On Dec. 9, crowds gathered for the annual Game Awards, a glitzy, Oscars-like, red-carpet event in Los Angeles, complete with orchestral performances and games industry executives donning suits and heels.
As the luminaries of the gaming world filed inside, several workers stood outside the entrances, holding up signs calling for Activision Blizzard to rehire 12 contractors laid off the prior week. That same day, an independent games studio was gearing up to announce it would become the first unionized gaming company in North America.
That contrast — between the flash of an awards ceremony and the toil of those working in the industry — is emblematic of the position the games industry finds itself in now: While video game companies rake in billions of dollars, their workers complain of unfair labor practices, long hours, sexual harassment and workplace misconduct. Video game companies in North America have never successfully unionized. That changed Dec. 16, when a union at the indie developer Vodeo Games was recognized by management.
“There’s been a lot of groundwork that’s been happening in the game industry over the last few years in terms of raising awareness about unions,” Vodeo designer Carolyn Jong said. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect workplace. “
Vodeo’s unionization comes as one of the world’s biggest gaming companies, Activision Blizzard, faces multiple lawsuits and government investigations over its workplace culture and allegations of sexual misconduct and discrimination. In response, Activision Blizzard employees have called for the CEO to resign, launched strikes and are circulating union authorization cards in an effort to organize. Activision Blizzard did not respond to a request for comment.
Vodeo has about 13 employee across the United States and Canada managed solely by independent game developer Asher Vollmer. The new union, Vodeo Workers United, is working with the Communications Workers of America, a major media labor union that is also working with Activision Blizzard workers.
In the past, game workers would avoid speaking out publicly against their employer, as it could tarnish their reputation within the industry and make it difficult to find future jobs. But after decades of major gaming companies expecting employees to work 80- or 90-hour workweeks, and of workers fearing retaliation from management, Vodeo employees told The Post that the tide was changing.
“For Americans, at least generally, a lot of people aren’t familiar with unions,” Vodeo game director Chris Floyd said. “Myself, a couple years ago, I didn’t know much about how this works. I think that’s probably still true for a lot of folks in video games and outside video games. And so we’re starting to get educated.”
What’s happening in the games industry at Activision Blizzard and Vodeo is unprecedented. No single gaming company like Activision Blizzard has dominated the headlines with lawsuit after lawsuit for months before, topped off with an explosive Wall Street Journal report in November that claimed CEO Bobby Kotick did not inform the company’s board of directors for years about sexual misconduct allegations. A petition calling for Kotick’s resignation that was circulated among employees netted over 1,850 signatures.
Game industry workers have fought back before to some extent. In 2006, Electronic Arts settled a class-action lawsuit by paying workers $14.9 million for overtime wages they were owed. And in Europe, the Solidaires Informatique trade union for French workers in 2019 challenged Activision Blizzard’s plan to lay off 134 workers in its Versailles studio, delaying the layoffs for a year.
The CWA has worked with Activision Blizzard employees to organize a strike fund and get union cards signed so the company’s employees can vote on creating a union. So far, Activision Blizzard workers have raised over $340,000 in funds for those who cannot afford to stop work and lose wages. Workers are still collecting signatures.
At least several dozen Activision Blizzard workers across the company are in the midst of their third work stoppage after a California state agency lawsuit that alleged widespread sexual harassment and misconduct at the company. The strike is on its third week as workers demand that management rehire 12 contractors from Call of Duty developer Raven Software and promote all Raven quality assurance testers to full-time status. Some in-person demonstrations have taken place at the quality assurance office in Austin, Texas.
Activision Blizzard management responded to employees in a Dec. 10 email that ongoing work toward improving company culture would be best achieved without a union. Chief Administrative Officer Brian Bulatao sent the companywide email, saying: “We ask only that you take time to consider the consequences of your signature on the binding legal document presented to you by the CWA.”
The company has not responded to workers’ specific walkout demands as its studios head into the holidays.
Activision Blizzard’s tumultuous battle with lawsuits, government investigations and worker protests has Wall Street analysts downgrading their rating of its stock. Unionization would further lower the company’s market value, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.
“If they were to succeed (in unionizing), the company would have to determine whether to recognize the union or to bust it,” Pachter said. “If only the hourly workers chose unionization, Activision could decide whether it is cheaper to recognize them or to export their jobs to a nonunion locale.”
That possibility looms large for workers in the industry.
“I do fear for my job,” said Aubrey Ryan, a contractor working for Blizzard. “Even if I’m fired, I have been part of a movement that is going to change the games industry. I might not benefit, but future people like me will.”