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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Why 2021 Was the Biggest Year for the Labor Movement in Games

Marked by walkouts, strikes, petitions, and open letters, 2021 has been the biggest year yet for workers in the US video game industry taking a stand against labor conditions. Over the last year, a vocal contingent of video game workers has warned employers that they won’t tolerate subpar labor conditions just to fulfill their childhood dream of making video games.

“In my experience, it actually isn't suffering that drives people to take the risk and organize,” says Tom Smith, senior director of organizing for the Communications Workers of America, the country's largest communications and media union. “It’s hope. I think this is a moment in history in which both things are out there.” On December 15, CWA helped form the US’ first video game union at 13-person indie studio Vodeo Games—just two months after facilitating tabletop game publisher Paizo’s unionization effort.

Labor conditions in the games industry have been under scrutiny for nearly two decades. In the early 2000s, whistleblowers called attention to crunch, the practice of pulling 60- to 80-hour weeks ahead of game launches—a labor tactic that continues to this day. More recently, allegations of sexism and unequal treatment at top studios have roiled the industry. In 2018, current and former employees of League of Legends publisher Riot Games alleged that the company fostered a sexist “bro culture.” At Ubisoft, in 2020 several employees alleged that the company was steeped in sexism and that executives and HR failed to adequately handle complaints of misconduct. And in 2021, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Activision Blizzard, alleging rampant sexism and a “pervasive frat boy workplace culture.” (At the time, Activision executive Frances Townsend described these allegations as painting a “distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually incorrect and out-of-context stories.” In a statement to WIRED for this story, Activision spokesperson Kelvin Liu says, “There is no place at Activision Blizzard, or anywhere, for discrimination, harassment, or unequal treatment of any kind. We appreciate the courage of our current and former employees in coming forward with their experiences, as they serve as a reason and reminder for why we need to do better.”)

Onlookers assumed Riot Games would be the first company to coordinate a union-like initiative after the outcry in 2018. In fact, 150 Riot Games employees organized the games industry’s first labor-related walkout in May 2019. This protest also took aim at a clause in their contract compelling employees into arbitration in lieu of taking complaints of sexism before a judge and jury. “If you’d asked me in 2018,” says one current Riot employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, “I thought we'd have a union by now, too.”

Instead, smaller grassroots initiatives have manifested internally at the company. Current Riot employees tell WIRED that some workers who led the company’s initial organization efforts burnt out. Others felt satisfied by the steps Riot took after the 2018 controversy, like overhauling hiring and promotion practices and removing certain problem employees. “Our leadership team has been willing to listen and engage with the difficult conversations and make changes,” one Riot employee says. “That takes a lot of the pressure out of unionization because things never reach a boiling point.”

Says another, “Riot has done an OK job satisfying people's concerns … While not perfect, [they] seem to have been enough that people do not feel the need to go through the difficulties of organizing to get more.” Also, the employee adds, “The pandemic is crazy and sapped a lot of energy or motivation to organize.”

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Despite the bold efforts of activist games workers, gaining leverage over multimillion-dollar companies’ decisions remains an uphill battle. Some reasons are logistical. While Paizo and Vodeo Games employ just a couple dozen employees, Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard employ 10,000 and 18,000 workers, respectively. These employees comprise a huge variety of disciplines—from artists to engineers—in offices located around the world.

There are emotional reasons, too, like the fear of stepping out of line in an industry where a lot of workers feel replaceable. Employees often hold onto stable, well-paid jobs knowing that there are hundreds or thousands of passionate gamers who would gladly work more hours for less money. Layoffs are common. In a 2021 survey by the International Game Developers Association, full-time employees reported that they’d had an average of 2.1 jobs over the last five years; for freelancers, it was 4.2 jobs.​ And because the games industry attracts people who have been enamored of games their whole lives, employees at these companies can feel indebted to the company that hired them and fear retribution.

“Folks have an intrinsic sense that [organizing] isn’t something studio executives want, by and large,” says CWA’s Smith. “I think that’s where a lot of the reticence comes from.” In the US, only 6.3 percent of private-sector workers are unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and in tech-related industries, that rate is significantly lower. CWA’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees, or CODE-CWA, has worked with employees at Google parent company Alphabet, Glitch, and other tech companies. Unions are almost nonexistent in the US games industry.

