Why 2021 Was the Biggest Year for the Labor Movement in Games

Why 2021 Was the Biggest Year for the Labor Movement in Games 1

Vodeo Games’ union formed because the workers “care so much about the work they do, and they want more of a say over how it’s done,” Vodeo producer Myriame Lachapelle told Polygon, but Paizo’s came after scandal. Paizo’s union formed in the wake of public controversy over the company’s reportedly exploitative labor practices, like overwork, an over-reliance on contingent workers, and low pay. Of 77 employees, a supermajority voted to unionize soon after. Andrew White, Paizo’s front-end engineering lead and a 10-year games industry veteran, says the industry’s volatility convinced him that unionizing could benefit his life.

“There should be a lot more of a social safety net than there is,” he says. “And the fact, that under at-will employment, anybody can be fired at any time, no matter how good a job they’re doing, no matter how vital they are to the operation of the company, no matter how long they’ve been with the company, no matter how spotless their service record is—that’s not good for people, that’s not good for the company, and it’s not good for the people that have to pick up the slack when that person is gone.” (In the US, most employment is at-will; the games industry is the norm.)

Paizo voluntarily recognized the union, which Paizo’s vice president of marketing and licensing, Jim Butler, says was “the right thing to do.” “No one felt that union-busting tactics would be representative of what Paizo stands for,” Butler says. “Several members of management have family members that were in unions, and there was a general feeling of unions being a force for good that we wanted to embrace.”

In lieu of formal unions at larger companies, ad-hoc organizing groups have formed this year at Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft. The ABK (Activision Blizzard King) Workers Alliance and A Better Ubisoft have published open letters and petitions calling for change. This year, the ABK Workers Alliance has organized two walkouts to protest alleged sexism at Activision Blizzard and CEO Bobby Kotick’s continued leadership. A third walkout occurred in early December, when over 200 Activision Blizzard King employees joined 60 employees at Activision-owned Raven Software in walking out for multiple days to protest the layoff of 12 quality assurance testers. The ABK Workers Alliance launched a work stoppage and strike fund that accepted over $200,000 in its first day. That same day, the ABK Workers Alliance passed out union cards. Asked about Activision’s views on the impact of the internal labor movement on business, Activision spokesperson Kelvin Liu says, “We could not be more thankful for our workforce, who are the true lifeblood of the company … Their resilience is nothing short of inspiring, and they’ve done a phenomenal job all year long. Throughout this journey, employee input has been instrumental in helping our new management team develop new reforms and enhance a new culture for everyone at Activision Blizzard.”

It is challenging to gauge the prevalence and power of employee support for these efforts. One-fifth of Activision Blizzard employees signed a petition calling for the removal of Kotick. When it comes to making the labor movement exciting to games workers, Jessica Gonzalez, a former Activision employee who is helping lead the company’s organization efforts, says “misinformation and keepers of the status quo make it difficult. There are a lot of people that benefit from the system in place, and those people hold positions of power. When you want to change things to be better for everyone, the ones that were already benefiting see that as oppression.”