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Will Activision Blizzard workers unionize? Microsoft's deal complicates things

Raven Software helps develop the popular <em>Call of Duty</em> franchise for Activision Blizzard. Recently, workers there staged a weeks-long walkout to protest layoffs.
Courtesy of Activision
Raven Software helps develop the popular Call of Duty franchise for Activision Blizzard. Recently, workers there staged a weeks-long walkout to protest layoffs.

Whispers about unionization in the video game industry go back at least a decade. Go back to LiveJournal (LiveJournal!), and read one of the earliest and most infamous accounts of working conditions at a large video game company — a 2004 post written by the spouse of an Electronic Arts (EA) employee — and you'll find in the comments a healthy debate about whether or not a union would work at a video game company.

Despite the furor and conversation that piece kicked off, the industry has largely been resistant to unionization.

Then came the announcement — quality assurance testers at Raven Software, owned by gaming behemoth Activision Blizzard, announced in January they'd be working with the Communication Workers of America and forming a union. (Many of NPR's broadcast technicians are also represented by the CWA.)

But Activision Blizzard declined to voluntarily recognize that union. "We carefully reviewed and considered the CWA's initial request and tried to find a mutually acceptable solution with the CWA that would have led to an expedited election process," read a statement from Raven Software studio head Brian Raffel. "Unfortunately, the parties could not reach an agreement."

Now the Raven workers are now filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for an election. The NLRB just started their hearings on the case. But it could take weeks — to months, even — to hear if voting will even be allowed.

The move is coming at a turning point for Activision Blizzard. In January Microsoft announced it would buy the company for a whopping $68.7 billion. Meanwhile,the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is suing Activision Blizzard, alleging years of harassment and abuse towards women in their workforce.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is also investigating the company over its workplace issues. And CEO Bobby Kotick has continuously come under fire for allegedly knowing about incidences of sexual misconduct at the company and not informing the company's board about them.

While the industry remains resistant to unions, the landscape has changed significantly since the years of the LiveJournal post by EA Spouse. And the workers at Activision Blizzard are in a unique position to possibly pull it off.

Anger at leadership has been festering for years

"There's been a lot of things happening with the company on a corporate level that just doesn't sit right with a lot of us," says Erin Hall, QA tester at Raven. She and her fellow QA testers at Raven recently ended a weeks-long walkout protesting layoffs. But loud discontent at Activision Blizzard the company goes back years.

In 2019, the company banned the e-sports player Blitzchung — whose real name is Ng Wai Chung — after he made a statement supporting the then-burgeoning Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. The public backlash was immense, and a small group of workers protested.

"I just remember leadership was so quiet. That they didn't tell us anything. We were in the dark," said Jessica Gonzalez, a former senior test analyst at Blizzard Entertainment, another Activision Blizzard subsidiary. She says that when Blitzchung was banned, employees were harassed by angry customers, "and leadership was nowhere to be found."

Frustrations with leadership grew after the 2021 lawsuit from the California Department of Fair and Employment and Housing, which alleged rampant pay discrimination based on gender, and sexual harassment. The lawsuit detailed one incident where an employee who was harassed at the company died by suicide at a company trip, "due to a sexual relationship that she had been having with her male supervisor."

"It's so infuriating that her story ended that way," says Gonzalez. "That could have been me. And that could have been any of the people I had talked to that were dealing with those similar issues."

Gaming's relative youth as an industry presents challenges

"Workers at large companies have a very difficult time achieving collective bargaining status," says Thomas Kochan, who studies work and employment research at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Activision Blizzard has the same tools at its fingertips to fight unionization as other big companies, such as captive audience speeches.

But one of the toughest challenges the QA workers at Raven face is defining themselves as a unit of workers. Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer at the Communications Workers of America, says a supermajority of the QA workers say they want to form a bargaining unit.

If Activision Blizzard can argue to the National Labor Relations Board that the union should include all game developers across the company, then that severely dilutes the votes of the QA workers.

And Raven Software recently reorganized, so its QA workers now work directly alongside separate departments — Animation, Art, Design, Audio, Production, and Engineering. According to a statement from Raffel, this reshuffle has been in the works since early 2021.

So the QA workers must now identify themselves as workers with a separate skill set from the larger group of employees. Which will be a high hurdle for the QA workers to clear, says Kochan. Usually, there are professional credentials or apprenticeship programs that help define craft separation.

"The National Labor Relations Board tends to honor those traditions because that's the way people get trained," says Kochan. "That tradition hasn't been developed yet in the larger gaming industry, so it's sort of virgin territory to decide: Are we going to think about all gaming workers as part of the same profession? Or are there these professional craft distinctions that should be honored?"

Also hanging overhead the push for unionization is Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard, which could make things even more complicated. Should it go through, then the Raven QA testers "have an even more giant management ladder to climb to gain recognition," Kochan explains.

There's been a growing industry-wide openness to embrace organizing — if not unions

In October 2021, workers at the small role-playing game company Paizo formed a union — a first for tabletop games. Then in December, the union at the small independent video game company Vodeo was voluntarily recognized, becoming the first union in video games in North America. U.S. This is a hopeful trend for people working to unionize video games, but Activision Blizzard is neither small nor independent. And as such, workers there have taken alternate routes towards organizing.

Jessica Gonzalez left the company late last year — but not before helping form the ABK Worker's Alliance, an organizing group within the company meant to help draw attention to worker concerns. Similar groups have risen up across the tech industry, says Kochan, such as the Alphabet Workers Union, which doesn't have collective bargaining rights.

"So they start small and they try to build support among workers through social media," he says, as well as making customers aware of their concerns. "Those are limited sources of power, but there are steps towards broader mobilization."

When it comes to traditional unions, and all the powers they afford, QA testers at Raven have the will do join one. But the odds are stacked against them: According to a recent survey of game developers, 55% surveyed said that the video game industry should unionize.

But that number drops to 18% when it comes to the question of will the video game industry unionize. And all eyes in the industry are on the QA workers at Raven to see if they can shift that number.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.