Workplace

Gaming companies never unionize. Call of Duty developers decided to anyway.

Just days after Microsoft announced its plans to acquire Activision Blizzard, the quality assurance devs for Call of Duty became only the second group of U.S.-based video game workers to ever formally organize.

Raven Software Corporation logo of a video game developer

Raven quality assurance employees went on a five-week strike and formed a union following Raven's termination of 12 employees.

Photo Illustration: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The same day Call of Duty quality assurance testers ended a five-week walkout, their managers called them to a meeting. The company, Activision Blizzard’s Raven Software, would be splitting up the remaining 30-plus workers and placing them in different departments, where they could work more closely with other teams responsible for the hugely popular and lucrative Call of Duty: Warzone.

The change came just three days after those same workers announced they had formed a union, called the Game Workers Alliance, with the Communications Workers of America, only the second group of U.S.-based game developers to try to unionize. Activision Blizzard has decided not to voluntarily recognize the GWA following weeks of silence regarding the walkout, which was instigated by Raven terminating the contracts of 12 QA employees. In response, the GWA has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a formal vote for legal recognition, sparking an unprecedented labor campaign in the game industry.

Onah Rongstad, one of the Raven QA testers in the GWA, had been advocating for the restructuring for almost a year, working closely with Raven management on the project. She’s long been in favor of the idea that the restructure, a process the industry refers to as “embedding,” could create room for more career advancement and more specialized work for QA testers. But Raven announced the plan by inviting workers and managers to a meeting just one hour before it took place on the same day they ended their strike — shocking everyone in attendance.

“It was a very confusing Monday,” Rongstad told Protocol. While she still supports the restructure, it felt as if the company was using the idea she had advocated for as a way to undermine the newly formed union, though Activision Blizzard has reiterated in public statements that the move was part of a months-long planned process. “The planning of it and the timing however, makes me a little suspicious,” Rongstad said. “It unfortunately seems to me that the embedding of testers — that plan — was more of a union-busting effort than a genuine effort.”

“We carefully reviewed and considered the CWA initial request last week and tried to find a mutually acceptable solution with the CWA that would have led to an expedited election process. Unfortunately, the parties could not reach an agreement,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson wrote in an email to Protocol. In separate statements, the company has defended the timing of its embedding plan for the QA department and hinted at its intentions to try and force a company-wide vote for unionization, not just one among QA workers. Raven currently employs more than 300 people.

“The most important thing to the company is that each eligible employee has the opportunity to have their voice heard and their individual vote counted, and we think all employees at Raven should have a say in this decision,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said.

The fight for unionization at Raven Software represents a much larger movement within the industry that’s been brewing for the last few years, in tandem with activist movements within Big Tech and amid a nationwide reckoning over workers' rights. The North American video game industry, which comprises roughly a third of the global games market by revenue, is not unionized, save for a single indie studio that formed the region’s first union late last year. This stands in stark contrast to other creative industries like Hollywood, in which large swaths of the production is done by union workers.

In gaming, workers have been left unprotected when, for instance, a game flops, a contract falls through or a project is put on ice or rebooted. Often, employees of game studios bear the financial brunt of mismanagement or the whims of publishers or parent companies, forced to move projects or relocate to other states to take on new employment because of factors outside their control.

These market conditions and workplace norms have created a culture of exploitation in the game industry where unstable contract work, long and brutal hours — known as crunch — and layoffs are routine and expected. And because few game developers have a say over the conditions in which they work, the industry has become a breeding ground for sexual harassment and discrimination. This includes Activision Blizzard and its subsidiaries, according to an explosive and ongoing California lawsuit filed against the publisher last summer that instigated the company’s current labor rights movement.

Raven, which is located in Madison, Wisconsin, had been largely absent from this movement, which took on the name ABK Workers Alliance in the immediate aftermath of the lawsuit. Through the ABK group, workers at subsidiaries like Blizzard Entertainment have organized employee protests, amassed thousands of employee signatures calling for CEO Bobby Kotick to resign and, ultimately, influenced Activision Blizzard’s decision to sell the company to Microsoft earlier this month in a landmark $68.7 billion deal.

But the situation at Raven changed on Dec. 3, when management informed the QA department it would be converting them to full-time employees. Normally, that would be a cause for celebration, considering QA work is overwhelmingly performed on contract. But at the same time, the company said it would not be renewing the contracts of 12 workers, or roughly a third of the department.

“I was one of the first people in there because I have the privilege of having an ‘A’ in my last name,” said Becka Aigner, a former animator who joined Raven as a QA tester in August of 2020. “I was one of the first people to be converted to [full-time] and thought the good news was going to be spread throughout the department.” Aigner said she joined Raven because a friend told her of its sterling reputation for treating QA fairly, paying higher-than-average wages and offering rare career advancement into other roles in the game industry.

After realizing Raven would be cutting 12 members of the team, the QA department convened to decide that the following Monday they would not come into work. “We got together and a lot of it was processing the initial shock of it all. A lot of us are extremely close. We work day to day and often communicate between teams,” Aigner said. “We wanted to give Activision and Raven the opportunity to reflect like we did and see that, you know, we are an essential process,” she added. “We didn’t want to make decisions for them. We wanted them to come to us and communicate and have transparency, like they had always promised us.”

Instead, the company never said a word, despite repeated attempts to communicate with management. “We never got a response at all from Raven management or leadership until we formed the union. That’s the only time we ever got an official email,” Aigner said, noting that the email came not from their managers or the head of the studio, but from Activision Blizzard proper and addressed to the entire staff.

“We gave them the opportunity to have a seat at the negotiation table and maybe open up a dialogue. When we were not given any sort of response or wiggle room, that’s when we decided our best course forward would be a means of solidarity,” Aigner said.

By that point, the ABK Workers Alliance had already partnered with the CWA for legal advice and organizing guidance over the months that followed that California lawsuit. So when Raven abruptly announced it would not be renewing 12 QA tester contracts in December, the remaining workers had CWA to help them protest what they described as layoffs. (Activision Blizzard explained the contract terminations last month by saying it was converting more than 500 employees to full time, while terminating 20 people’s contracts.)

With CWA’s support, the QA testers walked off the job for five weeks and spent that time planning their union, using a GoFundMe set up by the ABK group to help cover living costs. Shortly after the walkout began, Activision Blizzard announced it would stop paying the QA employees after the first three days, and Chief Administrative Officer Brian Bulatao sent a company-wide email to employees asking them to “consider the consequences” of formally signing with CWA.

Deciding to form a union wasn’t contentious for most of the QA testers because they are more than co-workers: They’re each other’s social group outside of work, too, Rongstad said. “We are genuinely close friends. We all hang out outside of work, we spend time together playing board games.”

“Unions have been around for a long time. But software labor and the games industry, the workers in this industry, are still relatively new. It’s exciting for us to kind of tip the domino in that direction for positive change,” Aigner said. “I want to reiterate that this is a growing momentum. Both people in the industry and outside the industry, who work in games and are fans of games, want to see change.”

Since going public Jan. 21, QA testers with the GWA have had conversations about unionization with other Raven departments — but CWA strategists and the Raven testers didn’t think that trying to unionize all of Raven at once would be the best or most successful move.

“It’s our opinion that unions want to represent people who are enthusiastic about being represented. Raven QA has a supermajority of people who are enthusiastic supporters of the union. Once that union is in place, once we can show our colleagues how a union functions in a factual way,” Rongstad said, “we want to be able to facilitate the growth of unions throughout ABK.”

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