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The Activision Blizzard union vote could signal a big change in the video game world

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

In the world of video game production, workers are often pushed to put in long hours in the runup to a release, and harassment and bullying have been problems at some of the top studios. Even still, workers organizing is a rare thing. Unions have yet to break into the industry in a big way - that is, until yesterday, when a small group of workers at Activision Blizzard won an election to form a union. As NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, the win could signal a big change in the video game industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSICA GONZALEZ: We have three yeses so far.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Former Activision employee Jessica Gonzalez, a co-founder of the Game Workers Alliance, the now newly formed union at Activision Blizzard, livestreamed their watch party of the vote count yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONZALEZ: Thirteen to two - let's go.

LIMBONG: The final tally ended up being overwhelming - 19 in favor, three against.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONZALEZ: We did it.

(APPLAUSE)

GONZALEZ: We won our union.

LIMBONG: The newly unionized workers in question are 28 quality assurance testers at Raven Software. That's the subsidiary of Activision Blizzard that works on the popular Call of Duty franchise - so a tiny crew. But now they're part of the labor union Communication Workers of America, which, by the way, represents some of the broadcast employees at NPR. Here's Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer at CWA.

SARA STEFFENS: I think these workers came into organizing knowing why they needed a union, right? There's crunch time.

LIMBONG: That's industry lingo for the long hours.

STEFFENS: And this can have really negative effects on their health. They have repetitive stress injuries, eye strain, other occupational health issues. And then there's been a lot of sexual harassment and discrimination at this employer as well.

LIMBONG: Activision Blizzard has spent years dealing with lawsuits and allegations that the company fosters a frat bro culture and discriminates against and harasses women. Workers say CEO Bobby Kotick was dismissive of these reports, triggering protests and walkouts at Activision Blizzard more broadly.

REBECCA GIVAN: One of the phrases you hear a lot in organizing is the boss is the best organizer, and the boss at Activision is a very, very polarizing figure.

LIMBONG: That's Rebecca Givan, associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. And she says that while the raw number of workers unionizing at Activision Blizzard is relatively small, the win itself is a big deal for the gaming industry.

GIVAN: Yeah, I think workers both within this company and within the industry more broadly will see that it's possible to overcome the odds.

LIMBONG: Activision Blizzard, which is in the middle of an acquisition by Microsoft, didn't make anyone available for comment, but the company sent a statement saying they supported their employees' right to support a union. However, quote, "we believe that an important decision that will impact the entire Raven Software studio of roughly 350 people should not be made by 19 Raven employees."

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.