2021 was another blockbuster year for the video game industry. While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the global economy, the game industry continued to grow despite delays to many high-profile releases. Last year the industry brought in an estimated $180.3 billion in yearly global revenue, vastly outpacing the film industry’s pre-pandemic highpoint of $101 billion. And in an industry-shaking deal, Microsoft recently announced their plan to acquire the video game publisher Activision-Blizzard for $68.7 billion, a move that rivals Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox. However, despite the dramatic fiscal growth of the video game industry over the past few decades, those working in this surging field continue to voice concerns over labor issues at many of the industry’s most prestigious studios.
[Content warning: This article discusses sexual harassment, sexual assault, and suicide.]
Activision Blizzard, the subject of Microsoft’s massive acquisition and the publisher behind Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, is one of the latest game companies accused of abusive work conditions. A lawsuit opened in July of 2021 by the state of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) alleged that the company perpetuated a “frat boy” work culture in which women were frequently sexually harassed by male coworkers. The DFEH report outlined that only twenty percent of the workforce are women and that “top leadership is exclusively male and white.” It also stated that women are paid less for the same jobs and receive fewer stock options than their male counterparts.
According to the lawsuit, HR and company leadership never addressed numerous complaints about harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. Male employees would allegedly partake in “cube crawls” where they would drink alcohol and, in some cases, sexually harass female employees. There were numerous reports of sexual comments and groping. One female employee said that male employees would approach her at work and comment on her breasts. Another female employee stated that members of the World of Warcraft team would make sexually suggestive comments towards the women on the team and joke about rape. A series of internal messages and photos revealed that an employee’s hotel suite at the annual convention BlizzCon was nicknamed the “Cosby Suite” after Bill Cosby, the actor formerly convicted of rape. In another instance, a female employee committed suicide during a work trip after male coworkers allegedly distributed nude photos of her during a holiday party.
These allegations against Activision Blizzard mirror numerous other accusations of sexual harassment and discriminatory practices at video game companies. In 2018, Riot, the studio behind popular games like League of Legends, was accused of perpetuating a sexist work culture. Several current and former employees stated that women were frequently kept out of management positions and had their work dismissed or second-guessed. They also reported email chains where employees would discuss which female coworkers they would like to sleep with. Male and female employees stated that their supervisors had shown them pornographic images such as pictures of male genitalia.
In 2020, dozens of employees at Ubisoft came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. Managers and employees were accused of committing physical violence against coworkers, unwanted sexual advances, sharing homophobic jokes, making racist comments, and sharing pornographic content in the workplace. While the company let go of several managers involved in these incidents, many at Ubisoft believe that the company has still not made meaningful changes to address the underlying causes for these problems. Beyond these specific studios, developers have levied hundreds of similar allegations of sexual assault and harassment against other video game companies on social media.
“It is clear our industry has a problem,” Renee Gittins, the Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), said to us. The IGDA is a nonprofit membership organization that seeks to advance the careers and lives of those who make games. “We cannot allow such behavior to continue within our industry, as it not only lessens the strength of our teams and the quality of our projects, but causes great and lasting harm to our peers.” A recent IGDA poll found that 74% of those polled believed there was not equal treatment for everyone in the video game industry.
However, even the IGDA has come under scrutiny for allegedly mishandling harassment complaints. A recent report claimed that the organization failed to act on several complaints against its Women in Games Special Interest Group chair and did not follow its own policies in response to these allegations. In over one hundred pages of documents, a group of fourteen victims and six witnesses accused the chair of stealing work, grooming, emotional manipulation, harassment, and physical assault. While the chair eventually resigned, the IGDA initially decided not to remove them from their position, citing a lack of evidence.
In addition to allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination in game development, there have also been frequent reports of employees being coerced or encouraged to partake in long stretches of unpaid overtime. This phenomenon is commonly called “crunch” and generally occurs when a game is running behind schedule. While crunch is frequently associated with working for extended hours for shorter periods, such as a few weeks or months, in some instances, it can go on indefinitely as a game’s release date is continually delayed. This situation has been referred to as a “death march.”
While long hours have gone hand in hand with game development since its infancy, these circumstances began to gain more traction in the public eye in 2004, when a class-action lawsuit was filed against Electronic Arts over widespread unpaid overtime. This lawsuit came after the spouse of an EA employee made a blog post claiming that their husband had been working 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week (roughly 80 hour work weeks) for months. The suit resulted in a 15.6-million-dollar settlement in favor of the employees.
