The Wisconsin-based company’s quality assurance department Call of Duty developer Raven Software voted to unionize, which could have a significant impact on its parent company, Activision Blizzard, with potential ripple effects for Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision and for the video game industry as a whole .
Raven QA’s decision to unionize began last January, after around a third of its team was dismissed at the beginning of December 2021. The team affected by the layoffs was primarily responsible for testing the free-to-play mobile title Call of Duty: Warzonewhich would have earned Activision Blizzard as much as $5.2 million in revenue per day in 2021.
The layoffs also followed month-long promises of wage increases. Many affected workers were asked to relocate to Raven’s hometown of Madison, Wisconsin without financial assistance from Raven or Activision Blizzard.
The union vote took place Monday morning, via mail-in ballots dropped off at the Milwaukee office of the National Labor Relations Board, and passed 19-3. The new union, operating as the Game Workers Alliance, will now enter contract negotiations with Activision Blizzard.
This is the second major labor movement in a North American video game company (the first appears to have been at Vodeo Games in December 2021), and the first in the big-budget, high-visibility part of the industry that is often referred to by the term baseball”AAA.”
Activision Blizzard, for its part, has fought the push for unionization from the start, via internal memos and a failed petition to the NLRB. In response to today’s vote, a company representative expressed regret when talk to the washington poststating that “an important decision that will impact the entire Raven Software studio of approximately 350 people should not be made by 19 of Raven’s employees.”
This is likely a seismic event in the US video game industry, especially when it comes to quality assurance. Game testing is often seen as disposable field work and is often outsourced to contractors or temps, despite its overall importance to production.
Activision Blizzard and Raven Software are just famous examples of an endemic problem. If Raven’s QA team could take on its billion-dollar parent company and win, it could be the spark that fuels widespread organizing drives across North America.
Additionally, the Raven Software controversy serves as an example of the problems at Activision Blizzard that Microsoft will be forced to deal with if and when its acquisition of the company becomes final.
The acquisition, a $68.7 billion deal that instantly became the biggest buy in Microsoft history when it was announced in January, would give Microsoft control of some of the biggest franchises and development studios. prominent in the development of American games.
This deal is currently undergoing antitrust review at the Federal Trade Commission and has reached such a point that Microsoft’s Brad Smith recently called “the beginning of the middle”.
Raven’s successful unionization isn’t the worst thing that could have happened here. In fact, it was a long time coming, and if Raven QA hadn’t taken the wheel here, it could have been any number of other departments at a dozen other developers. There’s been enough union talk in game development and related fields over the past four years that it’s a matter of when and where, not if.
The problem is that Raven, by reacting to an untenable situation, is yet another example of the deep-rooted dysfunction at the heart of Activision Blizzard. This includes several sexual harassment lawsuits, one of which was settled in March for $18 million, and a gradual “brain drain” at Blizzard that has left many of its franchises in bad shape. When and if the acquisition finally goes through, Microsoft could have a lot of work to do to rehabilitate Activision Blizzard, if it’s worth it.