Microsoft announced its purchase of gaming giant Activision Blizzard for a staggering $68.7bn last week. This is by far the biggest merger in video game history, and one of the largest acquisitions the tech world has seen – Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for $1bn in 2012 seems quaint by comparison.
The acquisition is the latest in a series of ever-bolder moves being made by enormous tech companies like Facebook and Amazon as they seek to realise the virtual world of the “metaverse” – a word with no agreed meaning besides “makes stock prices go up”. It’s also part of a worrying trend in which conglomerates buy up huge sectors of the entertainment industry, leading to the kind of compromised culture in which Disney can own Pixar, LucasFilm, Marvel and 21st Century Fox (along with one of the streaming services which threaten to wipe out cinemas altogether).
But this purchase represents far more than its record-breaking monetary value: although Activision Blizzard may make some of the most profitable titles in gaming (including Call of Duty, Overwatch, and World of Warcraft), it has also been the focus of a series of worker abuse and sexual exploitation scandals that have rocked the company and the industry at large.
In buying the company, Microsoft is drawing renewed attention to the workers who have been organising to transform their labour conditions and the culture of game development. With these workers about to be absorbed into Microsoft, their actions could come to shape not only gaming – but the working culture of the Silicon Valley giants that define so much of our daily life.
A toxic work culture.
To make sense of this flurry of industrial action and its implications for both industries, it is first important to understand that the gaming industry hasn’t always been this way. In fact, hostility to worker solidarity has been baked into its DNA; the industry gathered steam contemporaneously with the ascendancy of neoliberalism and grew up comfortably entwined with a union-resistant mode of working Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call post-Fordism.
The term refers to “flexible” multi-skilled labour, sub-contracting, creative autonomy and mobility in which the source of motivation is in your head. You still have a boss outside your head too, though, even if you no longer have a permanent contract or a pension. You’re not a worker amongst workers, you’re an individual artist putting in sleepless nights for a medium you love and feel lucky to be involved with.
This myth of the creative employee, for whom a boundary-free working life is secondary to the creation of the art, has served the industry well. The post-’68 generation “wanted authentic human connection; they got demands to love their jobs,” writes Sarah Jaffe in Work Won’t Love You Back. And it won’t: despite huge profits for publishers, a career in game development is defined by vertiginous instability and fire-and-rehire practices. As Jason Schreier puts it in Press Reset, “mass layoffs and studio closures have become as fundamental to the video-game industry as Mario’s jumps.”
One term the industry just can’t get enough of is “crunch”. While sometimes thought of as glossing over the more objectively worded “extended mandatory unpaid overtime”, the term is actually quite illustrative: you only hear a crunch when you’re exerting enough pressure to snap something. Industry conversations around crunch began after an anonymous blog post by Livejournal user ea_spouse, describing a partner’s regular 85-hour work weeks for months before deadlines, went viral among developers in 2004.
18 years on and precious little has changed. Last week, Polygon, a US gaming magazine, published an in-depth report about the nightmarish working conditions surrounding the upcoming and otherwise wholesome-seeming Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga. Meanwhile, the GDC State of the Game Industry Survey 2021 found that over 43% of respondents working significant overtime in the last 12 months (including reports of 90-hour weeks).
Especially damning is the survey’s stat that 73% of overworkers attributed this pattern to self-pressure: this classic post-Fordist shifting of responsibility from managers to workers doesn’t just take the heat off those with the biggest paychecks – it also fosters anti-union sentiments of competition among co-workers.
But the compromises and exploitations of neoliberalism’s pernicious managerial ideology are borne out particularly viciously in an environment traditionally associated with teenage boys, and still overseen by aggressively teenage-minded, almost always white men. In tandem with its notorious overwork practices, the industry has a serious problem with its treatment of women.
Sexual harassment is ‘constant’.
Nowhere typifies this aspect of gaming culture more than Microsoft’s extravagant new purchase. Last July, a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing documented that women employees earn far less than their male counterparts, and described a workplace culture of “constant sexual harassment” from male colleagues and high-ranking executives.
The lawsuit makes for grim reading. One popular managerially sanctioned activity was the “cube crawl”, where drunken male employees would race around the office under cubicles while groping female colleagues. The lawsuit describes the suicide of a female employee during a business trip with a male supervisor, who police found to have brought butt plugs and lubricant with him. HR complaints were responded to with the transfer or dismissal of complainants.
