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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The video game industry is closer to unionization than ever before

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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On Dec. 9, crowds gathered for the annual Game Awards, a glitzy, Oscars-like, red-carpet event in Los Angeles, complete with orchestral performances and games industry executives donning suits and heels. As the luminaries of the gaming world filed inside, several workers stood outside the entrances, holding up signs calling for Activision Blizzard to rehire 12 contractors it had laid off the prior week. That same day, an independent games studio was gearing up to announce it would become the first unionized gaming company in North America.

That contrast — between the flash of an awards ceremony and the toil of those working in the industry — is emblematic of the position the games industry finds itself in now: While video game companies rake in billions of dollars, their workers complain of unfair labor practices, long hours, sexual harassment and workplace misconduct. Video game companies in North America have never successfully unionized. That changed Dec. 15, when a union at the indie developer Vodeo Games was recognized by management.

“There’s been a lot of groundwork that’s been happening in the game industry over the last few years in terms of raising awareness about unions,” Vodeo designer Carolyn Jong said. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect workplace. There’s always going to be issues and there’s always a power imbalance between management and workers. … A big part of improving the bar, which is currently somewhere near the floor for the gaming industry as a whole, [is] unionization and workers organizing collectively.”

Vodeo’s unionization comes as one of the world’s biggest gaming companies, Activision Blizzard, faces multiple lawsuits and government investigations over its workplace culture and allegations of sexual misconduct and discrimination. In response, Activision Blizzard employees have called for the CEO to resign, went on strikes and are circulating union authorization cards in an effort to organize. Activision Blizzard did not respond to a request for comment.

“Vodeo has broken the ice on smaller studios. There are definitely folks at smaller studios that are realizing that unions are not just for triple A studios. They are for any size of studio,” Brian, a worker organizer in the Southern California games industry who declined to provide his last name for fear of retaliation, said on a Zoom call with The Washington Post a week after the Game Awards. He and four other game workers stood outside the Game Awards in a hastily assembled protest meant to draw attention to Activision Blizzard workers’ ongoing strike.

Vodeo has about 13 employee across the United States and Canada managed solely by independent game developer Asher Vollmer, who founded the studio earlier this year. So far they’ve released just one game, “Beast Breaker,” which employees at the studio say is about solidarity and organizing to tackle big issues. The new union, Vodeo Workers United, is working with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a major media labor union that is also helping Activision Blizzard workers and their attempts to reach collective bargaining.

“The unionization at Vodeo Games shows the wide range of workers who are considering the benefit of having a collective voice in negotiations about employment conditions, such as wages, health insurance, paid leave and workplace safety,” said Risa L. Lieberwitz, labor and employment law professor at Cornell University.

Activision Blizzard lawsuit has video game workers using union tactics — but not unionizing

In the past, game workers would avoid speaking out publicly against their employer, as it could tarnish their reputation within the industry and make it difficult to find future jobs. But after decades of major gaming companies expecting employees to work 80- or 90-hour workweeks, and of workers fearing retaliation from management, Vodeo employees told The Post that the tide was changing.

“For Americans, at least generally, a lot of people aren’t familiar with unions,” Vodeo game director Chris Floyd said. “Myself, a couple years ago, I didn’t know much about how this works. I think that’s probably still true for a lot of folks in video games and outside video games. And so we’re starting to get educated.”

What’s happening in the games industry at Activision Blizzard and Vodeo is unprecedented. No single gaming company like Activision Blizzard has dominated the headlines with lawsuit after lawsuit for months before, topped off with an explosive Wall Street Journal report in November that claimed CEO Bobby Kotick did not inform the company’s board of directors for years about sexual misconduct allegations. A petition calling for Kotick’s resignation that was circulated among employees netted over 1,850 signatures.

Game industry workers have fought back before to some extent. In 2006, Electronic Arts settled a class action lawsuit by paying workers $14.9 million for overtime wages they were owed. And in Europe, where labor laws are generally stronger and unions are more prevalent, the Solidaires Informatique trade union for French workers in 2019 legally challenged Activision Blizzard’s plan to lay off 134 workers in its Versailles studio, delaying the layoffs for a year.

The CWA has worked with Activision Blizzard employees to organize a strike fund and get union cards signed so the company’s employees can vote on creating a union. So far, Activision Blizzard workers have raised over $340,000 in funds for those who cannot afford to stop work and lose wages. Workers are still collecting signatures.

Activision Blizzard tells employees organizing strike fund that company can improve culture without a union

At least several dozen Activision Blizzard workers across the company are in the midst of their third work stoppage following a California state agency lawsuit that alleged widespread sexual harassment and misconduct at the company. The strike is on its third week as workers demand that management rehire 12 contractors from Call of Duty developer Raven Software and promote all Raven quality assurance testers to full-time status. Some in-person demonstrations have taken place at the quality assurance office in Austin.

Activision Blizzard management responded to employees in a Dec. 10 email that ongoing work toward improving company culture would be best achieved without a union. Chief Administrative Officer Brian Bulatao sent the companywide email, saying: “We ask only that you take time to consider the consequences of your signature on the binding legal document presented to you by the CWA.”

The company has not responded to workers’ specific walkout demands as its studios head into the holidays.

“[Activision Blizzard] management could follow Vodeo Games founder and game co-director Asher Vollmer’s lead,” CWA organizing director Tom Smith said, referring to the positive reception on social media to the news that Vollmer had recognized the Vodeo union. “It’s a choice: Do you want the sitting secretary of labor tweeting praise while copy pasting the company’s PR statement, or do you want to read news of another government agency complaint, investigation [or] lawsuit?”

Activision Blizzard and Vodeo workers told The Post that they were drawing inspiration from each group’s efforts to advocate for a better workplace.

“One of the reasons that we were inspired to work with CWA is we know that they’ve been working with other folks in the game industry and in tech, so having access to that broader network is actually really great. And hopefully it can be a two-way process,” said Vodeo’s Jong. “Us learning from them, and them learning from us.”

Why is the games industry so burdened with crunch? It starts with labor laws.

Activision Blizzard’s tumultuous battle with lawsuits, government investigations and worker protests has Wall Street analysts downgrading their rating of its stock. Unionization would further lower the company’s market value, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.

“If they were to succeed [in unionizing], the company would have to determine whether to recognize the union or to bust it,” Pachter said. “If only the hourly workers chose unionization, Activision could decide whether it is cheaper to recognize them or to export their jobs to a nonunion locale.”

That possibility looms large for workers in the industry.

“I do fear for my job,” said Aubrey Ryan, a contractor working for Blizzard. “Even if I’m fired, I have been part of a movement that is going to change the games industry. I might not benefit, but future people like me will.”

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