Changing the game in gaming

Jessica Gonzalez, a campaign organizer with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), has experienced firsthand the working conditions of the video game industry employees she is helping organize.

Before making her official exit last year, Gonzalez spent nearly a decade in the gaming industry, more than half of that time with Activision Blizzard.

She started her career at the now-embattled company, known for games including World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, as a quality assurance (QA) tester in 2015. After leaving to work at indie gaming company Boundless Entertainment for a couple years, she returned to Activision Blizzard as a full-time test analyst, but says that QA testers were treated as “second-class citizens,” separated from developers, with conditions that bred burnout.

“Our leadership is just constantly failing us, and it’s been a theme since I joined the company. And sadly, it’s everywhere — it’s not just Activision Blizzard,” Gonzalez said in a recent interview with The Hill.

“The games industry, I think notoriously, they exploit passion rather than nurture passion, and that causes people to get super burned out,” she added.

Gonzalez resigned from her role at Activision in December after playing an active role in organizing within the company. In a resignation message she posted on LinkedIn, she said she was leaving to put her “wellbeing first.”

“There are good people in the industry, and I believe with enough education and awareness ABK can be a great place to be. There’s a lot of work to do still and I am mentally wounded from this fight. It’s been a long and exhausting road for change, but it isn’t over,” she wrote.

A spokesperson for the company said it is categorically untrue that QA testers are separated from developers in the workplace, adding that in fact, the company’s model has QA testers work alongside development groups and encourages teams to interact and work more closely together.

After leaving, Gonzalez worked part-time at CWA while also employed at a financial technology firm. In March, she moved to full-time work at CWA, where she’s helping to organize workers at Activision Blizzard and across the gaming industry.

Momentum to organize at Activision Blizzard gained steam over the past year, following a pair of high-profile lawsuits against the company.

A California Department of Fair Employment and Housing complaint filed last July kicked off a string of labor action, including walkouts Gonzalez was a part of. The suit alleges that the company fostered a “frat boy” culture that subjected women to sexual harassment and lower pay. The case is ongoing, and Activision Blizzard has denied the allegations.

The U.S. Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had a separate case against the company over sexual harassment. The company settled the federal case in March for $18 million.

Gonzalez is appealing the EEOC settlement, calling the $18 million a “slap in the face.” 

Not only is the settlement too low, she said, but under the agreements of the deal, anyone who chooses to be part of the EEOC settlement will waive their rights to be part of the California suit.

Following the California lawsuit, Gonzalez helped create the “A Better ABK” Twitter page, which operates as “the voice of the workers, and not management,” she said.

The group is active — and planning another walkout on July 21, with demands focusing on external threats, such as the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe. v. Wade, as well as internal ones, including relations and harassment in the workplace.

The company has made a number of changes over the past year, following the lawsuits, aimed at improving workplace conditions, including high-level leadership personnel changes.

In October, the company announced a new zero-tolerance harassment policy and released a pay equity review of 2020 that found men who performed comparable work earned “essentially the same amount of compensation” as women.

Gonzalez said some of the key changes for Activision workers have been secured through organizing.

“The company is co-opting all the action changes that we have won [through the] organizing campaign. All of the changes that have been made were won because we’ve organized, and we’ve had a clear vision, and we’ve gained enough support from the public,” she said.

A company spokesperson said Activision had been making a specific and concerted effort to improve what was offered for temporary employees before formal employee organizing efforts.

One crucial change Gonzalez said organizers helped secure was converting all temporary and contingent QA team members to full-time employment status. The change allowed the workers to get benefits and eliminated a system Gonzalez said let the company continue “dangling a carrot” of full-time work in front of contracted workers.

“This is amazing to see because it just shows that collective action works. We actively expressed why contracting is super problematic, why it’s the perfect formula for abuse, why people are struggling — and ultimately the product suffers because of it. So it was great to see them all they converted over to full time,” she said.

Another change secured paid holiday time for QA testers during the two-week period where studios close in the winter, she said. QA testers before went without pay during the holiday weeks.

Organizers hit a key milestone in May, when a group of QA testers at Raven Software, an Activision subsidiary based in Wisconsin, voted to unionize, the first gaming worker union at a large U.S. company.

Activision itself may soon be under the umbrella of Microsoft, which is seeking to acquire it in a deal valued at nearly $70 billion, subject to regulatory approval.

That change may bode well for organizers. Microsoft pledged not to interfere with efforts by Activision employees to form a union in a neutrality agreement with the CWA last month.

Gonzalez said Microsoft’s agreement is a “huge benefit,” and CWA President Christopher Shelton sent a letter last month to the Federal Trade Commission saying the union supports Microsoft’s bid because of the agreement.

Gonzalez said she is hopeful the building momentum will propel more unions industrywide.

“These types of working environments breed cultures of harassment, stepping all over each other — it’s almost like a rat race to get to the top. So I am hoping this is a monumental time in game development history where [people] are just realizing, ‘Hey, yes, we love working on games, but we should also work ethically and safely,’ ” she said, adding that better working conditions will also produce higher-quality games.

“Often it’s just a revolving door of talent, and it’s why you’re not getting huge blockbuster games right now, because people are just getting so used to [getting] chewed up and spit out in this industry. And I think that developers that are paid better are going to perform better,” she said. “And I hope that we can change it.”

Tags Activision Blizzard Business Communications Workers of America CWA Industry Policy Union

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