2022 was a peak year for labor organization in the games industry, with a wave of successful industrial action at major studios. As labor issues in gaming became more public and widely discussed, industry workers have advocated for collective bargaining and union protection as a key component in the fight against endemic burnout and exploitation, as well as acute managerial abuses such as those documented on Activision Blizzard (opens in new tab)Riot and Ubisoft.
Organizations such as Game Workers Unite emerged in the late 2010s to advocate for labor in the games industry, as criticism of studio crunch culture attracted more attention. Employees of Stockholm-based studio Paradox Interactive successfully joined a union and signed a collective bargaining agreement with the company in 2020, but it was late 2021, leading up to 2022, that things really boiled over, resulting in the first successful union campaigns among major North American developers.
In December 2021, Activision Blizzard laid off 12 quality assurance (game testing) employees at Raven Software, a long-lived FPS studio and co-developer of Call of Duty’s Warzone Battle Royale mode. Raven’s remaining QA personnel walked off the track in protest (opens in new tab)with other Activision Blizzard developers participating. With support from the broader worker advocacy group A Better ABK, the striking workers decided to unite and form the Game Workers Alliance through the Communications Workers of America.
Activision Blizzard proved hostile (opens in new tab) to the new union, refusing to recognize it voluntarily, while claiming that any organizing effort at Raven should include the entire studio. In addition, Activision Blizzard has implemented pay raises for other QA employees across the company, with the exception of Raven.
Both Activision Blizzard and Starbucks (opens in new tab)another multinational seeing unprecedented union activity have used this tactic, but this pattern of pay increases to non-union workers in response to labor actions has drawn conviction (opens in new tab) of the National Labor Relations Board.
The NLRB further ruled that there are enough differences in compensation and type of work done by video game QA departments to warrant unions independent of the rest of a studio, opening the door for a union vote despite Activision Blizzard’s objections. The GWA at Raven won his vote to unite (opens in new tab)and is currently negotiating with Activision Blizzard for its first contract.
The first union at a big budget game developer in North America was soon followed by several, all in QA departments working on major franchises. QA staff at Keywords Studios, a BioWare support studio with staff currently working on the next Dragon Age, voted unanimously to unite in June (opens in new tab). Blizzard Albany, the developer formerly known as Vicarious Visions and a support studio for the upcoming Diablo 4, saw its QA staff unite successfully (opens in new tab) in early December under the same GWA/CWA umbrella as Raven.
These early victories sparked the biggest coup yet in the video game worker organization: the successful unionization of all 300 QA employees of ZeniMax Media (opens in new tab), including Starfield and Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda. In addition to the sheer size of the organized union, the ZeniMax drive was notable for the relative cooperation of parent company Microsoft. Leading up, figures like Xbox head Phil Spencer and Microsoft CVP and general counsel Lisa Tanzi public statements issued (opens in new tab) affirming the right of Microsoft employees to organize and the company’s willingness to recognize labor unions.
Microsoft continued this rhetoric in its dealings with ZeniMax Workers United, and CWA president Chris Shelton stated that Microsoft’s actions “should serve as a model for the industry and a blueprint for regulators.” The stark contrast to Activision Blizzard’s belligerence is especially notable given Microsoft’s impending $68.7 billion acquisition of the Call of Duty and World of Warcraft publisher.
That acquisition and its success could have a major impact on the labor movement in gaming in 2023. This wave of studio unions first emerged in opposition to Activision Blizzard management, with the company’s opposition to labor organization spurring its employees , but also significantly hindered the unionization process. A milder Activision Blizzard moderated by Microsoft could provide a more conducive environment for future studios to organize themselves in.
Even if the merger doesn’t go through, it’s hard to see this momentum as a glitch game industry for companies to fix. A major test coming up is the union action at the amusingly named Spellbreak developer Proletariat (opens in new tab)which was acquired by Activision Blizzard in 2022. The Proletariat Workers Alliance (another great name) is the first instance in this current wave of unionization of multiple departments, not just quality assurance, participating in the effort.
It also remains to be seen what kind of contracts can be won from successful unionized workplaces, and whether similar moves can permeate other publishers like Ubisoft and EA.