Several divisions at Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption) have been accused of crunch and long hours. In 2010, a blog post alleged that members of Rockstar San Diego were subject to a long-term crunch. In 2019 Dan Houser, the company co-founder, said employees at the studio were working 100-hour weeks leading up to Red Dead Redemption 2’s release. While he later clarified that this only applied to the writing team for three weeks before the game came out, interviews with employees found mixed opinions regarding work practices. Some said their time working on Red Dead Redemption 2 was largely positive and featured far less crunch than previous games. Others stated they felt coerced into working long hours that alienated them from their friends and family.
These stories of long hours have been repeated at numerous other companies. IGDA’s 2021 Developer Satisfaction Survey found that 85% of employees working in the video game industry had experienced crunch at least once in the last two years, and 58% had experienced it more than twice. Severe overwork and crunch can be particularly egregious for temporary workers and QA testers.
“I have worked at Activision for about 14 months now, and only about a month and a half of it was outside of crunch. My first day out of training was the first day on a 10 hour a day, six days a week schedule, so from the get-go I was in mandatory crunch. The 40-hour workweek is ephemeral in QA; we would often get a week to a week and a half out of crunch before we were told that we’d be going back onto the crunch schedule,” said Mark, a QA tester working at Activision Blizzard. Out of fear of reprisal from his company, Mark preferred to be referred to by a pseudonym. “They cycle through QA to cut costs. It’s like buying paper plates because you don’t want to pay for dish soap, and frankly we’re treated as disposable as paper plates.”
The frequency of crunch at many studios has led to high attrition rates and has seemingly caused many to exit the game industry altogether. A LinkedIn poll found that the game industry’s employee turnover rate of 15.5% a year was the highest in the tech space. “Unfortunately, I think it has become this career path where after ten to fifteen years of crunching and moving around the country, of really tough work conditions for a lot of reasons, such as sexism or racism, a lot of people have just chosen to pursue better fields,” said Jason Schreier, a reporter at Bloomberg and the author of several books about the video game industry such as Blood, Sweat and Pixels, and Press Reset. Beyond hemorrhaging talent from the industry, the net benefit of crunch has been called into question in the past. Some have suggested that severe overwork leads to less productive employees, which in turn harms the game’s quality and extends how long it takes to complete.
After decades of similar stories, those in the video game industry have begun to take action against their companies. In 2019, Riot employees staged a walkout in response to the company’s culture and its decision to block employee lawsuits. Activision Blizzard employees walked out earlier this year after the DFEH’s case regarding sexual assault allegations was made public. During August 2020, contractors who wrote for the mobile game Lovestruck: Choose Your Romance worked with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union and went on strike for 21 days. They won and received pay increases and concessions from their employer.
Broader labor organization efforts have also begun to take shape in recent years. Following a panel at the 2018 Game Developers Conference, developers formed Game Workers Unite (GWU), a labor rights group that has become an international organization. In the United States, the Communication Workers of America (CWA), one of the largest labor unions in the country, announced an initiative to partner with GWU for the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE). In 2020, the UK chapter of GWU joined with the labor union Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) to form IWGB Game Workers.“We’re stronger together. There are a lot of ways that lots of workers are mistreated and exploited in the games industry and the only way for us to change this is by collectively organizing and demanding that our bosses make the changes we need,” Matthew Hurry, the Secretary of IWGB Game Workers explained to us.
Most recently, in response to the allegations against Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft, employees at both companies have formed worker’s alliances, the ABK Worker’s Alliance and A Better Ubisoft. The ABK Worker’s Alliance’s four main demands are as follows: “(1) An end to forced arbitration in employment agreements, (2) the adoption of inclusive recruitment and hiring practices, (3) increases in pay transparency through compensation metrics, and (4) an audit of ABK policies and practices to be performed by a neutral third-party.”
In their initial response to the DFEH, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson stated that the company took the allegations seriously but that the lawsuit was “inaccurate” and “distorted.” In response to this, more than 2,000 current and former employees signed an open letter criticizing the company’s statements while supporting the validity of the lawsuit’s content. After an organized walkout in August and sustained pressure from ABK Worker’s Alliance, in late October, Activision Blizzard’s CEO Bobby Kotick sent the company a letter that promised changes. He announced a new zero-tolerance harassment policy, a commitment to increasing the percentage of women and non-binary staff by 50%, the end of arbitration of sexual harassment and discrimination claims, and increased visibility on pay equity. These promises seem to correspond to three out of four of ABK Worker’s Alliances’ core demands.
