Playing video games for a living is not the plum gig it might seem to be.
There are the hours (long). And the tedium (it’s not known as “quality assurance” in the industry for nothing). And the money. “Pay is the hardest thing to advocate for in quality assurance, because they want to make it seem like you’re testing video games, so you should be thankful,” says Jessica Gonzalez, a former senior QA analyst at Activision Blizzard who is now helping to organize a union drive of 34 game testers at the company’s subsidiary Raven Software. Until recently, those testers were making $15 an hour, less than the cost of living in Madison, Wisconsin, where the unit is based. It increased to $17 per hour in November, and then $18.50 shortly after a round of layoffs in December. Still, given that they’re crucial for ensuring that, say, a grenade actually leaves your hand when you throw it in Call of Duty—a franchise that has sold more than 400 million copies—they argue their work has been undervalued.
The drive, which was announced in late January, would create the first union at a major U.S. video game company. The workers will soon file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board to formalize their union in association with the Communications Workers of America. Activision Blizzard—which is currently being acquired by Microsoft for $68.7 billion—is not voluntarily recognizing the union, so organizers would need more than 50 percent of votes in the testing department in order to force their employer to come to the bargaining table. (Organizers claim to already have support among a supermajority of people in the department.) These employees say that a union will be essential for seeking better pay, benefits, and working conditions. (Activision Blizzard, in a statement to the Washington Post after the drive was announced, said, “After carefully reviewing and considering the CWA’s initial request of the company, we worked quickly to find a mutually acceptable solution with the CWA that would have led to an expedited election process. Unfortunately, the parties could not reach an agreement. … The most important thing to the company is that each eligible employee has the opportunity to have their voice heard and their individual vote counted, and we think all employees at Raven should have a say in this decision.”)
So if it isn’t all fun and games, what is it like to spend all day testing Call of Duty and other titles? To understand that, I recently spoke to several professional game testers, from Raven Software and from outside the company. They detailed work that was exacting, skilled, and often grueling. They also described a persistent struggle to endure in an industry that has long relegated them to the bottom rung of their workplaces.
QA testing doesn’t involve leisurely trying out different video games, but is instead an intense and often tedious process of making sure that every single aspect of a game is up to snuff. “We’re not just playing video games. We are professionals and we are technical,” says Onah Rongstad, a tester at Raven. “Our job is to think critically and make sure that our games are going to be received well.” While there are various tasks and specialties within the field, much of the job involves inspecting changes that developers make in the game, like a new skin or tweaks to the animation, in a task known as regression testing. “What testers have to do is check every new iteration for defects. We’re essentially sourcing the code to make sure that nothing else was harmed while bugs were fixed and/or new changes were implemented,” says Gonzalez. “We’re the consumer advocate, and we’re going to play the game in every possible way.” Checking for bugs might involve viewing animations over and over from different angles, dropping and picking up weapons to ensure they make the right sound, or going through each individual cut scene and screen in a game.
Stability can be elusive even for experienced testers. Gonzalez says that companies will often hire contractors with the promise of hiring them full-time later on, but then cut them off in order to save on benefits. (In fact, the incident that sparked the union campaign was Raven’s move in December to abruptly lay off at least a dozen contractors.) QA testers often struggle to make ends meet on their salaries, since major hubs for the gaming industry—especially the California cities of Irvine, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica—are expensive places to live.
The hours required to be a QA tester are also quite demanding given the pay, particularly due to “crunch,” which is mandatory overtime in the gaming industry that employees typically have to work to meet deadlines. “Emotionally, physically, it’s not good for people to be working 50-, 60-hour weeks, to be working at 4 a.m. trying to get a product out,” says Rongstad. “We shouldn’t be just expecting people to sacrifice their mental and physical well-being for the sake of a game.” A survey conducted by the International Game Developers Association in 2019 found that only 8 percent of employees in the industry received extra pay for working crunch time.
Robert Hodgson, a QA lead at the Atlanta-based video game company Hi-Rez Studios, has been observing unionization efforts in the industry from afar and thinks they’ll be more successful at major companies. “What I think is going to be needed is a large studio that pays terribly and also has other issues, like Activision Blizzard,” he said, noting that smaller video game companies are much more likely to fold, so a union might not have the time to flourish. Hodgson also sympathizes with other QA testers who are raising objections about low pay and long hours, noting that it took him 15 years to earn a reasonable living and find a company that doesn’t have a grueling crunch culture. “I firmly believe that the video game industry is following the same trajectory as the movie industry,” said Hodgson, noting that the public fascination and growing glamour surrounding video games can make people overlook the often poor working conditions. “It took a while for movies to unionize to the extent that they have, and I think it’s going to be for the same reasons, where people want to work in video games and they’ll do it for cheap, even though it’s dumb. I know I did.”
While the Raven union could make history as the first at a major U.S. studio like Activision Blizzard, there have been labor advocacy efforts among developers, designers, and other video game workers for years to address some of the same issues that QA testers are now highlighting, like crunch. For instance, a grassroots labor rights group called Game Workers Unite formed in 2018 to unionize the industry and has helped organize walkouts and social media campaigns.
The Raven union drive comes as Activision Blizzard faces internal upheaval, public censure, and ongoing legal challenges over what many allege to be a sexist and fratty workplace. Recent investigations by California regulators have found evidence of pervasive sexual harassment, often fueled by a company culture of heavy drinking, and unequal pay and career opportunities for women. Gonzalez says that she’s experienced some of that misogyny and harassment while trying to advocate for more rights for QA testers, which ultimately motivated her to quit her job in November, and she hopes that it’s an issue a union will also be able to address. “I was a punching bag, essentially,” she says. She claims that other employees would troll her in the company’s Slack when she posted articles about racism and diversity by downvoting her messages and calling her “shrill.”
Both Gonzalez and Rongstad expressed the feeling of being looked down on for their roles as QR testers, which interferes with their ability to advocate for themselves. “It’s really demeaning. You’re treated like a second-class citizen,” says Gonzalez, who claimed that at some workplaces QA testers are forbidden to even speak with developers. (Hodgson also said he’s worked at companies where QA testers would get in trouble for speaking directly to a game designer. “There’s no good reason for it,” he said.) A union, they contend, may force higher-ups to take their concerns more seriously. “Our feedback may be heard, but there’s nothing in place to ensure that it’s actually taken into consideration,” says Rongstad. “What we want with our union is just a place at the table.”