But in the last few years, organization has become a topic of great interest among some games workers after so many public controversies around overwork, layoffs, sexism, and abuse. Fifty-four percent of game developers would be in favor of unionizing, according to a 2020 poll of 4,000 games workers by the Game Developers Conference. That’s up from 47 percent in 2019. John Ehresmann, a senior quality assurance tester on World of Warcraft, said he never saw the value in unions until he spent more time in the games industry. At a previous job, when managers whittled his team down from 100 quality assurance testers to five, he said he felt “lucky.” “If you don’t want to feel guilty, you have to tell yourself you earned it.” His perspective changed when he moved to Activision Blizzard and heard allegations of pay disparity and unequal advancement opportunities—plus residual fears of layoffs. He says he “just started to kind of realize that so long as the employees don't have a unified voice, we don't have a chance.”

Vodeo Games’ union formed because the workers “care so much about the work they do, and they want more of a say over how it’s done,” Vodeo producer Myriame Lachapelle told Polygon, but Paizo’s came after scandal. Paizo’s union formed in the wake of public controversy over the company’s reportedly exploitative labor practices, like overwork, an over-reliance on contingent workers, and low pay. Of 77 employees, a supermajority voted to unionize soon after. Andrew White, Paizo’s front-end engineering lead and a 10-year games industry veteran, says the industry’s volatility convinced him that unionizing could benefit his life.

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“There should be a lot more of a social safety net than there is,” he says. “And the fact, that under at-will employment, anybody can be fired at any time, no matter how good a job they're doing, no matter how vital they are to the operation of the company, no matter how long they've been with the company, no matter how spotless their service record is—that's not good for people, that's not good for the company, and it's not good for the people that have to pick up the slack when that person is gone.” (In the US, most employment is at-will; the games industry is the norm.)

Paizo voluntarily recognized the union, which Paizo’s vice president of marketing and licensing, Jim Butler, says was “the right thing to do.” “No one felt that union-busting tactics would be representative of what Paizo stands for,” Butler says. “Several members of management have family members that were in unions, and there was a general feeling of unions being a force for good that we wanted to embrace.”

In lieu of formal unions at larger companies, ad-hoc organizing groups have formed this year at Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft. The ABK (Activision Blizzard King) Workers Alliance and A Better Ubisoft have published open letters and petitions calling for change. This year, the ABK Workers Alliance has organized two walkouts to protest alleged sexism at Activision Blizzard and CEO Bobby Kotick’s continued leadership. A third walkout occurred in early December, when over 200 Activision Blizzard King employees joined 60 employees at Activision-owned Raven Software in walking out for multiple days to protest the layoff of 12 quality assurance testers. The ABK Workers Alliance launched a work stoppage and strike fund that accepted over $200,000 in its first day. That same day, the ABK Workers Alliance passed out union cards. Asked about Activision’s views on the impact of the internal labor movement on business, Activision spokesperson Kelvin Liu says, “We could not be more thankful for our workforce, who are the true lifeblood of the company … Their resilience is nothing short of inspiring, and they’ve done a phenomenal job all year long. Throughout this journey, employee input has been instrumental in helping our new management team develop new reforms and enhance a new culture for everyone at Activision Blizzard.”

It is challenging to gauge the prevalence and power of employee support for these efforts. One-fifth of Activision Blizzard employees signed a petition calling for the removal of Kotick. When it comes to making the labor movement exciting to games workers, Jessica Gonzalez, a former Activision employee who is helping lead the company’s organization efforts, says “misinformation and keepers of the status quo make it difficult. There are a lot of people that benefit from the system in place, and those people hold positions of power. When you want to change things to be better for everyone, the ones that were already benefiting see that as oppression.”

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The status of Activision’s union push is unclear. On December 10, Activision executive Brian Bulatao sent an email to employees warning them to “consider the consequences of your signature on the binding legal document presented to you by CWA.” Bulatao went on to say that a healthy work environment is more achievable “through active, transparent dialogue between leaders and employees.” Asked how Activision responds to public criticism that the message constituted union-busting, a representative told WIRED that “Activision Blizzard management believes in, and has clearly stated many times, the right of employees to decide whether or not to support or vote for a union. Any claims that leadership is attempting to ‘union bust’ are simply untrue. We will not retaliate against union supporters because they support or vote for a union.”

Organization efforts are on the rise at top game companies, while unionization remains slow. In the coming years, it’s possible activists’ efforts will make unionization more palatable to employees who are simply happy to work at the company making their favorite games. Across the US, the pandemic has energized the labor movement, pushing workers to fight for better and more stable conditions.“I still think Riot may organize more formally in the future,” says one Riot employee, “but it would take more unresolved pain than the company is currently experiencing. I'd like to see unionization occur without pain being a requirement first, but I don't know if that's a realistic dream.”


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