Activision Blizzard became the dominating image of worker mistreatment, harassment and abuse within videogame development when the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued the company last July. The severity and amount of allegations compiled in the agency’s complaint shook the wider public into paying attention to the company’s practices in a similar fashion to how the handling of former Hearthstone pro Blitzchung’s support of protests in Hong Kong and the company firing 800-plus employees after posting record revenues in 2019 riled up those within games circles.
The months since the lawsuit’s filing have seen virtual and in-person protests, Microsoft’s proposed purchase of Activision Blizzard and additional lawsuits, including a wrongful death suit being filed by the family of Activision Blizzard finance manager Kerri Moynihan on Thursday. But that same period also saw worker protections and unionization become a focus for current and former Activision Blizzard employees.
Two of those former employees, video editor Josh Miller and ABetterABK founder Jessica Gonzalez, are now bringing that conversation directly to the public with their new Twitch channel, Weekly Standup. Gonzalez and Miller sat down with Paste to discuss the show, where it fits into the greater conversation of unionization within tech and their experiences working for Activision Blizzard.
How did Weekly Standup come to be?
Jessica Gonzalez: Josh actually approached me via email and was like, “Hey, I’ve been wanting to cover this topic for a long time. Do you want to start something together?” And we started Weekly Standup. Our goal is to talk about workers’ rights in the games industry with goals of unionization and just have conversations with devs and tell people their rights. A lot of people are scared with NDAs and forced arbitration, and we’re trying to put these issues to light and keep it at the forefront.
Josh Miller: I was working at Activision Blizzard on the editing and post production side working on their Esports leagues. I was just getting really upset with the management’s behavior towards myself, my team and my co-workers.
After some layoffs and seeing what was going on throughout the wider company, as well as certain factors industry-wide like what was going on at Riot, what happened at Ubisoft, my anger just kept building to the point where I wanted an outlet for that. I wanted someone to speak on behalf of the devs and my friends and I didn’t see that out there at the time. I kept talking with my friends about it for the next year until I just got tired of it and I reached out to Jess.
Obviously game development isn’t a one-to-one comparison to other arms of tech, but we are seeing workers at large tech companies organizing unionization efforts or attempting to get them off the ground. Do you see any similarities between your efforts and those of workers at Amazon, Tesla, etc.?
JG: I mean, exploitation is just a thing that happens, especially in the United States. People are going to exploit labor. They want labor for nothing and they want shit done fast, and they don’t care. I feel like we’re starting to really see that manifesting in the way workers are treated, and it’s not just our industry, it’s every industry. I think workers are savvy to it at this point. You’re seeing so many open positions.
Right now, Blizzard has the most open positions they’ve had in so long. It’s so hard to fill roles because they don’t want to pay what people are worth, and all these executives like Jeff Bezos, like Elon Musk, are making billions of dollars. A $200 million bonus payout for Bobby Kotick last year while laying off hundreds of people just doesn’t make sense, right? So a lot of people are realizing that their labor is exploited. And I feel like that can translate to any industry.
JM: If you look on the macro, it’s been kind of a worldwide movement for the last couple of years. As far back as when Bernie [Sanders] was competing for the presidency. The fact that he’s gained so much grassroots support, I think signals that this is a thing happening nationwide right now. And more and more people are starting to not trust the old way of doing things, like trickle down economics, being happy with what you get, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I think that people are just becoming more educated in general, and realizing none of those things are really true. I’m hopeful that, if trends continue, we’re gonna see more and more support for this, and maybe change will actually start to happen.
Why do you feel like these conversations around labor organizing within game development are becoming more prevalent?
JG: I feel like COVID-19 is a huge factor. We’re all dealing with the fallout of COVID, but it kind of solidified that the worker is so far removed from the employer. It’s weird with ABK because they span the globe, right? When we started organizing, there were people in the U.K. that were fascinated by how brainwashed the U.S. is against their own interests and rights. I think the U.S. has such an anti-worker or bootstraps culture where you have to feel like if you’re not hustling or bleeding for these companies then you’re not worth anything. I think that is something that a lot of people are turning away from.
JM: I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve had work on projects that were critical successes that everyone was happy about and were laid off immediately after because “Alright, project is done. We owe you nothing.”
