In recent years, video game developers have often been the subject when talking about labor issues such as workplace abuse, mismanagement, and the controversial use of crunch (sometimes having work weeks of 100 hours) in the video game industry. Now more than ever, developers are pushed to deliver products that are not only unfinished,but riddled with additional methods to pressure players into paying extra money in exchange for digital in game goods. These in-game goods purchases (cosmetics, pre-order bonuses, exclusive content, etc.) benefit only executives and not the developers. Fortunately, the push for unionization has also taken hold within this lucrative industry and workers are banding together to pressure companies into giving them a voice in how they develop, test, and benefit from games.
One of the first strikes was coordinated by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). Voice actors are unique in the industry of actors because they do not earn any residuals (their version of royalties). Many companies like Rockstar Games, Activision, and Electronic Arts make millions of dollars per game they release, yet typically only pay their voice actors a few thousand dollars, some of which become the “face” of a franchise. Game executives have worked hard to discourage requests that those that take part in the work of creating a product reap the benefits.
One of the first major success for developers seeking to unionize the industry was in January of 2022 with the launch of the Game Workers Alliance. The workers in quality assurance at Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard and commonly work on the famous Call of Duty series, sought unionization after several instances of sexual harassment, something that has been rampant at Activision for a number of years. Unionization has been a long battle at Activision-Blizzard given the company’s years of misconduct, policy of using contractors for low pay, and union-busting.
Just this last week on January 3rd, 2023, workers at ZeniMax Studios (now owned by Microsoft since September 2020) announced they had won their union election and become one of the biggest unions currently in the gaming industry at approximately 300 members. Organizing under the Communication Workers of America (CWA), ZeniMax Workers United marks the third successful union election in the past 12 months (Blizzard Albany QA developers would also vote to unionize in late 2022). Unlike Activision/Blizzard’s hostile stance towards any unionization efforts, Microsoft for now has opted to recognize the ZWU and has stated previously that they acknowledge employees have a legal right to form or join a union. Microsoft’s willingness to accept unions, while giving them a positive public image, can also be tied to their attempt to acquire Activision since January 2022. The spotlight is currently on the media giant and were they to act in a way that would dissuade or antagonize the current labor trend, the company’s reputation would most certainly be put at stake.
The tide is turning in the game industry. Developers, after years of long hours and countless sacrifices, have decided to stand up for themselves and band together against the exploitative practices that many of the biggest companies use to their advantage. Year after year, studios record profits and higher bonuses for executives while employing crunch and hiring developers on as contractors instead of employees. It’s time developers, play testers, and other workers of the industry are given a fair contract, reasonable hours, and have their voices heard.