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Abuse, overtime and misconduct: why the video game industry needs unions

With repeated allegations regarding sexual misconduct, abuse, mandatory overtime, and toxic working conditions, people who work in video game development are unionising to change the industry for the better

During the development of Red Dead Redemption 2, the groundbreaking blockbuster RPG Western by Rockstar Games, employees working on the game were under so much pressure to ship the game on time that they began sleeping in their offices. 

According to a report in gaming outlet Kotaku, this was only one of the wild things employees were forced to endure. Journalist Jason Schreier gathered testimony from hundreds of employees, those working at Rockstar’s various studios felt pressured into working throughout the night and over the weekends. Some quality assurance (QA) testers, many working on temporary contracts, told the publication that they were forced to lock their mobile phones in lockers during the work day, while others said that they couldn’t eat hot food at their desks, despite being asked to work lengthy hours. Overtime was considered mandatory and, according to some who worked at the studio, there was a “culture of fear” surrounding filing complaints about the working conditions, with employees concerned around potential legal issues or job security. 

Rockstar denied these claims. But this story does not live in isolation. 

In 2022, Activision Blizzard, the company behind Call of Duty and the Diablo franchise, was sued by the family of an employee who took their own life during a company retreat in 2017. Kerri Moynihan, a 32-year-old finance manager at the company, had allegedly been the victim of sexual harassment, which was said to be rampant at the company. So much so, in fact, that in 2021, the state of California sued the company over allegations of systemic discrimination and harassment against female employees. Workers even walked out in protest over the toxic “frat boy” culture of the company. That same year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched an investigation into the company over the allegations and how they had handled complaints about any misconduct. (Activision Blizzard agreed to pay out $18 million to those who had experienced misconduct or discrimination. The company also settled with the SEC for $35 million.)

For many, this is the reality of working in video games: exploitation, manipulation and job instability. What’s more, companies feel they can get away with it because working in video games is seen as a passion industry; people will put up with anything because they’re just grateful to be there.

However, there is change afoot. Over the last few years, there’s been a rapid rise of union organisation in the industry. In fact, since 2021 employees at over a dozen studios in the US have formed unions at their workplace.

It began with workers at Vodeo Games, who created the first certified video game studio union in the US after management voluntarily recognised the union. They were (understandably) followed by QA workers at Raven Software, a studio owned by Activision Blizzard, along with QA workers at Blizzard Albany, the team previously known as Vicarious Visions. Both were met with union-busting efforts by the company. (Microsoft is currently attempting to acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion. Should the deal go ahead, workers at Activision Blizzard will be able to freely opt for union representation under a labour neutrality agreement with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the country’s largest communications and labour union.)

In 2023, 300 QA workers at ZeniMax Studio, which is owned by Microsoft, voted to unionise, forming ZeniMax Workers United, which includes employees from The Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda Game Studios and the studio behind Doom, id Software.

Finally, at the end of April 2023, workers at SEGA of America, the US arm of the Japanese gaming giant and Sonic the Hedgehog proprietor, announced they were forming a union.

Consisting of a 144-employee supermajority, the union, named the Allied Employees Guild Improving SEGA (AEGIS), partnered with the CWA. Consisting of employees from across SEGA of America, including quality assurance (QA), localisation, live service, marketing and product development, AEGIS-CWA made history as the largest multi-department video game union in the United States.

It was partly this flurry of unionisation activity over the last few years that encouraged employees at SEGA of America to organise.

“There has been this notion of ‘it is how it is’ and that’s why so many workers have accepted it. But now that we’ve seen a rise in unionisation from just a few studios like ZeniMax and Activision Blizzard, the idea is now out there in the public sphere,” says Mohammad Saman, a member of AEGIS-CWA. “Now other workers are seeing that it doesn’t have to be the way that it is. We can make this into a much more sustainable industry.”

Saman has worked in QA at SEGA for nearly five years and over that time the glimmer of the industry has dulled. “Something that I would say, as would my co-workers, is that there is a lack of competitive pay and too much overtime,” he says. “It’s essentially the hours and the pay.”

This overtime, known in the industry as crunch, is pervasive and, as evidenced by Schreier’s reporting into Rockstar Games, highly exploitative. According to Khan, the comms officer at the Game Workers branch of the IWGB, a worker-led, democratic trade union that represents and advocates for UK game workers’ rights, this culture has led to endemic burnout among those in the industry.