“It only partially answers the demands stated by ABetterABK, as the company has added stipulations, but it is a significant win that is worth celebrating,” Mark said. “The changes and commitments announced in that email are not perfect, but the months of silence had a lot of us feeling hopeless. The fact that they directly addressed the demands, specifically regarding forced arbitration, makes me feel a lot more optimistic for the future of the company. Hopefully, our next win will help with the conditions QA and other temporary employees face.” Following additional pressure from ABK Worker’s Alliance regarding low pay and mandatory unpaid leave for contractors, the company internally announced an increase in the minimum hourly rate for temporary employees to $17 per hour and thirteen paid holidays each year.
However, in November, Kotick became the center of new controversies. A report by The Wall Street Journal alleged that Kotick had known about cases of sexual misconduct at his studios for years but didn’t inform the board of many of these reports. In some cases, he directly intervened to keep high-ranking employees from being fired or punished for misconduct. Kotick allegedly allowed game studios to operate with little oversight, even in light of numerous accusations of abuse.
Kotick was also directly accused of several cases of misconduct. In 2006, he allegedly threatened to have a female employee killed in a voice message. In 2007, he was sued by a flight attendant for his private jet. The flight attendant had told Kotick that the plane’s pilot sexually harassed her, and Kotick fired her shortly after. While these allegations against Kotick resulted in an additional walkout from many Activision Blizzard employees, and a small number of shareholders pressured him to resign, the company’s board sided with Kotick and refused to remove him as CEO.
In December, Activision Blizzard came under further scrutiny when it laid off twelve contract QA testers at its subsidiary Raven Software. Raven Software works on Call of Duty: Warzone, a booming Battle Royale game that brought in over 3 billion in 2020. In response to these layoffs, ABK Workers Alliance announced that they would carry out an open-ended strike until the twelve laid-off employees were offered their positions back. The group also launched a strike fund on GoFundMe to compensate the employees who had walked out and financially assist the laid-off QA testers.
As of late January, a majority of the QA testers at Raven Software agreed to form a labor union. The group explained their decision as a reaction to layoffs, crunch, low compensation, and the allegations against their parent company. The Communication Workers of America (CWA) is acting as a union representative for the workers. While the group still needs to be formally recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, 78% of the QA testers signaled support for unionization. They have named their union “Game Workers Alliance,” an open-ended title that they hope will encourage other members of Activision-Blizzard to join, along with those at other game companies. The members of Game Workers Alliance gave Activision-Blizzard management a week to voluntarily recognize the union, but internal messaging stated that the company denied the request.
A leaked internal message showed that Christian Arends, the vice president of Activision-Blizzard QA, seemed to discourage employees from unionizing when he sent a Slack message that said, “a union doesn’t do anything to help us produce world-class games, and the bargaining process is not typically quick, often reduces flexibility, and can be adversarial and lead to negative publicity.” This mirrors a similar instance where Brian Bulatao, the company’s Chief Administrative Officer, sent an internal email that seemed to discourage unionization
Beyond the unionization efforts at Activision Blizzard, there are also rumblings of collective action at other games companies. On December 15th, the staff of Vodeo Games became the first unionized game studio in North America when they formed Vodeo Workers United. Management voluntarily recognized the union for its thirteen employees.
A 2021 survey from the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) showed that of the developers polled, 51% said that the video game industry should unionize, 24% said maybe, 14% said no, and 10% said they were not sure. However, only 20% felt confident that the game industry would end up unionizing, with a plurality (43%) giving it a “Maybe.” Regarding what is likely to sway developers on the matter, Matthew Hurry of IWGB Game Workers said, “Successful union actions are probably one of the main things that persuade game workers that unionization is beneficial to them. Sadly, negative events in the games industry that have a major impact on workforces – such as recent events at Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft – also tend to persuade game workers that unionization is a good idea.”
“The myth that’s still perpetuated throughout the games industry by some is that we’re lucky to work in games and should just accept crunch, low pay, discrimination, and exploitation as part of working in such a ‘great’ industry,” Matthew said. “It’s not the 1990s anymore, and the games industry isn’t some elusive, special place that only a select few manage to find careers in; it’s a multibillion-dollar industry with hundreds of thousands of workers worldwide. The games industry needs to change.”
While QA testers at Raven Software are well on their way towards unionizing, management at Raven Software has stated their intent to break up Raven Software’s QA team and directly embed workers in other departments at the company. Although representatives at the company said that this had been in motion before formal organization attempts at Raven’s QA department began, it is unclear how this could affect the group’s unionization efforts. Furthermore, Microsoft’s intent to acquire Activision Blizzard could directly impact labor organization within the company. The official A Better ABK Twitter account announced that the acquisition “does not change the goals of the ABK Worker’s Alliance,” but it is unclear how Microsoft will deal with this movement if it persists. With widespread worker complaints at studios across the industry, the actions of these Activision Blizzard employees may have an outsized impact on organization efforts throughout the field.