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How the video game industry can unionize in the wake of Activision Blizzard

Concrete steps workers can take today

A stylize graphic of six fists raised in solidarity. One holds a pencil, another a mouse, still another a video game controller. Image: CWA

On July 28, hundreds of employees at Activision Blizzard staged a walkout to demand better working conditions for women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ workers.

The walkout came one week after the state of California sued the corporation, alleging sexual harassment and discrimination on the job. The lawsuit details are damning: Former Blizzard game director Alex Afrasiabi allegedly harassed multiple women at the company’s annual BlizzCon event. Senior male management also hung out in a hotel room that many named the “Cosby suite” after alleged — and later convicted — rapist Bill Cosby. Women frequently faced an overwhelming frat boy culture, including “cube crawls” where inebriated men would roam the office harassing women and making sexual advances.

Although significant, the #ActiBlizzWalkout story isn’t an anomaly. The walkout was a response to disturbing working conditions in the gaming industry at large — including, but certainly not limited to, ableist, racist, and sexist cultural practices; pay inequity; exploitative contract employment practices; and development crunch.

In recent years, we’ve seen unprecedented organization among game workers to fight back against these conditions. At Quantic Dream, the French game studio, workers have spoken out for years against a deeply rooted sexist culture. In 2019, over 150 workers walked out of League of Legends developer Riot’s Los Angeles office to protest forced arbitration and the endemic sexist culture. In 2020, we in the Communication Workers of America’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees had the privilege of organizing with the predominantly BIPOC, queer, and women contract game writers at Lovestruck to win the first successful strike in the history of our industry. Workers at game development companies have discovered that their power lies in taking collective action against their bosses, and have utilized their collective strength to challenge the power dynamics and inequities in their workplace. Our industry’s systemic problems require systemic solutions: unions.

Orc statue in front of Blizzard office Image: Activision Blizzard

Despite the increasing frequency of the word in games industry circles, it’s worth hammering home exactly what a union is, and how it works. Because, in 2021, unionization is more necessary than ever before. It can empower workers and prevent the erosion of labor laws that allows companies like Activision to run amok without any consequences.

A union provides a floor of economic security for workers who face systemic oppression (BIPOC, queer people, and women, in particular). A union allows workers to level the playing field and rebalance the inequitable power dynamic where executives have unilateral power over our work and our lives. A union can result in better pay, better working conditions, and better healthcare.

We constantly talk on Twitter, at game industry conferences, and in private Discords about the numerous instances of sexism and racism in our industry, but we rarely talk about the actual systemic foundations that enable the rampant exploitation and abuse of low-income and marginalized workers. Game industry bosses and managers might call their employees “family” and throw them a pizza party once in a while, but they will fight tooth and claw against workers who want any semblance of agency and democracy in their work lives. In a gross display of this willingness to union-bust, one needs look no further than Activision Blizzard hiring “union avoidance” law-firm WilmerHale to supposedly investigate the company’s culture immediately after the lawsuit.

A union can address the deep and essential connection between economic rights and social justice. The reality is that when marginalized game workers experience inequality, harassment, or abuse they do not always have the same degree of economic safety and independence to push back, as do their more privileged counterparts.

If non-men and racialized folks face pay inequity with their male counterparts of the same title and experience, transparent union pay scales — which are established through collective bargaining, and then published publicly as part of an eventual contract — can level the playing field. If a queer worker wants to speak out against homophobia and transphobia in the workplace or in our games, “just cause” protections can be established in a union contract to help ensure they won’t be fired, unless the company can demonstrate economic need or a history of poor work performance.

Ultimately, a union allows workers to have economic autonomy and the ability to speak out about their work conditions without their bosses retaliating against them. It provides a form of protection for workers in precarious situations during deeply uncertain times.

Union organizing also has a property unique to any form of activism: by its very nature, it requires bridging the divides in our workplace and our working class to succeed. Union organizing teaches us that regardless of our personal issues, and regardless of our personal background, we all benefit from supporting one another. Whether you are a white man wanting to win better crediting practices or you are a queer developer of color seeking to end racist pay inequities, we all stand a better chance when we stand together in union.

Flyers for a local chapter of Game Workers Unite in Montreal, September 2018.
Game Workers Unite on Twitter

We often hear game workers saying they can’t wait to have a union that can fix their problems. Well, here’s the thing: no one is coming to save us. We, the workers, must step up and save ourselves. We have to stop running from company to company, always searching for greener pastures. Millions of workers before us have organized their unions and taken back their agency. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

There is no doubt that the #ActiBlizzWalkout left a mark on the gaming industry. It is because of those workers that Activision Blizzard could become a model gaming studio where workers actually have agency over their work. This moment has inspired others in the industry and is one more spark to fuel our movement for game worker power towards that bigger national vision we all share.

Organize where you are. Stop, plant your feet, and grow deep roots into the workplaces and communities you are already in. There will never be a magical national union that instantly appears to solve our problems — we must start by organizing our studio, our publisher, our company. We have to get a couple, first, tiny handholds of worker power in our industry, and from there, we can build a truly national and international movement, from the bottom up.

Here are concrete steps you can take to start creating those handholds today:

If you’re a game worker wanting to organize your workplace:

  • Contact me and the CODE-CWA organizers here
  • Attend organizer training here

If you’re a fan who wants game developers to have a better quality of life inside and outside the workplace:

  • Educate yourself and your community about worker rights
  • Don’t default to calling for boycotts every time workers speak up
  • Follow the workers’ lead and center their agency

If you think you’re a pro-union boss, as Tim Schafer, Jeff Strain, Tanya Short, or Asher Vollmer say they are:

  • Put pen to paper and commit in writing to respecting your employees’ freedom of association by signing a union card check neutrality agreement

Emma Kinema is a former game developer and current Campaign Lead for the Communications Workers of America’s CODE-CWA initiative, which is organizing tech and game workers through the Alphabet Workers Union, Voltage game writer strike, Change.org union, NPR Digital Media United, Glitch Union, Mobilize Union, Blue State Union, and more.