Gaming is a $175.8 billion industry, but working conditions for developers at many companies remain poor. Many have to “crunch” (or work exorbitant, long hours) and harassment issues persist at many of the most prominent companies. Labor unions could change everything, but the video game industry has been slow to adapt. Now, in light of issues at Call of Duty publisher Activision Blizzard, workers at the company have taken a major step forward towards forming a union. If successful, it could set a major precedent for game companies around the world.
What happened — Activision, Blizzard, and King employees formed a workers alliance called ABetterABK back in July 2021 following an employee walkout. Then, On October 30, the alliance tweeted about unionizing.
“Bobby Kotick, Given your visible stance to bettering ABK and the working conditions within for the benefit of your employees, are you prepared to voluntarily recognize a union formed by those workers so that they can hold you accountable to your commitments?” the tweet says.
While this does not mean that the employees are formally unionized, this is an essential next step in that process. This comes directly after an October 28 statement from Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick in which he promises several key changes at the company and announced he’d take a voluntary pay cut.
Activision and Kotick have yet to respond to ABetterABK’s tweet.
Why is Activision Blizzard unionizing? While other creative industries have had unions for decades, the video game industry has not fully embraced the idea. Organizations like Game Workers Unite have pushed for unionization in recent years, but the idea hasn’t been embraced by major game studios just yet.
Some disturbing revelations over the past year have started to change that.
In July 2021, a lawsuit from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing revealed a long history of sexual and discriminatory misconduct at Blizzard, maker of World of Warcraft and Overwatch.
Activision Blizzard is of course the parent company of Blizzard, so workers from across the broader company formed ABetterABK to protest how management initially responded to the claims. A walkout occurred at Blizzard on July 28, but it wasn’t until now that ABetterABK explicitly expressed plans to unionize. If successful, it would give developers, artists, and other game-makers a greater input as to how they are treated at Activision Blizzard.
What’s next — The essential next step is that Activision Blizzard management, including CEO Bobby Kotick, have to formally recognize the union. That then initiates a process through which the employer and a committee of employees representing the larger unit can meet to negotiate on matters of pay and working conditions.
Kotick and Activision Blizzard can voluntarily recognize the union or the company can request a vote to confirm majority support for the union. Only after the recognition process is complete can both parties begin to negotiate a contract. That process can take several months, possibly years, especially if Activision Blizzard executives aren’t initially supportive of the union.
Unions can help solve a myriad of workplace issues, including but not limited to fostering a healthy work environment. With a ratified union contract, Activision Blizzard would essentially be contractually obligated to make changes happen rather than offer potentially empty promises about improving culture at the company.
If Activision Blizzard employees successfully unionize, it could give developers at other troubled companies like Riot Games, Ubisoft, and The Fullbright Company the support and precedent they need to make unions commonplace in the video game industry.
It could all start with one smashing success story at one of the biggest — and most lucrative — game companies in the world.