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ArenaNet Founder Calls for Unionization in Games

The founder of Undead Labs called for unionization across the industry.
The founder of Undead Labs called for unionization across the industry. / Photo courtesy of Undead Labs


Co-founder of ArenaNet, founder of Undead Labs, and former senior Blizzard employee Jeff Strain has written a letter advocating for unionization in the games industry, and encouraging his own employees to unionize.

Strain shared the letter with employees at his studio, Undead Labs, before sending it to IGN to publish. It comes in the wake of a tumultuous week in the games industry sparked by a lawsuit accusing Activision Blizzard of harboring a workplace environment of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination.

Strain joined Blizzard in 1996 as a game programmer before working on Diablo, WarCraft 3, and eventually serving as the lead programmer for World of Warcraft. In his letter, titled "It's Time," Strain says the lawsuit made sense based on his time at Blizzard.

"The Activision Blizzard disclosures this week have left me disgusted and repulsed — but not at all surprised," he writes.

After a "cataclysmic meeting" in which Strain objected to "dismembered and impaled female body parts in the beta version of Diablo," Strain said he decided to leave Blizzard and found his own studio. He says his time at Blizzard taught him the dangers of exceptionalist thinking, which helped him realize that unionization in the industry was the way forward.

"Unions were started in this country to protect workers from abusive, cruel, abhorrent, unacceptable and illegal treatment from companies. That's their entire purpose," he writes.

Strain has been on both sides of the union question, as an employee and as a founder of two studios. As a result, he says, he knows he has "nothing to fear from unionization, nor does any company that pays employees fairly and equitably, provides quality health insurance, models respect and civility for female, POC, LGBGTQ+ employees, and supports a healthy, whole life."

"The giants of this industry have shown us this week that we cannot trust them to moderate and manage the wealth and power that players and fans have given them."

Read Strain's full letter at the bottom of this story.

Analysis

Strain's letter comes at a pivotal moment in games, as the industry teeters on the edge of a true push for unionization. The movement has slowly gathered steam over the last few years, stymied by years of anti-union rhetoric in both the games industry and in American commerce writ large. But advocates see unionization as one of the few ways workers can protect themselves and each other from the kind of top-down toxicity we've seen revealed at companies such as Activision Blizzard, Riot Games, and Ubisoft.

Unions give workers leverage to negotiate with their bosses. This can give them the means to seek justice when a boss is abusing their power or failing to address the kind of toxicity described in the Activision Blizzard lawsuit. Unions can pressure leadership to make the changes toward which they pay lip service by threatening work slowdowns, stoppages, and full-on strikes if bosses fail to act.

That's in addition to everything else a union can do for workers: guaranteed salary minimums, protection from forced arbitration, healthcare, minimal leave, and plenty more.

Organizers of the walkout at Blizzard's Irvine, California campus earlier this week said they were not actively discussing unionization, but many in the industry — Strain included — believe it will be much harder to ensure equitable working conditions without unionization.

Here's Strain's letter in full:

It's Time

“Toxic” is a word so frequently used today that in some ways it has lost the true power and force of the word. We increasingly treat the word flippantly, sometimes even playfully. There are some situations, people, and institutions that simply can’t be brushed off with “toxic” and instead must be described more accurately: abusive, cruel, abhorrent, unacceptable, illegal.

The Activision Blizzard disclosures this week have left me disgusted and repulsed — but not at all surprised. I joined a very early stage Blizzard as a game programmer in 1996, when there were several dozen employees. I knew the three founders and senior leadership well, and hosted frequent dinners with them in my home. Over the next four years, I worked on the earliest versions of most of Blizzard’s iconic titles including StarCraft and Diablo, and I was briefly the team lead and lead programmer of World of Warcraft.

In 1998, after a cataclysmic meeting with one of the founders over our objections to dismembered and impaled female body parts in the beta version of Diablo, my wife and I began planning to leave Blizzard. Ultimately, I joined with a few like-minded colleagues and moved a thousand miles away from the Blizzard sphere of influence to start an independent studio.

My time at Blizzard left an indelible mark on my life and career that continues to this day. Most importantly, it showed me how abusive cultures can propagate and self-amplify over time; how “hardcore gamers only” is a smokescreen for “bro culture”; how fostering a sense of exceptionalism inhibits people from speaking up because they should just deal with it if they love the company and its games; and how passive leadership that turns a blind eye can ultimately be the most abusive thing of all.

I have attempted to create a healthier, more decent, more supportive environment in each of the studios I have started since leaving Blizzard. None of them were perfect, but I’ve tried to learn and improve each time. I’ve become increasingly careful in my hiring and selective in my choice of financial and publishing partners to give these healthier environments the greatest chance to flourish. At the end of the day, though, my studios employ at most a few hundred people. As we have seen through the disclosures this week, independent studios, even with the best intentions, cannot set the standards for the industry. The tone and tenor of the entire industry is set by the giants, the places with the largest number of entry-level jobs, and the places with the largest, most profitable titles.

During my 25 years working alongside talented developers, I’ve heard hundreds of profoundly disturbing stories about their industry experiences. I’ve also seen this cycle repeat itself numerous times, across multiple companies throughout our industry. There has certainly been some positive change, and I do believe many developers and publishers — even large ones — are working in good faith to improve. But those efforts, while commendable, can’t address the chronic issues in our industry systemically. In order to do that, game industry employees need advocacy and representation.

We need unionization.

Unions were started in this country to protect workers from abusive, cruel, abhorrent, unacceptable and illegal treatment from companies. That’s their entire purpose. If this week does not show us that our industry colleagues — even the most entry-level QA tester — need true support and baseline protection, I can’t imagine how much worse it will have to get.

I’m an entrepreneur, and a veteran of three successful independent studio start ups. I’m highly familiar with the financial, legal, contractual, and organizational aspects of game development. I also know that I have nothing to fear from unionization, nor does any company that pays employees fairly and equitably, provides quality health insurance, models respect and civility for female, POC, LGBTQ+ employees, and supports a healthy, whole life. It seems simple, but we clearly need help with it. The giants of this industry have shown us this week that we cannot trust them to moderate and manage the wealth and power that players and fans have given them.

I welcome my employees to unionize, and I’m giving my full endorsement and support to an industry wide adoption of unions. I also encourage the leadership of game-industry companies, large and small, corporate and independent, to join me in endorsing and advocating for unionization as a concrete, actionable step toward improving our industry. As a studio owner, I’ll roll up my sleeves and work with union organizers in a spirit of collaboration. I greatly look forward to the day when the joy and love for what we create for our players is reflected in our workplaces for all employees.

Jeff Strain

New Orleans