change in the wind?
“Signs are pointing to yes,” says Gonzalez. “Even when Activision Blizzard announced their walkout, we had other studios join us in solidarity. We didn’t ask them to do that, they just did. It’s about high time! People are growing up to the savviness of how the U.S. is notoriously anti-worker, and how we can overcome that.”
One member of KWS Edmonton United also hopes that more workers will join them in unionising. “We encourage all workers to fight for their right to not be exploited. I hope that we will see more unions in the video game industry so it can become more normalized. As they say, a rising tide raises all ships. If someone reading this sees similarities to their own workplace, or feels that they may benefit from having an organised work place in general, I definitely encourage them to look up the requirements for starting a union in their province/country or contact us!”
Last week marked the one year anniversary of A Better Ubisoft. A year ago, when the group was founded, unionisation in the games industry was an idea on the fringes. Now, it’s a very different picture – while this article was being written, QA workers at Activision Blizzard announced the beginning of a second union at the company – even if the company’s still fighting it. Across the industry, the fight against a culture of harassment and mistreatment continues – but as many are discovering, it’s not a battle that workers need to fight alone.
We reached out to Ubisoft, Activision and Keyword Studios Edmonton for comment. Ubisoft declined to comment, Activision had not gotten back to us by the time we published, and Keyword Studios Edmonton directed us to this statement, saying it is supportive of unionisation attempts.
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