Jan 3, 2023 - Technology

Microsoft game makers unionize after vote passes by "supermajority"

Video game screenshot of a group of armored warriors battling a giant skeletal monster

The Elder Scrolls Online. Screenshot: ZeniMax Online Studios

Hundreds of game developers at Microsoft-owned ZeniMax Studios have voted to unionize, according to a tally released today.

Why it matters: It's an empowering victory for workers at the lowest rungs of the games industry.

  • The union will consist of about 300 game testers from ZeniMax's studios in Maryland and Texas, including Doom-makers id Software, as well as Arkane and Bethesda, the teams behind major 2023 Xbox exclusives Redfall and Starfield.
  • A "supermajority" of workers voted for the union, according to organizers at the Communication Workers of America, which will encompass the new ZeniMax Workers United union.
  • Microsoft voluntarily recognized the union after a third-party confirmed the vote, the CWA said.

What they're saying: “We’re thrilled to kick off 2023 in a workplace that’s stronger and more equitable than it was last year," game tester Skylar Hinnant said in an emailed statement.

  • "We want to put an end to sudden periods of crunch, unfair pay, and lack of growth opportunities within the company," another ZeniMax tester, Victoria Banos, said.
  • "We look forward to engaging in good faith negotiations as we work towards a collective bargaining agreement," a Microsoft rep told Axios.

The big picture: Since late 2021, a growing wave of workers in the game industry have been trying to form unions.

  • Until then, the games industry, particularly in the U.S., was devoid of unions, even as workers grumbled on social media and through the press about long hours, low pay and scant job security have percolated through the press and social media for years.
  • But revelations about sexual misconduct allegations at Activision Blizzard in mid-2021 led to worker walkouts at the end of the year and efforts by some game testers at that company to try to unionize.
  • Some indie studios have followed.

Between the lines: The union's path to success was smoothed by Microsoft's desire to win regulatory and public favor for its proposed $69 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard.

  • U.S. senators had warned the Federal Trade Commission, which has the power to block the deal, about the merger's potential impact on workers.
  • In June, Microsoft potentially defanged that argument by entering a neutrality pact with the Communication Workers of America, the union supporting most of the games industry efforts. Microsoft wouldn't fight any unionization attempts, and the CWA would support the Activision deal.
  • Current Activision Blizzard management has been more resistant, challenging the voting process of its game testers as they've attempted to organize.

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