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Ex-Dragon Age testers picket BioWare office as others fight for severance

‘The hope with our actions is [to] convince Keywords to reinstate those they terminated with new work’

A shadowy figure sits on a ledge drinking from a goblet while a city burns. Image: BioWare
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.

Ex-Keywords Studios QA testers, who worked on Dragon Age: Dreadwolf, will picket in front of BioWare’s Edmonton office on Tuesday. BioWare attempted to block the picket with an appeal to the Alberta Labour Relations Board, according to industry publication Game Developer, but the board ruled in the union’s favor. “The hope with our actions is [to] convince Keywords to reinstate those they terminated with new work,” former Keywords tester James Russwurm told Polygon.

The rally will begin at 2 p.m. EST on Nov. 7 outside the BioWare office in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada. The QA testers were laid off from Keywords Studios in September after BioWare declined to renew its contract with the company. Though the QA workers were employed by Keywords Studios, they were contracted out to BioWare to work on Dragon Age: Dreadwolf. Without the Dragon Age: Dreadwolf contract, Keywords said there was no work elsewhere for the testers. The workers, who were unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union, Local No. 401, were in negotiations with Keywords Studios when they were laid off.

BioWare attempted to block the picket, claiming that it was not an appropriate location for the rally — the company claimed that the Edmonton office was not the QA workers’ workplace because they worked from home. The Alberta Labour Relations Board ruled in favor of the union, however, as the Keywords testers worked alongside BioWare staff, even if it was just remotely. The picket can’t interrupt access to the building, which houses several offices besides BioWare’s.

A BioWare representative called the picket “misguided,” claiming that the Edmonton office was not a place of work for the group. Here’s BioWare’s full statement:

We hope that Keywords and the Union are able to resolve their differences but ultimately Bioware has no role in that process. It is our view that any activities targeting our offices are misguided as Bioware is not involved in any way in the negotiations and Epcor Tower has never been a place of employment for Keywords employees.

Nov. 7 is known as N7 Day in the Mass Effect and BioWare community, a reference to a military designation in the popular Mass Effect franchise. Another group of laid-off workers, previously employed by BioWare, have started up a hashtag — #N7SeveranceDay — for fans to use for support. Roughly 50 BioWare employees were laid off in August; seven of those 50 employees are suing the company for better severance pay. R. Alex Kennedy, a lawyer representing the group of employees, told Polygon that BioWare has refused to negotiate; the case will move to the Canadian courts. A full trial, with witness testimony, could take years, he said.

These layoffs are separate from the layoffs at Keywords Studios, but Russwurm said the two groups stand in solidarity with each other.

“We are 100% there in solidarity with those workers who were let go from BioWare,” he said. “I believe they have an N7 day announcement that coincides with our strike day and we’ll likely see some of them at the picket line showing support for us. We all worked alongside one another for years on Dreadwolf and ultimately suffered the same fate. We hope that our picket and actions can show that there is a way to fight back against unjust practices these studios take.”

Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from a BioWare representative.