Quality assurance testers at ZeniMax Studios – home of The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Doom gaming franchises – have voted in a “supermajority” to form Microsoft’s first labor union in the US.
Microsoft gobbled up ZeniMax and its subsidiaries – including Bethesda Softworks and id Software – in 2021 for $7.5 billion, bringing some of gaming’s hottest properties to the company’s Xbox console and Windows exclusively under Xbox Game Studios after EU and US competition watchdogs waved it through.
Unionization efforts across the American tech industry have intensified over recent years thanks to the pandemic and are often met with fierce resistance by corporations despite the right of workers to organize being enshrined in US law – just look at the lengths Apple or Amazon go to undermine their employees.
Bucking the trend somewhat, Microsoft took the unusual step of accepting unionization as an inevitability, with vice chair and president Brad Smith writing in June last year: “We recognize that employees have a legal right to choose whether to form or join a union. We respect this right and do not believe that our employees or the company’s other stakeholders benefit by resisting lawful employee efforts to participate in protected activities, including forming or joining a union.”
Announcing the representation, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union said yesterday: “Quality assurance workers across ZeniMax have been organizing for months to positively transform ZeniMax for the benefit of workers, the company, and the players who enjoy the studios’ games. Workers began signing union authorization cards in November 2022, and started the official voting process through a confidential online portal that opened on Friday, December 2 at 8am PST and closed on December 31 at 6pm PST. The unit includes all QA employees in the US across ZeniMax’s various studios.”
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The resulting ZeniMax Workers United/CWA is now “the largest group of union-represented Quality Assurance testers at any US game studio,” working on the behalf of some 300-plus employees.
“Microsoft has lived up to its commitment to its workers and let them decide for themselves whether they want a union,” said CWA president Chris Shelton. “Other video game and tech giants have made a conscious choice to attack, undermine, and demoralize their own employees when they join together to form a union. Microsoft is charting a different course which will strengthen its corporate culture and ability to serve its customers and should serve as a model for the industry and as a blueprint for regulators.”
This follows the foundation of the Game Workers Alliance in May last year, representing the QA team at Raven Software, which works on the multiplayer first-person shooter of the moment, Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty Warzone. If that title rings a bell, that’s because the series lies at the crux of Microsoft’s tussle with antitrust regulators to acquire Activision Blizzard for $69 billion (dwarfing the bill Redmond paid for ZeniMax).
The first pre-trial hearing in the Federal Trade Commission’s lawsuit to block the deal began yesterday. “The acquisition of a single game by the third-place console manufacturer cannot upend a highly competitive industry,” Microsoft argued in a December court filing.
There was concern around the union’s fate if the deal was allowed to go through. However, a “labor neutrality agreement” in June last year between CWA and Microsoft has meant that the union has lent the acquisition its support.
“Microsoft’s binding commitments will give employees a seat at the table and ensure that the acquisition of Activision Blizzard benefits the company’s workers and the broader video game labor market,” Shelton said at the time. “The agreement addresses CWA’s previous concerns regarding the acquisition, and, as a result, we support its approval and look forward to working collaboratively with Microsoft after this deal closes.”
As another tech industry afflicted with “crunch” culture, there is good reason for staff at games developers to organize. Crunch – forced, excessive and often unpaid overtime – has been criticized at giants like CD Projekt, which went ahead and released Cyberpunk 2077 in a dire state anyway, and Rockstar Games, which actually managed to produce a masterpiece despite tales of challenging working conditions from employees.
Victoria Banos, a senior QA audio tester at ZeniMax’s offices in Hunt Valley, Maryland, made reference to this, saying: “Before us is an opportunity to make big changes and bring equity to the video game industry. We want to put an end to sudden periods of crunch, unfair pay, and lack of growth opportunities within the company.”
It’s crunch time
While attitudes to crunch from the gaming C-suite appear to be softening, occasionally a tone-deaf boss will put their foot in it, like industry veteran Glen Schofield did before the recent launch of Striking Distance Studios’ The Callisto Protocol, a spiritual successor to sci-fi horror classic Dead Space.
In a September tweet, now deleted due to backlash from an audience that these days gives crunch short shrift (and can likely relate to unfair working conditions in their personal lives), Schofield said: “We r working 6-7 days a week, nobody’s forcing us. Exhaustion, tired, Covid but we’re working. Bugs, glitches, perf fixes. 1 last pass thru audio. 12-15 hr days. This is gaming. Hard work. Lunch, dinner working. U do it cause ya luv it.”
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It’s easy to say “nobody’s forcing us” and that you “luv it” when you’re CEO. He later tweeted: “Anyone who knows me knows how passionate I am about the people I work with. Earlier I tweeted how proud I was of the effort and hours the team was putting in. That was wrong. We value passion and creativity, not long hours. I’m sorry to the team for coming across like this.”
While there’s no doubting the passion of games developers for their art, such a culture can end up stomping on the little guys – like QA testers who need to root out the bugs and glitches caused by the industry’s ever-growing ambitions. With Microsoft holding the door open for employees to organize, could we start to see similar efforts at gaming’s more notorious offenders – or even software as a whole? Surely not. ®