ZeniMax Studios forms biggest union in gaming — and the first for Microsoft
Before video game players get to solve a puzzle, swing a single axe, or save that princess, a quality assurance tester has tried to break the game in thousands of different ways.
That tester may also be subject to difficult contract cycles, a grueling schedule, and low compensation.
"All of the actions that your character could do, or all the menus that you'd be looking through, any three models — all of these features in the game could or could not be behaving the way they're supposed to," said Dylan Burton, a senior quality assurance tester for ZeniMax Studios in Dallas.
ZeniMax contributes to mega-hit titles like "Fallout," "Doom," and "Elder Scrolls." Burton's workday involves playing video games, rooting out bugs and glitches, and creating reports so engineers can fix them.
But the pressures of this job become increasingly difficult in the lead up to a release, a period in the industry known as "crunch."
"There have been projects where we'd be working six days a week and 60-hour weeks, and be doing that just indefinitely, with no real, clear date of when it was going to end," said Burton.
This crunch period, coupled with difficult contract cycles and low wages, led Burton and more than 300 ZeniMax coworkers in Maryland and Texas to begin discussing a possible union.
Last week, the ZeniMax Workers United — affiliated with the Communications Workers of America — officially voted to become a union, which has since been recognized by their parent company, Microsoft.
In a statement, Microsoft recognized the ZeniMax quality assurance workers union, writing, “We look forward to engaging in good faith negotiations as we work towards a collective bargaining agreement.”
In a blog post last summer, Microsoft stated that employees will never need to unionize to have a dialogue with leaders at the company. The company says it is dedicated to maintaining a close relationship and shared partnership with all of its employees, including those represented by a union.
Communications Workers of America president Chris Shelton said in a statement, “Microsoft is charting a different course which will strengthen its corporate culture and ability to serve its customers, and should serve as a model for the industry and as a blueprint for regulators.”
Burton said they’re optimistic – but they know a union can only fix so much in an industry that’s made overworking a standard.
"The biggest thing that everybody is hoping to see is that we just work out a salary that is fair and make sense. We know that we necessarily can't solve crunch in one bargaining, but we do want to create more humane solutions to crunch."
The ZeniMax union is the largest in the video game industry, and the first under Microsoft's corporate umbrella. Nicole Carpenter, senior reporter at video game publication Polygon, said this signals a broader trend of labor organizing in the gaming industry.
"The QA workers that I've spoken to, at ZeniMax and elsewhere, are inspired by those movements, as are people in other industries as well," Carpenter said. "People are seeing the power of coming together with their coworkers and seeing how they can change how they're treated in their workplace by using that collective power in forming unions."
There are three unions now at Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft is in the process of trying to acquire amid a lawsuit brought by the Federal Trade Commission aiming to block the acquisition. Microsoft has agreed to remain neutral with any unions formed through the Communications Workers of America, which ZeniMax and Activision Blizzard unions are affiliated with.
"I think that it will be beneficial in the long run for these companies to allow their workers to unionize," Carpenter said. "Workers who are not under that immense pressure, who have a say in how they're treated, will be happier, they'll be able to be more creative, they'll have a better time at work. And that means the games will be better as well."
Listen to Soundside's full conversation with Nicole Carpenter by clicking the "play" button on the audio above.