February 3, 2023

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Unions and Video Games – The New York Times

Tonight, tens of millions of Americans will end their day at work or school with a pastime that didn’t exist a century ago: video games.

Until recently, gaming was considered a niche hobby typically associated with children. But the industry has grown significantly over the past few decades. About two-thirds of Americans, most of them adults, play video games. The video game industry was worth almost $200 billion in 2021 – more than music, US book publishing, and North American sports combined. In the US alone, it employs hundreds of thousands of people.

Some of you non-gamers are probably wondering why you should care. My answer is that the story of the gaming industry is a universal one, from a new company that thrived and became a major cultural institution, one that hundreds of millions of Americans interact with on a regular basis. It’s comparable to the rise of the film industry or football in the last century. They are now cornerstones of American life that began as niche forms of entertainment.

And much like the kinds of abuse and tragedy in Hollywood or the NFL that resonate far beyond film and sports fans, the gaming industry faces accusations of brutal working conditions, discrimination and harassment.

Conditions have led to more workers organizing. This month Microsoft recognized its first union after video game testers organized. Today’s newsletter looks at how game developers are confronting issues that have engulfed other companies, including Amazon and Starbucks, while workers work to shape a relatively new industry.

“Game developers are not alone in this,” said Johanna Weststar, an expert on games industry jobs at Western University in Ontario. “Worker activism has increased in many different sectors.”

A common refrain in the video game industry is that no one goes into it for the money; They could earn more with similar jobs at other software companies, but instead, their passion for gaming drives them. Industrial workers have accused employers of exploiting this addiction to flourish in poor conditions.

“The impact that so many games have had on me — I want to help give that to someone else,” said Amanda Laven, game tester at Activision Blizzard. “Management knows we’d rather be here testing a video game than another piece of software so they can pay us a lot less.”

One of the industry’s most criticized practices is “crunch,” when employees are pressured to work 60 to 100 hours a week for up to several months to meet a milestone on a project. Jason Schreier, a video game journalist, highlighted the problem in the 2017 Times Opinion. A programmer working on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in 2011 ended up in an emergency room three times with severe abdominal pain. After he stopped grinding, the pain went away.

Video game companies say they sometimes need crunch to complete projects on time and on budget, but they’re working to minimize their use. Workers like Laven argue that many companies have been doing too little and continue to overuse crunch.

Activision Blizzard says it pays employees more on average than its competitors and is trying to mitigate the crisis by paying overtime, splitting hours among team members, and giving out meals. “We care deeply about our employees,” said Joe Christinat, a spokesman for Activision Blizzard. “We don’t want any of them to feel they have to make unfair sacrifices.”

Another ubiquitous claim: gender discrimination and sexual harassment. In 2021, California sued Activision Blizzard over what the state called the company’s “frat boy” culture, in which women were underpaid and sexually harassed. Activision Blizzard said the allegations are a misrepresentation of the company’s inner workings and that it has taken steps to improve its culture in recent years.

The allegations have garnered a lot of attention, but the industry says the problems extend beyond Activision Blizzard. Other large companies, including Riot, Ubisoft, and Sony, have also been victims of discrimination and harassment. Responses from these companies ranged from saying they are working to be more inclusive to denying some of the allegations.

Schreier has written that many of these problems date back to the early days of the industry, when game developers “created a connection-like image of guys going all night to make their games, pounding Diet Cokes and pizzas and taking pictures of them easily.” clothed women on their desks.” But as games have grown, so have workers’ expectations.

The conditions have prompted more employees to unionize, including several studios at Activision Blizzard and Microsoft. Organizers told me dozens more efforts are underway across the US, though most are not yet public. According to a recent poll, most game developers support unionization.

Companies have responded differently to the effort. Microsoft committed to neutrality when its workers unionized. Activision Blizzard (which is trying to buy Microsoft) has tried to block union movements.

The drive to unionize is part of a broader trend in relatively new industries, including technology and digital media. Spurred on by what they see as poor conditions, many workers in these sectors see unions as the best way to protect themselves. Total union membership grew by nearly 300,000 nationwide last year, wrote my colleague Noam Scheiber.

Some workers described this drive as part of a process as the gaming industry is fairly new and is still experiencing growing pains and professionalization. By capitalizing on the current moment, they hope to change the industry forever.

“We’re trying to help ourselves,” Laven said. “But we also try to help everyone who comes after us.”

Related: The ability to work from home, create collective power and support employees are other reasons game developers gave for unionizing, games website Polygon reported.

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A suspect believed to be a worker at an agricultural nursery was found in his car in the parking lot of a sheriff’s office substation in the coastal city.

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Corporate canteens, long seen as a perk for employees who work in the office five days a week, are struggling to survive in the age of hybrid working hours, writes Kim Severson in The Times.

Some companies have given up canteens to subsidize food delivery. Others have reorganized them into smaller, more flexible spaces, encouraging informal gatherings, which some workers see as the main benefit of going to the office.

Even old-school corporate dining has taken a hit. The Crown Room at Hallmark’s Kansas City, Missouri headquarters is one of the oldest and most popular office cafeterias in the country. Now it’s only open three days a week.