Don’t play: Video game testers aim to unionize

Workers’ demands include better, more equitable and transparent compensation and benefits, a remote work option for some employees, and relocation assistance for remote workers who wish to work at the Albany studio.

“We want to have a voice at the table, to have more of a say in how our studio is run,” Laven said.

As workers prepare for a possible union election, organizers say they have learned of 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 bring about change from the outside. Company management, she said, led a campaign of harassment against her.

Gonzalez, who now helps organizing efforts in the games industry under the CWA banner, spoke in corporate communications channels about a groundbreaking sexual harassment lawsuit against Activision filed in 2021.

The lawsuit alleges that 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 grievances under the rug, and “keeping workers in the dark.”

“We started to organize ourselves and realize that the company didn’t really have our best interests in mind and that we had to do things ourselves,” Gonzalez said.

With Gonzalez’s help, workers staged walkouts and began to hold company executives to account, she said.

“At the same time, the fact that I create a lot of noise at work like that made me kind of a lightning rod for people who took advantage of the way things were. They took advantage of the status quo,” Gonzalez said. “I think [some at the company] saw me as someone who agitated their workplace and so they reviled me.

Gonzalez said a strong minority of people at the company called for his dismissal and tried to undermine his advocacy for change. She accused longtime employee Geoff Frazier of staging a targeted harassment campaign against her on Twitter. Frazier, she added, also disclosed 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 ‘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 with people all the time.

Now in his role supporting unionized studios, Gonzalez called on ABK to recognize the Blizzard Albany union.

“If we’ve learned anything from the Raven Software campaign, it’s 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 put in place by ABK, similar to those seen during the Raven Software campaign, according to Emma Kinema, a prominent voice for labor organizing in the tech sector.

“The company, like most, hired very expensive anti-union consultants. They threw everything at the wall to try to destroy this organizing effort, including trying to redefine unity as everyone in the studio and not just the QA testers,” said Kinema, the main campaign organizer. CWA to Organize Digital Employees (CODE).