Colonie

Video game testers at Blizzard Albany seek to unionize; Move follows successful effort in Wisconsin

A promotional handout for the Activision Blizzard game Diablo II: Resurrected, which some employees at Blizzard Albany who are seeking to unionize worked on.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

A promotional handout for the Activision Blizzard game Diablo II: Resurrected, which some employees at Blizzard Albany who are seeking to unionize worked on.

COLONIE — A union drive is underway at a major piece of the Capital Region’s video game cluster.

The 20-person quality assurance department that may organize is about 10% of the workforce at Blizzard Albany’s studio in Colonie. If they are successful they will form the Albany Game Workers Alliance as an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, and will seek to organize other departments.

The move follows the first successful unionization effort within Activision Blizzard, this past May, by QA employees at Raven Studios in Wisconsin. 

Activision Blizzard did not respond to a request for comment for this story. After the Blizzard Albany employees filed their petition with the National Labor Relations Board last week, gamesindustry.biz quoted the company as saying:

“We deeply respect the rights of all employees under the law to make their own decisions about whether or not to join a union. We believe that a direct relationship between the company and its employees is the most productive relationship. The company will be publicly and formally providing a response to the petition to the NLRB.”

Blizzard Albany, formerly Vicarious Visions, is a full video game development studio that has worked on titles including Diablo II: Resurrected, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 and the Crash N. Sane Trilogy remaster.

Amanda Laven of Rotterdam, an associate test analyst and member of the union organizing committee, said the initial attempt was to organize the entire studio, which includes everything from artists to audio experts to information technology troubleshooters.

But the QA department — the primary task of which is to play the games for hours at a time and document any bugs they find — proved the most receptive to organizing, with a supermajority of employees signing the petition.

Once it is unionized, Laven said, the other departments will see the benefits and Albany Game Workers Alliance will try again to organize them.

It was not, she said, a hostile or abusive workplace at Blizzard Albany that led to the union drive, but an exploitative one, and  “the sense that we could accomplish more working together than the company was going to give us.”

The software and IT industries pay well and are continually looking for new employees, on the whole. But the video game sector is different, Laven said, because it’s a dream job for so many young people entering the workforce. If an employee is unhappy, there’s a line of potential new hires eager to replace them.

“Unfortunately, that passion is weaponized and used to exploit people,” she said.

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing,” said Laven, whose graduate studies were specifically tailored to video game development.

Within this environment, QA employees occupy a low rung of the ladder, Laven said. Blizzard Albany wouldn’t even hire them as permanent employees until very recently, she added — they worked on one-year contracts extendable to 18 months, then had to leave and ask to be rehired.

Also, they are all classified as entry-level employees.

“Some of the work we’re doing is meant to be mid- to senior-level work,” she said. “That affects several of us.”

The prospective union members at Blizzard Albany are in their early 20s to early 30s, Laven said, mostly college-educated, mostly with degrees focused on the field.

They asked Activision Blizzard to recognize the Albany Game Workers Alliance and forgo the need for an unionization vote, but the company did not.

A CWA spokeswoman said the company fought the organizing effort at Raven Software “tooth and nail.”

Eighteen days after Raven’s QA employees voted 19-3 in favor of unionizing, the company said June 10 it would bargain in good faith with them.

 

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