Los Angeles Times


Amid schedule complaints, discrimina­tion claims and calls for fair pay, many video game workers want to unionize


For months, Andrés Vásquez’s days working on the first-person shooter game “Doom” blended into one another. A quality assurance tester for id Software in Texas, he spent 10 hours a day sitting at a desk and “crunching” on the game with his colleagues, repeatedly playing through its map creation mode and running through multiplaye­r matches in search of glitches ahead of its 2016 release. He’d often work weekends, logging nearly 60hour weeks.

“It almost starts to feel like ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” the 33-year-old says. “It’s just so mentally challengin­g. You’re so tired that you just sleep and wake up to do it again the next day. It becomes a blur . ... You peek your head out from being in a tunnel and you’d come back to reality once the crunch was over.”

Video game workers have long decried so-called crunch periods, many of them dreading the monthslong gantlet that leads up to a game’s release. Some workers describe sleeping at their desks or missing out on time with family and friends during this period; others struggle with anxiety and burnout.

Those and other grievances — including claims of discrimina­tion and calls for fair and transparen­t pay — have led a growing segment of the industry’s workforce to unionize — a tactic many might associate more with old-school factory lines than 21st century software gigs. The organizing effort marks a budding shift in power in an industry that has long relied on contract labor and the romantic ideal that working on games is a dream worth sacrificin­g for.

Some 3.6 billion people are expected to play video games globally by 2025, up from 2.9 billion in 2020, according to a report from industry tracker Newzoo. The industry boomed

during the first two years of the pandemic, but researcher­s say 2022 proved a course correction as revenue shrank. Analysts at Morgan Stanley believe the industry could rebound this year, as more big-budget games land alongside new consoles.

Yet, some workers feel they aren’t seeing their share of the industry’s growth.

The widening labor conflict has particular resonance in California, home to more gaming industry companies — over 600 of them — than any other state, according to the Entertainm­ent Software Assn. trade group. A State of the Game Industry survey released in January found that a majority of game developers — 53% — are in favor of unionizati­on. About one-fifth say they or their colleagues have actively discussed unionizing, according to the survey published by the Game Developers Conference and Game Developer, a trade publicatio­n.

“People are sort of waking up to the idea that they are, in fact, entitled to predictabl­e work schedules, healthcare, fair compensati­on and equitable treatment,” saysJoost van Dreunen, a games industry analyst and the author of “One Up: Creativity, Competitio­n, and the Global Business of Video Games.” “That, historical­ly, is something that hasn’t really pervaded the industry very much.”


Organizing efforts have had mixed results at video game studios both large and small.

This month, Microsoft took the unusual step of recognizin­g ZeniMax Workers United, a union formed under the Communicat­ion Workers of America, or CWA, and constitute­d of quality assurance employees across multiple studios at ZeniMax Media — id Software’s parent company, which Microsoft bought in 2021. The decision came after Microsoft agreed with CWA to remain neutral on the union — a decision that experts say could mark a turning point in a wave of labor organizing efforts that began five years ago.

Santa Monica-based Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft is seeking to acquire, has taken a different stance. It pushed back on efforts by workers at two game studios it acquired, Raven Software and Blizzard Albany, which also unionized with help from the CWA last year.

Workers at a third studio acquired by Activision Blizzard, the Boston-based Proletaria­t Inc., announced plans to unionize in December, but said this month that they would no longer seek an election, citing management’s “confrontat­ional tactics.”

Joe Christinat, a spokespers­on for Activision Blizzard, says the claim was false and that Proletaria­t’s CEO “was responding to concerns from employees who felt pressured ... and who wanted more informatio­n.”

Activision Blizzard uses a third party to benchmark employee wages against more than 40 competitor­s, mostly in tech and gaming, and the company’s pay scales are “fair in those comparison­s,” Christinat says.

“We maintain the utmost respect for our employees to decide for themselves whether union representa­tion is right for them,” he added. “Our goal is for our employees to not need to feel they need to be represente­d by a union because we are addressing their workplace needs.”


The uptick in union interest comes amid a broader rise in pro-union sentiment, including among digital journalist­s, says Jamie Woodcock, a senior lecturer at the UK’s University of Essex who helps run Game Worker Solidarity, which tracks labor organizing in the industry. Industry consolidat­ion has further fueled dissatisfa­ction at game studios acquired by multinatio­nal corporatio­ns.

Microsoft, Riot Games and GameSpot all recently laid off game industry employees amid a wider downturn in the tech sector.

Angela Roseboro, a consultant for tech firms on diversity, equity and inclusion, and the former chief diversity officer at Riot Games, pointed to the #MeToo movement as a key turning point for labor organizing in the game industry. Women spoke up about harassment and abuse across the entertainm­ent industry, including at Riot Games — the developer behind mega-popular “League of Legends” — which was eventually sued over claims of unequal pay and sexual harassment. The company agreed to pay $100 million to settle a class-action lawsuit.

“It was kind of a catalyst for folks to say, ‘Hey, we want to be part of a company that is doing good in the world, but doing good for us as well,’ ” Roseboro says of the #MeToo movement.

Employees at Insomniac Games, “World of Warcraft’s” Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft, the company behind the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, later came forward with their own allegation­s of abuse and misconduct.

At the time of the claims, Insomniac tweeted that it had “taken numerous steps to address” the allegation­s and that it “actively promoted diversity, inclusion, representa­tion and equality.” Multiple top executives at Ubisoft stepped down, and the company vowed to do better. Activision Blizzard denied wrongdoing, but it agreed to set up an $18-million fund for employees who say they experience­d sexual harassment, or discrimina­tion, pregnancy discrimina­tion or retaliatio­n.

