Jessica Gonzalez can still sometimes hear the eerie theme music of one of the Call of Duty video games in her mind. She joked that the soundtrack would replay in her subconscious as she got older.
Throughout the mid-2010s, Ms. Gonzalez spent months grueling, 14-hour overnight shifts at Activision Blizzard’s Los Angeles office as a QA tester, handling games Play the video game developer’s shooter about glitches while trying to stay sane.
“It’s really exhausting, because you feel like you’re pouring from an empty cup,” said Ms Gonzalez, 29.
Ms. Gonzalez and other QA testers are “crunching”, a term in the video game industry that refers to the long stressful work hours before a game is released. Staff members are typically worked shifts of up to 12 to 14 hours a day, with only one or two days off per month, all in order to meet player title deadlines.
Discontent about working conditions at video game companies has been growing for years, fueled by anger over the crisis Ms. Gonzalez went through, as well as low wages, temporary contracts and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Now, some game staff are considering merging, which was unthinkable just a few years ago. Their concerns are also fueled in part by low unemployment, which leads workers to believe they have more leverage over their employersas well as a last year’s lawsuit that pushed Activision’s issues of sexual misconduct and sexism into the open.
About 20 quality assurance employees at Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision, will vote on whether to merge on Monday. If successful, Raven workers will form the Game Workers Union, the first union at a major North American video game publisher. Although it’s a small group, it will be a symbolic victory for organizers who think those in the gaming industry are ready for unions.
“That will be the spark that ignites the rest of the company,” said Gonzalez, founder of ABetterABK, the Activision workers’ activist group that pushed the company to improve its culture after the lawsuit last July. of the industry. . Ms. Gonzalez left Activision last year and now works at American Communications Company, the union that helped Raven organize.
Activision, which has about 10,000 employees around the world, challenged whether QA staff could unite without all 230 employees at Raven participating. Kelvin Liu, a spokesman for the company, said that they think “everyone in our studio should have a say in this important decision.”
People who work in the gaming industry often hear from people outside the industry that conditions can’t be this bad because they’re making money playing games. But for Blake Lotter, another former Activision QA employee who worked on the development of Call of Duty: Cold War in 2020, clicking through the game for up to 14 hours straight while drinking increased water. The effort to stay awake had paralyzed the mind.
“You can really like food, any type of food, but if you just eat the same food for a few months to a year in a row, you start to hate it,” he says. “It would be like a job or a punishment.” (Mr. Liu said the company is creating a “flexible workplace culture where our teams can balance their work with their individual needs.”)
In other countries, such as Australia and the UK, it is normal for game employees to become unionized. But in North America, unions have yet to catch up with game studios.
But in 2018, a group of game developers formed an organization called Game worker Unite, which creates local chapters to encourage coalition efforts in different cities. The following year, dozens of workers at Riot Games took to the streets to protest the company’s handling of lawsuits alleging it had a sexist and toxic culture. The female employees later won $100 million in a sex discrimination settlement. Major game studios like Ubisoft have faced lawsuits and workplaces by activists demanding improvements.
Workers at a small studio called Vodeo Games formed the first North American game union in December. Outside of that month’s Game Awards in Los Angeles, a voyeuristic performance by executives, developers, and industry celebritiesA handful of pickers have caught the eye of a rapidly growing labor group, the Game Workers of Southern California.
In April, contract workers at BioWare, a Canadian development studio, said they would form a union. At the same time, an employee at Nintendo filed a lawsuit against the company with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Nintendo of firing them because they “joined or supported a labor organization.”
News foster new attention before Nintendo’s treatment of its employees, especially QA staff, who are often on temporary contracts and are relegated to the bottom of the totem pole at development studios, making many feel like second class citizens.
In a statement, Nintendo said the employee had been fired for disclosing confidential information and that the company was “fully committed to providing a friendly and supportive work environment”.
It all makes for an environment in which game staff are more willing to speak out about perceived injustices and more curious about collective organizing than ever before, especially as they watch labor campaigns. at companies like Amazon, Apple and Starbucks.
“I would consider this one of the real experiments where game staff are exploring options,” said Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at Western University in Ontario who studies game labor. their choice in a way that seems quite open. industry.
Professor Weststar attributes part of the interest in game activism to campaigns led by unions such as the CWA, which have seen the gaming industry as a “massive market”. , untapped”. She said Monday’s vote was “low left” for union activism, as it is affecting a small group of temporary workers who are most likely to want to organize.
Professor Weststar said: “There’s a lot more to it when a studio is bigger with a more permanent and stable workforce, when they actually merge.
Monday’s vote comes months after employees at Raven, the Wisconsin studio that helped develop Activision’s flagship Call of Duty game, quit in protest after the company terminated about a dozen contracts. of Raven QA workers, which the workers considered abrupt and unfair. After workers announced their intention to merge in JanuaryActivision, being acquired by Microsoft for 70 billion USDsaid it would not voluntarily recognize the group.
Shortly after, the company said it would disperse QA staff in various departments at the Raven studio. It also says that it will convert more than 1,000 temporary QA contractors at Activision move into full-time status and give them a raise, to $20 an hour and more benefits. Activision said union workers would not be affected, as federal labor law prevented them from enticing workers to vote against the union by raising wages or benefits before the election. (CWA refutes this claim.)
Activision also argued with the NLRB that since Raven QA employees were spread across the studio, they were no longer the bargaining unit and all Raven studio employees must be eligible to vote. The Board of Directors has denied those claims and ask workers to mail their ballots, which will be counted on Monday. If the majority is in favor, the workers will unite, pending opposition during the voting process.
Workers at Activision and elsewhere will be watching closely. They say they are seeing benefits – like a raise in wages – putting pressure on their employers to improve.
Jiji Saari, an employee of Activision QA in Minneapolis, said: “Those things only happened because of how hard we worked and how much pressure was on the upper management. “We know we can’t be complacent or lose too much breath.”