Long hours. Low pay. Tremendous instability. Working in quality assurance (QA) for a video game studio is notoriously difficult and painstaking enough as it is without factors like these complicating matters. Yet for QA testers at Activision Blizzard, a company that has come under fire in recent weeks for a whole host of troubling allegations, these may come with the territory. Indeed, a lengthy list of statements provided to Kotaku by the ABK Workers Alliance indicates as much, alongside other troubling claims, including pervasive hostility toward LGBT staffers.
[Update, 8/12/2021, 8:56 p.m. ET: This post has been updated throughout to reflect comment from Activision Blizzard.]
Many employees detailed workweeks of 50 or 60 hours, with some weekly tallies clearing the 70-hour mark. To put that in perspective, assuming you work a standard 9-to-5, 40-hour week, putting in 70 hours a week means you’d never have a Saturday off. It means you’d clock out at 9:00 p.m. on all six of those days, or at 8:00 p.m. if you skipped lunch. And that’s to say nothing of commuting outside of rush hour, when headways are typically longer and service is more prone to interruption. (In an email to Kotaku, an Activision Blizzard said that the “majority” of overtime for QA employees at Activision Blizzard is “voluntary.”)
Pay isn’t much better. The ABK Workers Alliance didn’t share specific salary figures with Kotaku but in all cases it lands squarely in “low.”
One employee said pay hovers around $14 per hour. Another said it varies from $15 to $17 per hour. One other staffer, who preferred to remain anonymous, didn’t share how much they currently make but did note they took a $7-per-hour pay cut for a QA gig at Blizzard. It took them seven years to get back to the salary level they were at before starting.
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According to Glassdoor, the job-hunting website, QA jobs pull just over $50,000 per year on average at national level.
When reached for comment by Kotaku, an Activision Blizzard rep told Kotaku via email that “compensation for QA staff varies by location, seniority, experience, and performance.”
“I could not afford to live on my own,” Billy, a QA tester, said. “I don’t have loans of any sort, or children, and I live with my partner so I think I am better off than most. [But] I know many people who literally cannot take time off of work right now despite their mental health being absolutely awful, because they wouldn’t be able to afford basic necessities such as rent and food.”
“I have to live in a house with at least three other people to afford to survive without skipping meals,” said another anonymous tester. “Even with four breadwinning adults in the house, it is still difficult to make ends meet while still being available to work for Activision QA.”
It’s not just a lack of pay. It’s also a lack of reasonable benefits—not just stuff like health and dental insurance but also, according to some anonymous employees, adequate PTO or paid sick leave. (There is no law mandating paid sick leave on a federal level. It’s dictated on a state-by-state basis. Texas, where one of Activision’s contract studios is based, does not mandate paid sick leave. “We offer all QA team members who are our employees paid sick leave, with an annual allotment of hours that roll over year-to-year. We are actively working to implement this policy for QA team members who are contingent workers in states that do not require it,” the Activision Blizzard rep told Kotaku.)
Since many QA staffers are on contract, the publisher isn’t obliged to offer benefits that typically come with full-time roles. And once the contract runs out, there are little protections offered to those employees. They can be let go, or not have their contract renewed, or kept on the team on a tenuous basis that could end in a blink.
That’s a throughline in the list of statements provided to Kotaku. Throughout every single testimonial, there’s the sense that these employees feel they’re eminently replaceable. You can almost feel the desperation jumping off the page. The QA teams at Activision Blizzard are talented folk who genuinely seem to love the craft and the games they work on, and as many point out in their statements, the work they do is a vital part of making games that players enjoy—and that earn Activision Blizzard unfathomable sums of money. They just want fair compensation and better working conditions.
One issue flagged in the official document is that many of the company’s internal programs “almost always default to legal names,” according to a QA tester at one of Activision’s contract QA studios. Rank-and-file employees can customize their display names in Slack, the popular office chat program, but changing a name in some of the company’s other programs reportedly requires reaching out to a higher-up or someone in the HR department. What’s worse, many of those programs persistently reset the names of employees, a thing that Andrew, a QA worker under Activision, said happens across the board.
“This puts us at risk of randomly being outed as transgender, which is incredibly disrespectful,” Andrew explained. “HR is aware of this issue and has supposedly been talking with others to get the issue fixed, but this has been going on for [at least] a year.”
Andrew, who is trans, said that he has “received nothing but respect in regards to my gender identity” from his direct colleagues, though acknowledges that his “experience is not universal” across the company.
After a few months on the job, Billy requested that their teammates address them by they/them pronouns. The teammates, all of whom were men, repeatedly neglected to do so, despite the fact that Billy listed their pronouns in a Slack status.
“[One] squad member made the classic ‘joke,’ ‘I identify as an attack helicopter,’ while sitting a few seats down from me,” Billy said. “No one said anything to correct it.”
Billy reached out to the HR department about the possibility of getting some sensitivity training sessions on the books, in order to foment a more equitable, inclusive workplace. They didn’t hear back for months.
According to an anonymous employee, the company puts in the bare minimum in conducting such training sessions. During the employee’s time at Activision Blizzard, the company reportedly put on just one Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) training that felt perfunctory, according to QA testimonials. It didn’t cover the use of pronouns.
“Upon joining, every Activision Blizzard employee is required to take training on our Code of Conduct, which they must then review and affirm annually,” the Activision Blizzard rep told Kotaku. “They must also take an Equality & Diversity (E&D) course every two years. In addition, they have access to our learning management system which has a series of DE&I training, including an inclusive hiring training which was rolled out company-wide. In addition, all QA team members, whether employees or contractors, are invited to live DE&I events held by the company such as guest speakers and panels.”
Billy ultimately requested to be moved to a different team.
“The legacy of Blizzard is all about, ‘You’re working for Blizzard, aren’t you lucky?’ But the reality is that we are constantly dealing with difficult people, in a culture that cares little for mental health and expects the same kind of ‘smile-all-the-time’ as retail does,” one anonymous tester said. “The only way for this to truly change is to change the culture and the attitude of the people in charge.”