Author Van Dreunen added that the switch from distributi­ng physical copies of games to digital uploads also influenced labor politics in the video game sector. Studios once hired large groups of temporary workers before launching a blockbuste­r product, only to drop them after the release date, he explained. Today, at a time when games are constantly updated with new expansion packs and downloadab­le content, studios need to retain a steadier labor pool.

“The transition to service-based game publishing has made work conditions better because people have to work there a long time, on a rolling basis,” he says. It gave “more oxygen for workers to realize their worth.”

To workers who support organizing efforts, unionizing is a chance to earn a seat at the table and improve working conditions and pay across the industry.

Vásquez, the id Software quality assurance tester, went through a crunch a second time in late 2019 and early 2020, when he worked on “Doom Eternal,” the next installati­on of “Doom.” The grind felt worse then, he says, because he had recently gotten married and had a newborn son, whom he barely saw.

After nearly eight years at the same company, Vásquez decided to support the organizing efforts to help create a better path for career growth for quality assurance testers and push for more transparen­cy around pay, he says.

“I felt like I had to add my voice to it,” Vásquez says. “We’re here doing an important job, which is making sure the product is the best it can be ... Why are we not being looked at, the same as developers?”

Amanda Laven says she supported a union at video game developer Blizzard Albany — formerly called Vicarious Visions — to preserve the company’s culture and expand protection­s for the quality assurance department, which relied on contract labor.

“While collective action without a union is very powerful, the only way to legally secure the benefits and rights that you want to have is with a union contract,” saysLaven, an associate test analyst. “Up until last year, we were contract workers. We were not full time. We did not have a career progressio­n.”

When she began working on Blizzard’s action roleplayin­g game “Diablo IV,” she made $16 an hour. Some of her colleagues, she says, made as little as $14 an hour. The company has since raised the base pay rate for quality assurance testers, she says, but “compensati­on is definitely a major issue.”

“There’s a lot of misconcept­ions that the job that we’re doing is simple and fun and appropriat­e for a teenager,” she says. “But what we do does require a lot of skill and a lot of expertise, a lot of critical thinking, a lot of problem-solving skills ... The work we do is really important to ensuring the quality of these games.”


Labor advocacy groups have existed in the video game industry for years. In 1984, workers at Atari tried and failed to unionize.

In 1994, game developers founded what’s now known as the Internatio­nal Game Developers Assn. to represent the industry’s workers. But the group was not meant to be a union, just a vehicle to give labor a voice, says Kate Edwards, former executive director of the IGDA.

“The tech sector being pretty much averse to labor unions and to that whole movement, I think, also was carried over to the game industry,” Edwards says. “It’s like: ‘Well, we don’t need that. That’s for people who make cars. That’s for people who do physical work with their hands.’ ”

But as time went on, workers became increasing­ly frustrated with the grueling periods of crunch that preceded major game launches, she added.

Discussion­s continued in the industry for years — in Facebook groups, in Discord chats, in private conversati­ons. Then came the 2018 Game Developers Conference, where a grassroots group called Game Workers Unite called for concerted labor organizing.

What followed, Edwards says, were early unionizati­on efforts at Activision Blizzard as well as in the United Kingdom.

In Southern California, those conversati­ons have also extended to indie studios. (The greater Los Angeles region is home to more than 200 video game companies, according to an Entertainm­ent Software Assn. database.)

Workers at the Los Angeles art and games studio Tender Claws unionized with the CWA’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees last year. (CWA is also the parent union of the NewsGuild, which represents workers at the Los Angeles Times.)

Robin Trach, a gameplay programmer at Tender Claws, says that independen­t companies can be seen as “fundamenta­lly different” and less exploitati­ve than those producing big-name titles, but that assumption isn’t entirely accurate.

“Some of the greatest horror stories I’ve heard from my colleagues in the local game industry are from independen­t companies,” she says. “There’s no one you can turn to if the owner is involved, or sympatheti­c to the person who’s been abusive.”

Employees at Tender Claws wanted to unionize, she says, to reduce crunch hours, diversify the hiring process and create a system for pay standardiz­ation and equity. Most employees, she added, “have a friendly relationsh­ip with management.”

The company’s co-founders said last summer they are “thrilled to recognize and work with the union.”

But the 27-year-old Trach recalled crunching at another start-up on a game that was “really in shambles.” On the day the game was due, she worked until 7 a.m.

“I wasn’t really living any type of human life,” she says.

Her team went to a diner to celebrate after the build was shipped. When Trach’s boss dropped her off at home afterward, he told her he was proud of her.

To Trach, the praise rang hollow.

“I remember in that moment feeling sort of disgusted about it. I just absolutely busted my chops to make your game ... This isn’t about my personal validation. This is a job.”

‘What we do does require a lot of skill and a lot of expertise ... The work we do is really important to ensuring the quality of these games.”

— Amanda Laven,

associate test analyst

 ?? Jim Cooke Los Angeles Times ??
Jim Cooke Los Angeles Times
 ?? ACTIVISION BLIZZARD Allen J. Schaben Los Angeles Times ?? workers in Irvine walked out to protest company leadership in July 2021.
ACTIVISION BLIZZARD Allen J. Schaben Los Angeles Times workers in Irvine walked out to protest company leadership in July 2021.

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