Bringing that up invokes memories of Activision Blizzard laying off more than 800 employees in 2019 after reporting record revenues and the Blitzchung controversy later that year. Portions of the public were very vocal around both of those events. What was the impact internally of seeing the public speak out on those issues?
JG: I guess for me it felt a little validating because I was like, Oh, I’m not the only one frustrated with leadership making horrible decisions. But at the same time, the employees got the most of the fallout from that incident. I remember the receptionist, I was friends with her. She was messaging me on Slack saying that people were calling the office and telling her to kill herself and like all these horrible things just because of the stuff that was going on with Blitzchung.
It sucks because these are the people that are heavily affected by these things and we care about everything that is going on. We didn’t think he deserved to have his prize money taken away and all this stuff. We were continuing to fall on the sword for leadership and they didn’t do shit. Not one thank you. Not even a pizza party. They kept us in the dark completely for two weeks. People were emailing [J. Allen Brack] en masse. It took all the employees banding together, being really fucking tired of leadership, to actually get something out of it. It was nice to see the public holding leadership accountable, but we were also getting all this shit too while trying to do it from the inside.
JM: I joined the company quite a while after all of this went down. Even then, the atmosphere was very much still like people just kind of worn down from all of the events leading up to that point. Most employees had lost faith. It was sad joining a company that had always been like one of my dream companies and then realizing that some of the luster had been lost at that point.
When did you feel like there was the potential for some form of labor organization within Activision Blizzard?
JM: I don’t think there was unionization going on until after I left, but, while I was there, it was more of a pipe dream. People would talk about it in our Blizzard compensation Slack channel, which is kind of infamous at this point. All of the senior people were a little more apprehensive towards it. There was a general attitude of, “Oh, we don’t need unions. Why would that help?” It was cool, after leaving Blizzard, to finally see it come to fruition. It was something that I didn’t think I’d see for some time.
JG: For me, it was as soon as the [California] DFEH lawsuit went public. We had already been really exhausted with leadership, and then we got gaslit in that email where it was like “Everything is fine. Nothing is wrong.” All the women in the company were the ones giving the testimony, so you’re going to tell all the women that they’re lying? They’re going to try and sweep this under the rug. We should try to lead responsibly and by example, so we’re going to organize and be our own advocate because leadership failed us.
JM: I don’t know how you could look at that and not be proud of everyone and be happy with the result. It seems like a no-brainer. Why would you not want to have representation?
One of the more intriguing aspects of Weekly Standup are your interviews with game developers speaking about their own experiences regarding these issues and how they play out internally at these companies.
JG: I feel like game development is such a coveted industry, right? Nobody talks about how everything is made. There’s this weird misconception with the public about game dev and developers get shit on all the time for no fucking reason. So it was part of empowering devs to talk about their experiences and complaints. I learned from organizing that so many people share the same stories. I think it’s a way to empower devs while showing the public what it is like to be a developer.
JM: From its inception, I wanted [Weekly Standup] to do two major things: pull back the curtain of secrecy behind development at large companies and give devs a voice. A lot of people want to get into development and I would rather them go in with both eyes open and understand exactly what goes into it. What better way to accomplish that than inviting devs to talk about their experience?
I hope that we get to a point where it’s not always focusing on the worst parts of the experience. I’d love to focus on the good parts too, like doing tutorials or, “Oh, you want to be a programmer? Well this guy is a programmer and this is how he got into the industry.” I have this vision where our community is a tavern where a bunch of like old, grizzled game devs hang out, drink beers and talk about their old war stories together.
What role do you see Weekly Standup playing in the continued conversation of workers’ rights and labor organization within games?
JG: I just hope it inspires people because, when we first started organizing at ABK, a lot of people were scared. They didn’t want their picture taken. They didn’t want to talk about working conditions because they were bound by non-disclosure agreements. Once we started getting legal counsel and help, that’s when people really felt like they were allowed to talk about these things. I can advocate for myself. I can advocate for others. My goal is to educate. Maybe my story can resonate with people or inspire people to use their voice and change the industry for the better. It has a ways to go.
Weekly Standup airs live every Sunday at 1pm PT on Twitch.