Although an $18m settlement was reached, more than 500 further reports of abuse have been made since. 37 employees have “exited” the company, and 44 others have been disciplined. CEO Bobby Kotick, however, has remained in post (and also looked into buying up gaming publications to try and change the public narrative). This is despite withholding multiple internally-known rape allegations from the board of directors, and intervening against documented HR department recommendations to fire perpetrators.
In defiance of 1,500 employees signing a petition demanding his removal and multiple employee walkouts, he remains in post as one of the highest-paid executives in the US (earning approximately $155m in 2020). Even if Microsoft removes Kotick, his contract stipulates that termination following a change of company ownership would net him a $209m severance package.
Of course, Activision Blizzard is just the tip of the iceberg; many of the biggest gaming companies have been accused of inequality or harassment. #GamerGate was one of the most horribly defining cultural moments of the last decade, a precursor to the formation of the alt-right and our interminable so-called culture war. But that campaign of harassment against female journalists was the desperate death rattle of a reactionary gamer identity that has little relevance to audiences today.
Indeed, the industry is changing. Although the big companies in the industry skew male, 45% of gamers in the US are women. There’s an entire industry of mid-size and indie developers making hits out of progressive, groundbreaking games: video games and their audiences are more diverse than ever. While toxic spaces undoubtedly still exist, there are countless stories of beautiful communities and unlikely connections forming in the medium – last year, for example, over a thousand small creators bundled their games to raise almost $900,000 dollars for the UNRWA Gaza Emergency fund.
The development culture of blockbuster gaming is disintegrating under a legacy of abusive working practices, propped up by corrupt executives. But even within these massive companies workers are fighting back, engaging in direct action to make workplace exploitation and harassment as obsolete as the outdated stereotype of the toxic gamer.
Workers are fighting back.
The horrific nature of Activision Blizzard’s treatment of its employees, and the number of complaints involved, has lit a fire under the workers’ movements gaming has seen over the last few years. Three work stoppages at Activision Blizzard have followed the filing of the California lawsuit, alongside protests outside last month’s annual Game Awards, and a second lawsuit was filed in September which accused the company of anti-organising “coercive tactics“.
This is this context in which the movement is starting to unionise. One of the world’s first game developer unions was formed in the UK as a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, and has recently fought Nottingham-based gaming company Lockwood Publishing illegally laying off workers just before Christmas.
The first video game union to be recognised in North America was established at indie developer Vodeo Games in December. Following the Microsoft acquisition, the Game Workers Alliance (GWA) was formed by 34 striking quality assurance workers at Raven Software (the Activision Blizzard Studio responsible for the massively popular online game Call of Duty: Warzone, which alone generates over $5m in revenue per day). The GWA, with support from the Communication Workers of America under their CODE-CWA project, is explicitly linking together the lack of income parity and overwork scandals with ongoing cultural and ethical issues industry-wide, using its collective bargaining power to stand in solidarity with disenfranchised and minority workers.
The formation of the GWA is a huge step for worker’s rights in the enormous sector, with big repercussions for game workers and the entire tech industry. None of Microsoft’s current employees have unionised, and so the actions of the Raven workers are shaping the discourse around the company’s huge acquisition. The tech world as a whole has seen nascent signs of unionisation, such as Google staff’s Alphabet Workers Union (which also first formed in response to sexual discrimination cases, and has gone on to stage various actions against Google’s ties to police departments in the wake of Black Lives Matter, immigration services, and the US Department of Defense). Their work, alongside the tireless recent work of alliances including ABetterABK and ABetterUbisoft, suggests that momentum is only going to grow in the fight to transform mass entertainment’s fastest-growing industry.
While Microsoft’s acquisition is huge, it won’t disrupt the landscape of gaming all that much: Call of Duty games will continue to come out, and continue to make an absurd amount of money. It’s the actions of organisers on the ground that have the potential to positively shape the industry, to dismantle the exploitative conditions that those who actually make games work under.
As these workers are made to bring their worldbuilding expertise to the tech giants companies that hope to replace our daily lives with a clunky, creepy and expensive metaverse, they’ll also be bringing the awareness of workers’ rights and social responsibility that they’ve proven after months of organising.
The video game industry is a landscape that the richest companies in the world are beginning to usurp and monopolise. But, underneath, its workers are uniting and organising in opposition to that very mechanism.
With a gradually radicalising workforce, and an increasingly politically engaged audience, it may be that these forces become, as Marx prophesied on workers under monopolies in the concluding sections of his greatest work, “incompatible with their capitalist integument”. If the big man is right, then the gaming industry may be the place in which these tech giants finally “burst asunder”.