Why are labour relations in video game development so often exploitative? For one thing, the rise of computing labour has coincided with the rise of neoconservative ideology and its hostility to the union movement. For another, staff tend to form occupational communities: insular, passion-fuelled social groups intrinsically linked to the workplace that are rife for exploitation by management.
As a result, the entrenched and controversial practice of crunch normalises excessive and compulsory overtime. Only one in four Australians in the field would recommend working in the industry to somebody else—a sure sign that a robust and comfortable work environment with adequate protections has been left behind, even as the product makes incredible profits.
One of the major players in the game-publishing world, Activision-Blizzard, has long claimed to possess a unique method of dealing with these issues. The Blizzard half of the company was started in 1991, under the auspices of just three men. The working environment was more ‘teenage nerds’ than ‘business moguls’, and it wasn’t until 2004 that Blizzard burst into the mainstream with World of Warcraft, the most famous and popular MMORPG ever made. Catapulted into riches and relevance, Blizzard was faced with immediate challenges maintaining their idiosyncratic culture as they attuned themselves to a more serious and long-term endeavour.
Their chosen course was to treat their developers like celebrities. Blizzcon, a convention celebrating all things Blizzard, put them centre-stage to accompanying pyrotechnics. Metallica even performed there one year, for that authentic rockstar feel. The convention kept growing in size, reaching 40,000 attendees in 2018. Developers were told by fans and management alike that they were untouchable; Blizzard games were incredibly popular, beloved for their quality and creativity, and the creators could rest easy knowing that they were appreciated by both their bosses and the public.
Unfortunately, cultivating overwhelming arrogance in your developers is bad news for the people who work under them. The perception of Blizzard as the fun, trendy company of nerds began to waver in 2018, when the CEO’s heir apparent, Ben Kilgore, was unceremoniously fired. Kilgore had held court regularly with a notorious cabal of sexist drinkers in the Irvine, California company headquarters, and the unexpected departure was explained to staff in a baffling meeting where they were told, ‘don’t sleep with your assistant … but if you’re going to sleep with your assistant, don’t stop.’
This was the cue for the #MeToo floodgates to open. Since Kilgore’s sacking, the stories coming out of Blizzard have leaned more and more towards psychosexual horror. Accounts describe the internal culture as ‘frat boy’, with male employees playing video games during work hours and passing the responsibilities onto their female co-workers. ‘Cube crawls’ (drinking at work), rampant and extreme sexual harassment without consequence, jokes about rape, refusal to promote women, workplace retaliation—the list of egregious sins goes on.
‘In a particularly tragic example, a female employee committed suicide during a business trip with a male supervisor who had brought butt plugs and lubricant with him on the trip.’
HR couldn’t be trusted as they were close to the abusers, and management entrenched the problem by turning a blind eye or rewarding the perpetrators. Often and predictably, management were the perpetrators. All of this culminated in a discrimination lawsuit from the state of California, and vicious condemnation from consumers.
Like many workers in their position, the Blizzard rank and file were left without much recourse. Unionisation efforts in their workplace had obviously made little headway—why would rockstars need a union? As a result, employees were necessarily muted in their response. Walkouts were staged, but intellectual property distributed internationally is difficult to picket or boycott. There were the expected polemics on Twitter, but with only 20 per cent of the workforce being female, the most relevant voices were speaking from a marginalised position. If pressure was going to come from anywhere, it was going to come from that almighty bellwether—the stock price.
The greatest ally of the worker turned out to be the fanbase, which amplified the accounts of complainants and organised boycotts in response. Their objections were framed in a deceptively simple way that struck at the heart of the issue by centring the argument around the subscription model. Millions of subscribers pay Blizzard a monthly fee for the promise of an iterative game, one that continuously updates and adapts. The player base was now demanding a similar adaptability from the company culture, and they were voting with their wallets. Blizzard’s share price tumbled commensurately.
The contemptible corporate response was not long coming. The company immediately hired a union-busting firm—the same one that Amazon uses to prevent unionisation in its workforce. Content-development slowed to a crawl as management scrambled to put out fires—mass firings (though not of upper management, of course), commitments to diversity, assurances to the board that all was well. That the Chief Compliance Officer was a torture apologist for the Bush administration should tell you most of what you need to know about the company’s priorities during labour unrest.
These damage-control efforts had two cornerstones. The first was the apparent innocence of the CEO Bobby Kotick, who claimed earlier in the year to have no notion that any of this was transpiring under his watch. The second cornerstone was a highly distracting ‘feminist’ whitewashing campaign of Blizzard assets, removing any and all sexual references and scrubbing all mention of abusive developers, who often named characters or locations after themselves. The logic was clear: separate the boss from the problems, and scrub the evidence.
Unfortunately for Blizzard, both efforts have fallen very flat. Nobody was clamouring for the Big Love Rocket item to be renamed to the Heartbreaker, or for paintings of women to be replaced with paintings of fruit. What people wanted was an immediate and genuine shift in the culture, and the asset removals were correctly identified as a sop to public opinion—an attempt to look ‘woke’ without actually changing the culture to one of empathy and respect. As for Kotick, recent revelations indicate that not only did he know for years what was going on: he threatened to have his former assistant killed. Hardly the face for a more inclusive era.
The consequences for this incredible misstep in labour relations continue to play out. Activision-Blizzard was forced to settle with the State of California to the tune of US$18 million. All three major console makers have criticised the company in internal memos—a blow to future distribution. The share price continues to fall, and Kotick is eyeing his golden parachute. Meanwhile, the shine of the company has worn off for millions of gamers, and the cheerful reputation that Blizzard managed to carve out in the halcyon days is gone forever. The community attitude is now one of suspicion. Trust has been fundamentally broken.
Perhaps, the last best hope in this sorry and sordid saga is that this may be a wake-up call to workers in the videogame industry. It’s a strong argument for unionisation, an example of how passion alone cannot create a safe work environment, and motivation to hold abusive bosses to the fire.
As for Activision-Blizzard, the road ahead is a long one, and one that won’t be travelled quickly. Nothing less than a total overhaul of the workplace will suffice.
Image: David Zhou