Is the video game labor movement finally at a turning point? In recent years, workers in the largely unorganized American industry have become increasingly vocal about workplace issues, ranging from gender discrimination to unpaid overtime and labor practices. mandatory arbitration, with walkouts at Activision Blizzard (Call of Duty) and Riot Games (League of Legends) on company issues, and worker groups at Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft (Assassin’s Creed) publicly pressuring leaders to make changes.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, labor giant Communications Workers of America (CWA) publicly launched the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA) while the IATSE quietly stepped up its Rights & Protections for Gameworkers movement ( RPG-IATSE), both seeking to make a union breakthrough in the company.
And, at the end of 2021, the independent studio Vodeo Games (Beast Breeze) voluntarily recognized a group of workers, which became the first certified union in a video game studio in North America. In January, quality assurance (QA) workers at Raven Software, owned by Activision Blizzard, took the first steps to form a union.
These early union breakthroughs have come as the industry is in a period of sudden consolidation – deals such as Take-Two Interactive acquire Zynga for $12.7 billion, Microsoft buy Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion and the Sony’s $3.6 billion purchase of Bungie was all announced this month. year — which some union rights advocates see as a threat to their efforts.
The labor movement has “gained very serious momentum since about 2018 under the banner of unionization, in particular,” says Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario who studies video game labor and believes that the global organizing campaign is “on the edge of the precipice”. .” Adds Sean Kane, co-president of the interactive entertainment group at law firm Frankfurt Kurnit (in general and not on particular clients), “I personally know enough people in the industry who try to [unionize] that I think we’ll see it come to fruition in the not-too-distant future.
With video game organizers already facing a steep learning curve and large workplaces presenting challenges for accumulating leverage, many are expressing a mixture of hope and caution as major employers are getting stronger.
“If you look at labor history both globally and specifically in the context of the United States, there are defining moments,” says CWA senior director for the organization, Tom Smith, whose the union is behind Vodeo Games and Raven QA worker groups: “I don’t know if we are on the cusp of one of those moments, but when I see the activism, energy and commitment of a number more and more workers, they certainly act as they could be.
Publicized Vodeo and Raven QA labor groups have galvanized several labor campaigns, says Stephen, an organizer with the Game Workers of Southern California; the volunteer worker rights group works with the CWA and it says it has also worked with SAG-AFTRA, which negotiates on behalf of voiceover and performance capture performers in video games. (Stephen, who works in the industry, asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisal.) His group has seen the number of applications triple since the organization of these two companies went public and is working on ” many more campaigns than a few months ago, he adds.
Jessica Gonzalez, a former senior testing analyst at Blizzard Entertainment who co-founded the ABK Workers Alliance, a group of outspoken workers at Activision Blizzard, says the country’s larger labor movement during the pandemic has helped the momentum. “Wages are low and inflation is high, and it makes economic sense that places are looking to unionize right now.
Western University’s Weststar notes that the Vodeo and Raven QA worker groups are “unique, not super generalizable test cases” when it comes to the industry as a whole. Yet, she adds, “they help change the narrative of what is possible and what is likely. So I think they’re still important for that reason: you have to start somewhere, and sometimes starting small is easier.
Of course, as the labor movement starts small, some of the most influential companies in the industry grow bigger. The CWA called on the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to “seriously review” the planned Microsoft-Activision Blizzard deal for potentially damaging effects to consumers and workers. (An Activision Blizzard spokesperson said in a statement: “The gaming industry is incredibly diverse, with new studios and publishers regularly entering the space. Dynamic global competition brings the best games to gamers and offers opportunities to talent.”)
In December, the Writers Guild of America West – whose members can write under contract for video games – produced a report criticizing several recent and separate entertainment media mega-mergers for their “anti-competitive effects” while adding that after the merger , these conglomerates can “control terms in labor markets. (WGA West declined to comment for this story.) The CWA’s Smith says the deals raise the prospect of “monopsony power,” when “you have fewer and fewer buyers of labor operate in a labor market.
Some industry organizers say recent acquisitions don’t affect their approach. The Raven QA task force was made public just three days after the Activision-Microsoft deal was unveiled on January 18. she thinks it could have positive or negative effects on working conditions and the games themselves. But overall, she thinks “the organizing effort will be the same regardless of which company is ultimately in charge.”
IATSE communications director Jonas Loeb, whose syndicate RPG initiative has been in the works for a long time but intensified following the 2019 Game Developers Conference, which featured several labor-themed events, stated that a high turnover rate complicates the organization of campaigns that are in progress for a significant period of time. “But I don’t think [a merger] changes the overall approach, i.e. you need to build a critical mass of people who want to come together and make things better with a written, codified contract that they can vote on and decide what to vote for as a group he says.
In February, Santa Monica-based Activision Blizzard, led by CEO Bobby Kotick, argued in a multi-day National Labor Relations Board hearing that the bargaining unit proposed by Raven QA workers, where there is a “supermajority” in favor of the union, according to CWA, should add 230 positions to the existing 32 positions. This could have the effect of diluting support for the union. The NLRB must now rule on the bargaining unit before a union election can be held. (An Activision Blizzard spokesperson says, “We believe every eligible employee deserves to have their vote counted.”)
Organizers remain silent on particular groups of workers who could then be made public with a union organizing drive. Still, a wider range of workers organize at Activision Blizzard than those in the Raven QA department; independent studios and other AAA studios are also actively working on campaigns. As some recent editions have highlighted workplace issues in the industry, the upcoming Game Developers Conference (March 21-25), the first to be held in person since the 2019 event, could be an indicator of how this year might unfold in the labor movement.
Gonzalez, who remains an organizer despite no longer working in video games, said, “I feel like people across the industry are watching, and I hope that creates a positive effect. training and that we can see more video games.[-type] unions. When asked if she learns from these precedents, she adds: “It’s hard, isn’t it? I always tell people in our organizing group that no one has really done anything like this before, so we’re all kind of learning on the fly.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.