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How QA workers are driving the video game industry’s union push

Underpaid and undervalued, QA workers at Activision Blizzard and Keywords Studios are pushing for a more equitable industry

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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.

For decades, the North American video game industry has resisted unionization — though workers have long been organizing among themselves, the industry’s first official union didn’t form until late last year. The movement is still young, with three industry unions on the books and others in the works. One group of workers is consistently leading the charge: quality assurance.

Quality assurance, or simply QA, works long hours to play, test, and break games so that players at home never see the hundreds or thousands of bugs that can infest games during their development. Big games like Call of Duty can have more than a thousand people trying to squash bugs, often under serious crunch conditions.

QA workers across the industry often describe their work as undervalued, with low wages and brutal overtime hours. Many work on a contract basis, meaning they have little job security and face challenges in advancing their careers. QA workers say they feel vulnerable and exploited. The video game industry topped $60.4 billion in revenue in 2021, according to the Electronic Software Association, yet some QA workers told Polygon they can’t afford the commute to the office.

Despite this, lots of QA workers are passionate about their jobs and want to progress in the industry. And that’s why they’re trying to change it.

The first video game union wasn’t purely QA or contract workers; that was Beast Breaker developer Vodeo Games’ historic union win in 2021, which encompassed the whole studio. Activision Blizzard QA workers at Raven Software kicked off their union drive next, first breaking ground at a big, corporate video game company. After a long back-and-forth with Activision Blizzard, the group, calling themselves Game Workers Alliance, won their union vote. Dragon Age 4 QA workers at Keywords Studios organized next, solidifying their union with the Alberta Labour Board in June. Now, a third group of QA workers — again with Activision Blizzard — are making a union push under Blizzard Albany, the studio formerly known as Vicarious Visions that worked on Activision’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games. It’s a monumental time for the video game industry, built on years of organizing that came before it. And like in other industries, it’s largely been the most vulnerable workers taking the lead.

“It’s part of the larger labor movement that’s happening,” Keywords Studios QA worker James Russwurm told Polygon. “We have the Starbucks workers who are taking the United States by storm [...] and the same with Amazon workers. Because of the economic pressures, you’re really seeing the workers who are least paid hit the hardest. It’s like we’re trying to find all the bugs in the labor, and make sure we get some fixed.”

Indeed, union election petitions are up by 56%, the National Labor Relations Board reported last week — more election petitions were filed in the first three quarters of 2022 than in 2021 put together. Starbucks, for instance, had zero unionized shops at the start of 2021. Now there are more than 170 stores filing to vote, according to Vox.

At many companies, QA workers have been viewed as expendable and easily replaceable, that there were always new people ready to take their place.

“A lot of studios take advantage of that eagerness,” Russwurm said. “They’re telling you — but not directly — that there are 300 applicants behind you willing to take your position because of the industry we work in, because they’re so passionate.”

QA is also viewed as an entry-level position that requires less experience than, say, an engineer. But QA testers say that’s not really true; it’s a specialized position that touches every aspect of development.

“I like to refer to us as the gatekeepers,” Blizzard Albany QA tester Ryan Claudy told Polygon. “QA signs off on everything before it goes live. We’re the last ones to see it.”

When Call of Duty: Warzone QA testers went on strike in January, that value was apparent: Players complained about rampant bugs during that time, and some QA workers pointed to the strike as the reason.

“When push comes to shove, when QA people band together and stand up, we’re seeing win after win,” Blizzard senior engineer Valentine Powell told Polygon in an interview earlier this year. “Everybody who works in game dev understands the value of QA. We can’t ship our games without them.”

Following Raven Software’s union announcement, Activision Blizzard vowed to convert all its U.S.-based QA workers to full-time jobs with benefits, upping their pay to at least $20 an hour — a significant jump for a group typically paid closer to minimum wage. Organizers believe unions can also benefit these full-time workers, people who’ve secured better benefits they’d like to protect into the future. A union contract for Blizzard Albany workers, for instance, could potentially lock in the increased benefits Activision Blizzard granted QA workers earlier this year, Claudy said, and change other things, too.

Video game industry workers hope the push expands outward into the video game industry as a whole.

“Our efforts here to unionize aren’t just for quality assurance,” Claudy from Blizzard Albany said. “Of course that’s what we’re starting, but it’s not the goal. We would love for the whole studio to unionize. We would love for all of Activision Blizzard to unionize. We want the whole industry, because we want everybody to get better treatment and better wages.”