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The rise of video game unions

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Microsoft started the year by recognizing its first union in the U.S., which happens to be the largest union in the video game industry in North America. The Microsoft subsidiary ZeniMax makes games like Doom, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. Roughly 300 quality assurance workers there voted to unionize in December.

NICOLE CARPENTER: It's a huge deal. That size is really significant. And it's also huge, that is not only in the video game industry, it's a major tech company, as well.

SUMMERS: Nicole Carpenter has been following the rise of unions in the video games industry for Polygon. When we spoke earlier, I asked her to tell us more about what these quality assurance workers do.

CARPENTER: The job has been precarious. A lot of the time, it's on contract work with low pay, and they aren't compensated for the stress of the job, which is finding the problems of the video game that they're testing before they go live. So they're doing a lot of repetitive actions. They're playing the games over and over and over again to kind of preempt what the millions of players will be doing in the game. So it's really a high-stress job.

SUMMERS: OK. So tell us what these quality assurance workers hope to accomplish with a collectively bargained contract that people might not know about or think of when they think of video game workers.

CARPENTER: Right. Well, so the video game industry has long been male dominated. There's been a lot of talk of gender discrimination, harassment and racism in the industry. And so quality assurance workers that I've spoke to want the union to change these environments. They want to have a contract to secure, you know, better pay, better work hours and benefits. But they also want unions to go beyond that to make sure that they can use that collective power of being that group to protect each other and to hold accountable the people in charge. One of the big things that comes up when I'm talking to workers now has been the return to work mandate that they've been facing. One of the things is that video game companies are located in expensive cities. So returning to work means adding not only to the rent they pay there, but they'll have to pay for gas for their commute, as well. And a lot of people just can't afford that.

SUMMERS: And Nicole, one of the reasons I specifically wanted to talk to you about this is because you're one of the journalists who put together an explainer zine that people can print out online about the rise of video game unions, an effort that's been going on since the mid-1980s. I'm hoping you can briefly tell us a little bit about that backstory and why we may be seeing a new wave of unionizing among video games workers coming right now.

CARPENTER: Yeah. Well, so the rise of the video game union zine is the explainer, and it covers everything about unionization, from how and why video game workers are doing this. It outlines all of the steps. And we kind of saw it as service journalism, no different than the game guides we produce to help people play their favorite games. And through that reporting, we learned a lot about workers in the video game industry and why they're doing this. I think within the past decade, people have really been building that work up at the Game Developers Conference, which is a huge video game conference for developers. And in private Facebook groups, on social media and on chat rooms, on Discord, they've been organizing and pushing back against some of these horrible practices like gender discrimination, racism, sexism.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, I'm hoping you can just put this in some broader context for us. We have been watching a boom in unionization efforts across a number of industries. How has that broader wave impacted what we see happening here among workers in the video game industry?

CARPENTER: A lot of workers that I've spoke to have pointed to the wider union wave as inspiration. Workers across the United States deserve a union to be able to have a say in their workplace and how they're treated there. And that's no different with video game workers than it is anywhere else.

SUMMERS: Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter for Polygon. Nicole, thanks for being here.

CARPENTER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "COMING OF AGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.