Workers at Blizzard Albany want to democratize their workplace, seeking improved work-life balance, fair compensation, and improved benefits, as well as open communication between employees and Activision Blizzard King.
To get there, quality assurance (QA) testers at Blizzard’s studio in Albany announced in late July they want to form a union at the company with the help of the Communication Workers of America (CWA). The workers have chosen to organize under the name Game Workers Alliance Albany.
If successful, QA testers in Albany would continue the momentum initiated by testers at Wisconsin-based Raven Software, another subsidiary of Activision Blizzard King (ABK). The team at Raven won their union election decisively back in late May, signifying the first successful union drive at one of the largest video game companies in history. ABK is responsible for games like the annualized Call of Duty series and other best-sellers like Overwatch and World of Warcraft and is in the process of being acquired by Microsoft in a gargantuan $69 billion deal.
The 20 employees seeking to collectively bargain at Blizzard’s Albany studio have some of the lowest paying, yet most important roles in video game development. Amanda Laven, a leading organizer at Blizzard Albany, described the role as enjoyable work, but “not the same as getting paid to play games all day.”
“The majority of our job is doing things like walking into a wall 20 times to see what happens when you walk into it on the 21st time,” said Laven, who is the lead audio tester for Blizzard’s upcoming role-playing game Diablo 4. “Some of our tasks also include trying to do a complex series of moves in a game to see what happens when you trigger 18 sounds at the same time. We’re not necessarily playing the game in a natural way. It’s not like we’re just sitting around and just playing a game for fun.”
QA work typically entails long hours, particularly as a game’s release date nears. At this point, some studios may push their testing teams to put in extra shifts, resulting in some of the most prominent cases of abuse in the industry. Periods of such overexertion are commonly known in the industry as “crunch” and at least 40 percent of game developers have reported experiencing crunch at least once, according to a 2019 survey from the International Game Developers Association.
Workers at Blizzard Albany are no strangers to excruciating crunch periods. During work on 2020’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, a hugely popular skateboarding game, Laven said the team “crunched for several months.”
“I remember at least three or four months of 50-plus hours every week, 10-hour days and weekend work,” she said. Laven volunteered to work overtime on some of the recent Diablo titles and heard from workers about the consequences of crunch during the games’ development cycles.
“There were folks who had existing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression that were exacerbated (by the long hours),” she said. “There were folks who hadn’t been diagnosed with any mental health conditions but started experiencing symptoms of depression. As a result, there were folks who were finding it difficult to eat right because they did not have time to make appropriate meals.”
The workers’ demands include better, more equitable, and transparent pay and benefits, a remote work option for certain employees, and relocation assistance for remote workers who want to work at the Albany studio.
“We want to have a voice at the table, have more of a say in the way that our studio is run,” Laven said.
As workers prepare for an eventual union election, organizers say they have learned about the playbook used by ABK to disrupt efforts to improve working conditions internally.
Jessica Gonzalez, a former tester at Blizzard in California, left her role at the company seeking to improve her mental health and affect change from the outside. Company leadership, she said, directed a campaign of harassment against her.
Gonzalez, who now helps unionization efforts in the gaming industry under the CWA banner, spoke up in company communication channels about a groundbreaking sexual harassment lawsuit against Activision filed in 2021.
The lawsuit alleges a culture of toxic masculinity was fostered in the workplace, creating a space where women were constantly sexually harassed and discriminated against in advancement and compensation decisions.
According to Gonzalez, the company was abandoning its employees, sweeping claims under the rug, and “keeping workers in the dark.”
“We started organizing and realizing that the company didn’t really have our interests in mind and we needed to do things ourselves,” Gonzalez said.
With Gonzalez’s help, workers organized walkouts and started demanding accountability from company executives, she said.
“At the same time, me creating a lot of noise at work like that made me kind of a lightning rod for people who benefited from the way things were. They benefited from the status quo,” Gonzalez said. “I think [some at the company] saw me as someone who was agitating their workplace and so they vilified me.”
Gonzalez said a loud minority of people at the company sought her termination and tried to undercut her advocacy for change. She accused longtime employee Geoff Frazier of organizing a targeted harassment campaign against her on Twitter. Frazier, she added, also leaked personal information and made sexist and transphobic remarks about ABK employees on an online chat platform.
“I started having panic attacks every day,” she said. “I was waking up every day thinking to myself ‘what am I going to read about myself in (the company’s Slack channel) today?’ It was just a lot of pressure and I felt like I could still help from outside the company. I just didn’t want to deal with these conflicts all the time with people.”
Now in her role supporting unionizing studios, Gonzalez called on ABK to recognize the Blizzard Albany union.
“If we learned anything from Raven Software’s campaign is that we’re probably going to go to court because Activision just wants to fight every step of the way,” she said.
Other measures to delay labor action are being set in place by ABK, similar to those seen during the Raven Software campaign, according to Emma Kinema, a prominent voice in labor organizing in the tech sector.
“The company, like most, has hired really expensive union-busting consultants. They have thrown everything at the wall to try to destroy that organizing effort, including attempting to redefine the unit as everyone in the studio and not just QA testers,” said Kinema, the leading organizer of CWA’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE).
Placing workers front and center in this union campaign is key, Kinema said.
“When this massive behemoth of a company comes down to Albany and breathes down the necks of the workers and whispers things about unions being a third party who just want to manipulate them, the workers are going to know that the union is about my coworkers and I trying to make positive change,” Kinema said.
As of August, CODE had officially organized 3,000 workers across different industries in the tech sector, including video games, digital news media, and hardware and software retail. This translates to laying the foundation for 25 bargaining units in two years of organizing. For Kinema, this network of union employees in the tech sector is essential to improving labor organizing across the board.
“The more and more we organize these different units across North America, being able to share that knowledge across the campaigns and having those workers learning from each other is definitely the key to weathering whatever kinds of boss tactics come down the road,” she said.