Jessica Gonzalez can sometimes still hear the weird theme music from one of the Call of Duty video games in her mind. She jokes that the soundtrack will play on repeat in her subconscious as she gets older.
In the mid-2010s, Ms. Gonzalez spent months working grueling 14-hour night shifts at Activision Blizzard’s Los Angeles offices as a quality assurance tester, painting the game developer’s shooter. video to detect problems while trying to stay awake.
“It’s dystopian,” said Ms. Gonzalez, 29. “It’s really exhausting sometimes, because you feel like you’re pouring out of an empty cup.”
Ms. Gonzalez and other QA testers were “cracking,” a term in the video game industry for prolonged periods of intense work before a game’s release. Employees often receive shifts of up to ‘at 12-14 hours a day, with only one or two days off a month, all in the name of meeting a deadline to ship the title to players.
Dissatisfaction with working conditions at video game companies has been growing steadily for years, fueled by anger over the difficult times Ms Gonzalez has been through, as well as low pay, temporary contracts and sexual harassment at the workplace. work.
Now, some gaming workers are considering unionizing, which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Their interest has also been fueled in part by low unemployment rates, which have led workers to believe they have more leverage over their employers, as well as a lawsuit last year that exposed the issues. of Activision regarding sexual misconduct and gender discrimination.
About 20 quality assurance employees at Raven Software, an Activision subsidiary, will vote Monday on whether to unionize. If successful, Raven workers would form the Game Workers Alliance, the first union for a major North American video game publisher. Although a small group, it would be a symbolic victory for organizers who believe gaming industry workers are ready for unions.
“That will be the spark that ignites the rest of the industry, I believe,” said Gonzalez, who formed ABetterABK, the activist group of Activision employees who lobbied for the company to improve its culture. after the trial last July. . Ms. Gonzalez left Activision last year and now works for the Communications Workers of America, the union that helped Raven organize.
Activision, which has about 10,000 employees worldwide, asked if QA workers could unionize without all 230 Raven employees participating. Kelvin Liu, a spokesperson for the company, said she believes “everyone in our studio should have a say in this important decision.”
Game industry workers often hear from those outside the industry that conditions can’t be that bad because they make money playing games. But for Blake Lotter, another former Activision QA employee, who cracked during the development of Call of Duty: Cold War in 2020, clicking the game for up to 14 hours straight while drinking energy drinks to stay alert was mind-numbing.
“You might really like food, any kind of food, but if you only eat the same food for months or even a year, you’ll start to hate it,” he said. “It’s going to feel like work or punishment.” (Mr. Liu said the company is creating a “flexible work culture where our teams are able to balance their work with their personal needs.”)
In other countries, such as Australia and the UK, it is common for gaming workers to be unionized. But in North America, unions have not yet taken hold among game studios.
But in 2018, a group of game developers formed an organization called Game Workers Unite, which created local chapters to encourage organizing efforts in various cities. The following year, dozens of Riot Games workers came out to protest the company’s handling of lawsuits accusing it of having a sexist and toxic culture. The employees went on to win $100 million in a gender discrimination settlement. Major game studios like Ubisoft have faced lawsuits and activist workplaces demanding improvements.
Workers at a small studio called Vodeo Games formed North America’s first gaming union in December. Outside of the Game Awards that month in Los Angeles, a glitzy spectacle of industry executives, developers and celebrities, a handful of picketers drew attention to a rapidly growing group of workers, the Game Workers. of Southern California.
In April, contract workers at BioWare, a Canadian development studio, said they would form a union. Around the same time, a Nintendo employee filed a complaint against the company with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Nintendo of firing them for “joining or supporting a labor organization”.
The news has sparked renewed attention on Nintendo’s treatment of its employees, especially quality assurance workers, who are often on temporary contracts and relegated to the bottom of the totem pole in development studios, which makes many feel like second-class citizens.
In a statement, Nintendo said the employee was terminated for leaking confidential information and that the company was “fully committed to providing a welcoming and supportive work environment.”
All of this creates an environment in which gaming employees are more willing to speak out against perceived injustices and more curious than ever about collective organizing, especially as they watch labor campaigns at companies like Amazon, Apple and Starbucks. .
“I would define this time as real experimentation, where game workers are exploring their options in a way that seems to be quite open-minded,” said Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario who studies work. in the game. industry.
Professor Weststar attributed some of the interest in gaming activism to campaigns by unions like CWA, which found the gaming industry to be a “massive, untapped market”. Monday’s vote is “low hanging fruit” for union activity, she said, as it affects a small group of temporary workers who are most likely to want to unionize.
“It will be more telling or more formative when a bigger studio with a more permanent and more stable workforce, when they actually unionize,” Professor Weststar said.
Monday’s vote comes months after employees at Raven, the Wisconsin studio that helps develop Activision’s flagship Call of Duty game, walked off the job in protest after the company ended a dozen Raven QA employee contracts, which the workers said was brutal and unfair. . After workers announced their intention to unionize in January, Activision, which is being acquired by Microsoft for $70 billion, said it would not voluntarily recognize the group.
Shortly after, the company said it would disperse QA officers to various departments within the Raven studio. He also said he would convert more than 1,000 temporary QA contractors at Activision to full-time status and give them a raise, to $20 an hour, and more benefits. Activision said unionized workers would not be affected because federal labor laws prevent them from influencing workers to vote against a union by raising wages or benefits before an election. (CWA rejected this claim.)
Activision also argued to the NLRB that because Raven QA workers had been distributed throughout the studio, they were no longer a bargaining unit, and all Raven studio workers should have the right to vote. The council rejected those claims and told workers to mail in their ballots, which will be counted on Monday. If a majority is in favour, workers will unionize, pending objections to the voting process.
Workers at Activision and elsewhere will be watching closely. Already, they say, they see the benefits — like pay rises — of pressuring their employer to improve.
“These things only happened because of how hard we pushed and the pressure on upper management,” said Jiji Saari, an Activision QA employee in Minneapolis. “We know we can’t be complacent or lose too much steam.”