- Andrew Carl is one of several Activision Blizzard employees who walked out last month.
- He says the video games industry has a culture of exploitation and burnout.
- Workers have since kept organizing, most notably via a unionization vote at Raven Software.
This is an as-told-to essay with Andrew Carl, a 31-year-old senior systems designer at Activision Blizzard in Albany, New York. Carl shares what it’s like to work in the video-game industry, where many say corporate culture is unhealthy and employees feel overworked.
The story my parents always tell is that I was 8 years old when I said that I wanted to make video games. When I was a teenager, I ended up going to a program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that taught high schoolers how to build them. I got hooked on that experience and eventually attended the school for game development. I graduated in 2013 and started that January as a contracted quality-assurance tester at Vicarious Visions, now Blizzard Albany. Today, I’m a senior systems designer working on “Diablo IV.” I work with a variety of teams and other members of the systems team to design the classes for that game.
Being a game designer is a very collaborative role, and a lot of it is about communicating effectively. It’s not about being good at math or coming up with great ideas. It’s about being able to recognize good ideas, regardless of where they come from, and refining and communicating them so that you can complete your work with your team.
Despite wanting to do this from a young age, I don’t like describing it as a dream job. There are negative aspects of it, and anytime you describe something as a dream job, you’re opening yourself up to being exploited by employers who know that you’re less likely to leave — or, if you do leave, that there’s a ready supply of people to replace you.
There are a lot of structural issues endemic to the game industry. Oftentimes, the values these companies say they have, like caring about individuals, are disconnected with their actual policies. As a result, Activision workers have organized walkouts and are taking other steps to advocate for better working conditions.
Here’s what it’s like to work at Activision.
There’s a ‘frat-boy’ culture in gaming
There was a lot of moralizing when Riot Games had a scandal about sexual harassment, discrimination, and its corporate culture. There were a lot of people finger wagging and saying that it didn’t happen where they worked. It turned out later there were a bunch of other AAA places — including Activision Blizzard — where it was endemic.
It’s a microcosm of all corporate culture, but in the game industry — I’d say especially in AAA places, where blockbuster games are made — there’s a “frat-boy” culture that’s prevalent.
At Activision Blizzard, there were all these horrible allegations of very upsetting harassment and abuse that people suspected were oftentimes known about. It was reported in internal channels and not handled in a satisfactory way. It often drove the victim out of the company instead of the harasser. The problem is that internal channels don’t always work to resolve these issues. They’ve often been set up by the company in a way that’s more beneficial to it than the individual.
Generally, workers going public is the method of last resort.
One recent issue is the repeal of the vaccine mandate, which was initially framed as enterprise wide
On April 4, a group of Activision employees announced they would be walking out of the job after the company repealed the vaccine mandate for in-person employees. People were concerned that this vaccine mandate was getting repealed at the same time we would put people back in. A lot of the game-studio employees talked about how they had open floor plans or team rooms where people could easily be infected. Having people together again to work eight-hour-plus days, five days a week, didn’t seem like it’d be conducive to people’s good health.
The day that we announced the walkout, there was another email sent out that walked back the enterprise wide policy decision for all of Activision Blizzard.
The reason Blizzard Albany workers and other employees still walked out was that there were other demands that were not addressed, including the ability for people to have more personal control over the ability to work remotely on a more permanent basis.
Crunch ruined my romantic life
One of the least understood problems in the game industry is “crunch.” This is when developers and testers work excessive overtime to ship a game — either a lot of hours in a very short span or over time for a very long duration.
I’ve experienced crunch more severely as a quality-assurance tester than as a developer, but it’s still there for the latter.
Sometimes during crunch, gaming companies hire a laundry service so people can bring their laundry into work with them. They were never home long enough to do it.
There are certain disciplines, especially quality assurance, that have day and night shifts where they try to have 24-hour coverage.
For me, during crunch, performing simple tasks outside work became a monumental effort. Any time I wasn’t at work, I was either sleeping or feeling guilty about procrastinating on errands because I didn’t have the energy to leave the house.
Crunch ruined multiple relationships for me. I would have to cancel dates and end up barely seeing the other person for weeks at a time. It would sometimes send me into
spirals. I felt useless because I was unable to do anything other than work and sleep.
It’s a big issue for everyone that has been front and center for many years and still has not been solved, even though there are studios out there that have abolished it.
Part of the problem is that game development is a passion industry — people take pay cuts to work in this industry, while they could be working in another using the same skills.
As a systems designer, I make $106,000 a year. But engineers who work at Apple, Google, or some of those kinds of places in Silicon Valley make a lot more money than engineers who work on video games. The same is true of user-experience designers and user-interface artists.
Quality-assurance testers, I think, have the biggest gap: I started as a quality-assurance tester in January 2013. I was making about $12 an hour. The average for QA testers in other fields is about $19 an hour.
Unionizing could make our workplace better — but the company is fighting it
A couple days ago, The Washington Post reported on a unionization vote at an Activision Blizzard subsidiary, Raven Software. I think that it’s a good thing that QA testers are trying to unionize and that it’s important, as one of the more exploited disciplines in game development, to leverage their collective power and be able to have a seat at the table.
But the challenge is getting the company on board with that. For example, the Raven QA department had to go through a full National Labor Relations Board hearing where Activision Blizzard argued against its appropriateness as a unit. Now, after the agency has ruled that the department members can move forward with their vote, Activision Blizzard is still advocating for people to vote down the union.
What’s going on at Activision in terms of organizing is important, but both the organizing and the issues it’s facing are sort of a microcosm of the game industry.