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Activision Blizzard to reorganize Raven QA workers amid union efforts

Raven Software QA workers announced a union last week

raven software logo on a black background Image: Raven Software
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Days after Raven Software QA workers announced their intention to unionize with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), Activision notified workers Monday that it was reorganizing the department. The company announced the news to staff the day Raven QA workers returned to work after a weeks-long strike.

“In November, we began the process to convert our temporary employees to [full-time employment] status,” Raven Software studio head Brian Raffel said in an email to staff. “Now, I’m excited to share that our QA colleagues will embed directly within various teams across the studio, including Animation, Art, Design, Audio, Production and Engineering.” In the email, Raffel said the “move to embed our QA team” has been in the works for “several months.”

An Activision Publishing spokesperson confirmed to Polygon that the studio was transiting its QA workers to “embed” with different departments. The statement, in full, reads:

Today, Raven Software shared an organizational update that continues the work the studio began in November which will transition Quality Assurance teams to work directly alongside Animation, Art, Design, Audio, Production and Engineering teams within Raven. This change will enhance the collaborative work our teams do to support our games and players and make the opportunities for our talented QA staff even stronger.

This is the next step in a process that has been carefully considered and in the works for some time, and this structure brings Raven into alignment with the best practices of other prominent Activision studios. It is also a milestone in our broader plan to integrate QA more into the development process as our teams strive to deliver best in class coordination in real-time, live service operations.

Though an embedded QA model is reportedly consistent across other Activision Blizzard studios, CWA organizing director Tom Smith called the move “nothing more than a tactic to thwart Raven QA workers who are exercising their right to organize.” Smith is also urging the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to look into the Microsoft merger announced last week, which will move Activision Blizzard under Microsoft Gaming.

“When Management uses meaningless buzzwords like ‘alignment, ‘synergy,’ and ‘reorganization,’ they are sending a message to workers: ‘we make all the decisions, we have all the power,’” he said. “Workers organize to have a voice at work to rectify these power imbalances. This is why big tech mergers that could increase and further concentrate corporate power, like Microsoft’s proposed Activision Blizzard acquisition, deserve real oversight. This scrutiny is even more important when a company like Activision Blizzard impedes its workers from exercising rights that are protected under U.S. law.”

Activision Blizzard has not responded to Polygon’s question regarding how this may impact the union, but the spokesperson offered further details about the work structure.

“It’s accurate to say that Raven QA analysts will work directly within various departments, essentially side-by-side with those department employees, on the same platforms, and under departmental supervision,” the spokesperson said. “They will also receive day-to-day assignments from these departments. There will still be a QA manager, who will still be responsible for broader work assignments and overall career growth, in conjunction with departmental supervision.”

Embedded QA teams are a relatively new standard within the video game industry and Activision. In practice, it means that QA assurance workers are not partitioned off on their own, removed from the day-to-day practices of game development. Activision Blizzard QA workers told Polygon in August that they often felt siloed off from the rest of development, and, in extreme cases, were asked not to talk to developers. Embedding QA removes those barriers and makes the department part of a larger team.

“For lack of a better term, it really helps to humanize the QA process because they’re truly a part of the team,” one QA tester told Polygon. “They’re in meetings, they’re providing feedback, they’re constantly talking to the devs they directly work with every day, they’re not just siloed off waiting for the next thing to check.”

They continued: “In my personal opinion Embedded QA is one of the most important things in development and can really make or break a game, so the fact that they’ve been working on a franchise this large without it is kind of ass backwards honestly.”

Other industry professionals from across both triple A and indie studios expressed similar views on social media in response to Raven Software’s reorganization news.

The problem for Raven Software’s QA workers is tied to how that will impact their status and classification as workers. Raven Software’s union, Game Workers Alliance, is currently awaiting a response from Activision Blizzard regarding whether the company plans to voluntarily recognize the union. If the company chooses not to, the QA workers will go to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a vote. Part of that process — outside of voluntary recognition — means the NLRB will decide whether a group of workers can be classified as a union.

A Raven Software QA worker told Polygon the group is still trying to understand how this impacts unionization at the company.

Update (Jan. 25): Activision Blizzard announced Tuesday that it will not voluntarily recognize Raven Software’s union. The company’s full statement is as follows:

At Activision Blizzard, we deeply respect the rights of all employees to make their own decisions about whether or not to join a union. 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.

We expect that the union will be moving forward with the filing of a petition to the NLRB for an election. If filed, the company will respond formally to that petition promptly. 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.

Across the company, we believe that a direct relationship between managers and team members allows us to quickly respond and deliver the strongest results and opportunities for employees. As a result of these direct relationships, we’ve made a number of changes over the past couple years including raising minimum compensation for Raven QA employees by 41%, extending paid time off, expanding access to medical benefits for employees and their significant others, and transitioning more than 60% of temporary Raven QA staff into full-time employees. We look forward to continuing a direct dialogue with our team and working together to make our workplace better.

The company has not issued a statement regarding how the reorganization may impact unionization efforts.

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