Microsoft Should Embrace an Activision-Blizzard Union and Not Stop There

The company's massive purchase should not sweep an undercurrent of basic workers' rights under the rug.

Tech juggernaut Microsoft announced this week that it intends to acquire Activision-Blizzard, the purveyors of Call of Duty, Diablo, Overwatch, Crash Bandicoot, and what-have-you. It’s a landmark purchase of a studio undergoing a landmark government investigation into sexual (and other forms of) misconduct over the past few decades. So far, Xbox Game Studios — and specifically Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer — have entirely sidestepped the discussion of unionization at Activision-Blizzard.

When the press found the story, and it became public, knowledge of the harassment led to a walkout. Then another. And another. The sudden spotlight on a long history of issues didn’t even dissuade Activision-Blizzard from continuing to throw its employees under the bus, such as laying off Raven Software QA testers that were promised raises and encouraged to relocate for their job just months before.

In response to walkouts, looming threats of a strike, and ancient murmurs of organization in the games industry rising to a dull roar, “ActiBlizz” responded by hiring a union-busting law firm, while its very well-paid CEO, Bobby Kotick, has remained in power. Like many corners of the game industry, we’ve been pretty clear on our stance: “clean the whole damn house,” as my coworker Imran Khan put it.

Activision-Blizzard itself refuses to even acknowledge the move to strike and unionize. That’s to be expected. Recognizing a labor movement necessarily gives it power, and no company wishes to relinquish the slightest bit of control from the highly paid hands of a few. It’s what allows them to squeeze workers dry and discard them without repercussions on a scale that noticeably reduces profits (such as in the just weeks-old case of Raven). That’s where labor unions come in.

These organizations of workers help hold employers accountable by helping to pay for things like employment lawyers. They also let employees demand more and better as a group (i.e. collective bargaining) and the threat of strikes. As the ultimate means of interfering with profits, strikes are one of the strongest weapons workers have in their arsenal. Which is why those who stand to gain from exploitative business practices have historically feared and fought tooth and nail to prevent them.

Back in August 2020, NBA players very nearly went on what could have been a historically important strike to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake — one of countless Black men, women, and children shot, attacked, and often killed by police in the U.S. every year. After a brief walkout, the movement was halted in large part by Barack Obama, who decided to come out of semi-retirement to use his massive rhetorical power. Not to actually help anyone, of course, but instead to help an unbearable, national status quo limp along just a little bit longer. It was a predictable but terribly frustrating Liberal Democratic moment in the dying march of capitalism.

I’m worried Activision-Blizzard might similarly lose its head of steam — that there will be a quiet PR coup now that the company isn’t owned by “the bad guys,” thanks to its recent acquisition by Microsoft. Instead, a union within a group this size could and should go on to set a massive precedent for the power and importance of workers in video games.

It’s not a problem on the same scale as police violence, but many of the stories that have come to light during the Activision-Blizzard investigation are still terribly grim. Such as one employee who took her own life on a company trip, after she “had previously faced intense sexual harassment at work, including an incident where a photo of her genitals was passed around by male employees at a holiday party.”

Other, more endemic issues included “cube crawls,” during which male employees became intoxicated at work and went on office tours to harass women, as well as the now-infamous “Cosby Suite.” Named after the actor accused and convicted of sexual assault (though the conviction was overturned), the hotel room has become a bit of a symbol for the “frat boy” culture that allegedly pervaded Activision-Blizzard.

xbox game studios leadership
The current Xbox leadership, including Spencer.

Not all hope of unionization is lost, of course. The ABK Workers Alliance, an unofficial congregation of Activision-Blizzard employees, countered further by building a strike fund (you can donate to it here). This plus the earlier walkouts are all the building blocks of a union. You may already know these used to be quite common in the U.S. (after many years of weathering systematic bloodshed by companies and the U.S. military). The practice is once again resurging in North America with very tangible results. Though this comes after unions have been demonized and undermined in the last 40 years, thanks in large part to Ronald Reagan.

Weird how the politics of the Republic and Democratic parties line up like that, huh? Anyway…

Spencer’s business practices with the Xbox brand are generally viewed very favorably (including here at Fanbyte). Certainly when you compare them to Kotick. The Activision-Blizzard CEO’s stated goal at the company was literally “to take all the fun out of making video games.” Instead he approached the business like packaged goods. This helped make the publisher a bigger player than ever, but only for a time. Once-monolithic franchises like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Guitar Hero, Crash Bandicoot, and more have slowly eroded. Nothing at the publisher has really risen to replace them — leaving Call of Duty as the sole.  Game Pass is a laughably great deal. Backwards compatibility and archival work are important.

None of which changes the fact that organization is a good thing, not just for labor in general, but for the games we play.

Even if you ignore the ethics (which is impossible) working conditions have long led to increased productivity. Less burnout means experienced veterans stick around to share their wisdom in any industry. Fewer employees being browbeaten, looking for different jobs, allows them to focus on making good games. It’s not rocket science (even if programming, art, and design certainly are).

Big, overwhelming news like this — as well as Activision-Blizzard suddenly becoming just one cog in a larger machine — puts this growing potential for unionization in danger. Conversations may shift from “people shouldn’t have to fear homelessness while testing Diablo bugs” to “Should Xbox make a new Crash Bandicoot?” Though I’m more worried about leadership. The jury is out on whether or not Kotick will remain CEO at Activision-Blizzard after the ink dries on the acquisition. Though it seems entirely unlikely, from both a business perspective and a public relations angle, to keep the beleaguered multimillionaire around. More likely he’ll eventually receive a comfortable golden parachute to ride quietly into a position elsewhere.

Legally speaking, Spencer likely can’t say anything about the “A Better ABK” movement right now. Nor anything about Activision-Blizzard in general. At least not for a while. Intentionally or otherwise, it could very easily run afoul of stock manipulation charges (the sort that billionaires like Elon Musk are simply rich enough to do fragrantly, while paying slap-on-the-wrist fines that result). At the same time, the Workers Alliance has expressed deep concerns over silence from its existing management and timing of this acquisition. It also renewed its commitment to change.

Spencer does seem to make very smart, profitable business decisions. Xbox Game Pass has just 25 million subscribers alongside the acquisition. World of Warcraft, by comparison, peaked at 12 million subscribers back in 2010 — about three years before the Cosby Suite. Profits and value to consumers do not correlate to better working conditions. And even if Spencer and his team do run a great ship now, the future of leadership is always changing (this is the company founded by one Bill Gates) and uncertain. Particularly when it’s up to the whims of a few, powerful individuals. Many players and developers agree: to the point that we saw the first video game union on the continent finally pop up last year.

This seems like, if not the best remedy, certainly the best one available right now. It’s about distributing more of that power into hands of the collective — the workers’ whose labor produces the games that generate those profits.Through contracts and the threat of striking en masse, this ensures that individuals and groups in power cannot upend the lives of their employees, or consistently toture them, on a whim. Just like with Raven. And at EA. And at Take-Two Interactive. And Quantic Dream. And Ubisoft. And, and, and…

At the very least, it reduces the risk as much as possible under the threat of capitalism). Not just at Activision-Blizzard, nor at Xbox. The momentum shouldn’t stop because one rich man might lose his job and receive a massive payout in the process. The momentum should carry on through the Workers Alliance to the rest of Microsoft. The entire conglomerate should unionize. Just as the entire industry should.