“A lot of people leave the games industry and not because of retirement or because they became millionaires. It’s because they can’t take it anymore,” says Khan, who works as a narrative designer. “When people crash out of the industry, you then lose a lot of really good important tribal knowledge. You lose a lot of leaders and mentors who would make juniors into better devs.”

Like a lot of creative industries, the video game world often relies on, and exploits, the passion of those who want to work in that field. “Game development has historically thrived on the acceptance of some untrue facts or assumptions,” suggests Khan. “One of which is that there are always ten geeks lined up to take your job. The other is that it’s a passion project first and foremost, and that means that if you’re muttering about things like overtime, crunch and pay, you’re not passionate enough. There’s been an attitude of, ‘We, the company, are your people and you don’t need a life outside of work because we will provide your social life. We will provide the place where you find validation, friendships, relationships.’”

This kind of workplace culture is a breeding ground for abusive, exploitative, discriminatory and toxic practices. This is evident by the environment at Activision Blizzard, but also by complaints levied against Riot Games, the publisher of League of Legends, and Assassin’s Creed publisher Ubisoft, which has faced numerous allegations of workplace sexual misconduct and harassment.

“There are a lot of ways where a developer’s lack of leverage results in some really negative consequences,” says Brendan Sinclair, the managing editor at trade publication “Publishers can pretty much treat developers however they want and there’s no pushback because the system is not organised that way.”

Sinclair, who has reported on the video game industry for over two decades, says that QA staff, who are low on the “pecking order” compared to departments like design and art at studios, are treated particularly badly within the industry, which is why so many unions are made up of QA workers. He recalls one story he worked on where the QA team were kept in a separate area from the rest of the development team. “It was basically telling them not to talk to those real developers,” he adds. “They also had to work in shifts all night long. Lots of crunch was mandated. They would just burn out over the course of a few years.”

Many people working in QA are also unlikely to be on permanent contracts. “One third of our workforce is temporary, regardless of how long their tenure actually is,” says Saman. “We would love to be able to speak with management about how long an employee can be a temporary employee.”

Sinclair recalls another instance where developers who worked on 2022’s Calisto Protocol were left out of the game’s credits because they left the publisher before the game shipped.

“That’s horseshit,” he says. “Losing game credits as a way to punish people for leaving is a retention mechanic? It’s saying ‘you have to put up with whatever it is we throw your way, or else we’re going to punish you’. It’s manipulative and there’s no reason for it. It doesn’t benefit the publisher other than creating miserable employees sticking with it because they feel they have no other options.”

Such an unequal footing between developers and management can have an impact on gamers, too. Disastrous game launches are becoming more common, with many big-budget, so-called AAA titles like Cyberpunk 2077, Anthem, Battlefront 2042 and, most recently, Xbox-exclusive Redfall all arriving in the hands of gamers either unfinished or riddled with bugs.

While there are a multitude of reasons for this, Khan suggests one is because developers can’t argue back against the demands of senior management and shareholders. “Right now, no one has teeth,” she says. “When you’re not in the halls of power, you’re then not in those closed-door meetings. You’re not in with the money.”

Unionisation in the industry could help rectify this. “Devs could argue against crunch to release games on specific dates,” she says. “Or if that can’t change, then they could suggest cutting this feature or that feature. They could then work reasonable hours and work hard and make something of high quality.”

This kind of pushback would require radical reform and sits at odds with an industry that is currently broken. As Sinclair says: “There aren’t the proper guardrails in place to prevent people seriously damaging their health, mental and physical, in the ordinary course of doing their job.” 

It makes this movement towards unionisation in the industry even more important. “Once AEGIS-CWA is officially certified, we will be able to speak with management on an even playing field,” says Saman. “They will legally have to spend time negotiating with us and with this we will use this negotiation time to bargain for a better contract that has the workers and their issues in mind.”

“We believe in the power of collective action, of collective bargaining,” echoes Khan. “We’ve seen the results of it. Even just having the power of somebody in your corner in difficult HR meetings when you are young, can’t afford a solicitor and aren’t sure if you’re being done dirty because your contract has been broken has been really huge.”

As the video game industry continues to grow at an exponential rate, the rise of unionisation in the sector is a promising sign that unethical, exploitative and harmful workplace environments could become a thing of the past. It helps put power back into the hands of workers. 

“The pandemic showed us how important games are for our global mental health,” Khan says. “That was an unexpected little moment for all of us to learn. And I believe we can and should do better because it will make better games and a better industry that keeps us here longer. That’s my goal. That’s the union's goal.”