Activision Blizzard’s QA Department Seems Like A Hellhole

Activision Blizzard’s QA Department Seems Like A Hellhole
Call of Duty Mobile (Image: Activision Blizzard)

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.

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.

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 $US14 ($19) per hour. Another said it varies from $US15 ($20) to $US17 ($23) per hour. One other staffer, who preferred to remain anonymous, didn’t share how much they currently make but did note they took a $US7 ($9)-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.

Read More: The Human Cost Of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4

According to Glassdoor, the job-hunting website, QA jobs pull just over $US50,000 ($67,730) per year on average at national level.

“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.”

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, pictured here in 2015, received a target equity grant of $US28 ($38) million last year. (Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images) Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, pictured here in 2015, received a target equity grant of $US28 ($38) million last year. (Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

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.) 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 up, 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 customise 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.”

Activision Blizzard did not respond to a detailed list of questions provided by Kotaku in time for publication.

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.

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.”

Comments

  • One of the biggest earning games companies cheating out on pay and conditions while paying their CEO ridiculous amounts is shocking to absolutely no one. Bobby should split a million or two amongst his QA dept just for jokes.

  • This is EVERY major game dev QA, not just ActiBlizz.

    If you’re curious or care about this stuff, do yourself a favour and read the ‘Tales’ sections that accompanied every comic here: http://trenchescomic.com/tales

    Hundreds of bi-weekly QA stories over several years, primarily from people in QA, about how they are essentially disposable sub-humans as far as devs are concerned.

    First to be fired, usually only notified while out in the parking lot and security brings all their shit out. When there are pizza parties and other such events for Devs, the QA teams only get notified when the devs are full and have left the cold crusts for them. It’s an endless parade of frustration, performing psychologically destroying, repetitive tasks to reproduce defects that then get ignored by developers who don’t want to/can’t deal with it and who direct their frustration at the QA who found the bugs rather than themselves for creating them.

    Shit pay, shit conditions, shit treatment, zero respect, no security, best case scenario a carrot dangled that they might get an opportunity to be a real dev someday if they just persist with intolerable conditions? That’s the industry standard. QA is a resented, grudgingly-contracted evil, to devs, who are never really considered to be part of the studio, even when they technically are.

    • I’m not sure I understand all this – is this something that never happened to people in America regarding contract positions? I might need some education if someone can explain.

      Talking from my own experience in Australia – I work for the government and we hire “contract” staff all the time and mix this with permanent staff where needed – as a general rule they are paid the same if not more than the perm staff at all levels.
      These people understand that being a contract staff member means they don’t get benefits like leave but what they do get is extra perks like overtime for extra hours which we as salary staff don’t receive.
      The contract staff I know understand that they are hired as such because the business model suggests that the position that is needed is a “for now” placement – it may not be required in the future, that might be 2 years, that might be 6, who knows. We are lucky that if it is decided that it IS a required position in the future that position then can be reassessed and made perm.

      I am presuming that in the game industry that is exactly why these positions are contract, because there is a life/limit on these jobs. It just happens that Actiblizz has had a much longer life than others?

      • Oh, the US is utterly fucked for its Industrial Relations laws. Check this shit out, for Texas and California (where Blizzard has offices):
        https://www.twc.texas.gov/news/efte/pay_and_policies_general.html
        “The basic rule of Texas employment law is employment at will, which applies to all phases of the employment relationship – it means that absent a statute or an express agreement (such as an employment contract) to the contrary, either party in an employment relationship may modify any of the terms or conditions of employment, or terminate the relationship altogether, for any reason, or no particular reason at all, with or without advance notice.”

        But yeah, in Oz Government things are a lot fairer than even Oz private sector. Like you might be familiar, if someone gets hired on as a contracted AO3 to do AO3 work, they’ll get paid a contractor loading that compensates them for their lack of leave, right? Doesn’t happen in private sector. Telstra, for example, will staff its call centres with full-time permanent employees… but if they ever have an opportunity to retire one of those permanents, they can then eliminate the position, and instead hire a casual contract call centre operator through a recruitment agency. Telstra pays the agency, the agency then pays the contractor. That contractor can then be allocated as many or as few hours as Telstra likes, in many cases without any obligation to a minimum. There is no requirement for staff to be taking home the same pay as other staff who are doing the exact same work in the exact same role, based purely on their arrangements. Multiple agencies can be involved, for example. One might be paying their reps $18 an hour, another might be paying $21, and they’ll be doing exactly the same work. I believe it’s because the recruitment agency is the employer, not the contracting company who hired the agency. The agency just charges a fee to the contracted company, to provide a service. So basically, that casual contractor can be doing the same work as full-time Telstra staff, but get paid half the rate. In this way, private enterprise in Australia can also effectively hire and fire casuals as they like by simply not giving them hours. That ‘recruitment agency’ relationship adds an additional distancing layer to help insulate big employers from their obligations where the law might require them to put someone into a permanent position on the basis of their ongoing employment (known as ‘casual conversion’). If pressed, or if not using an agency to ‘supply us X people for Y period’, they can simply terminate the relationship before that obligation takes effect, or change their job title and role such that it counts as a different position and a fresh start on the time-until-permanent timer.

        That’s Australia. The US is so very, very much worse for employees.

        In video game industry especially, it has been the norm for decades to hire QA only for the duration of a project, then fire everyone who was hired for that project, then do a big recruitment drive for the next project. ‘In house’ developers who stay on and get moved around are a privileged position, which is why many QA folks with dev qualifications try to use QA as a foot in the door to get into the permanent gig.

        • Brilliant! This explained it perfectly.

          I have always disliked labour hire companies – I understand their need in times of urgency but as a baseline model for so many agencies now it baffles my mind – it seems to be such an intrusive and impersonal system to hire someone who really doesn’t get cared for by the parent company at all – as long as the person works and they get their cut for essentially saying “how bout X person for the job – they have your required skills” that’s where the interest stops.

      • Unfortunately it’s a very predatory sector. They know they have a limitless supply of fresh workers desperate to be part of the industry that they can lure in cheap with the promise that ‘maybe it’ll lead to a dev role down the track’. Then all they have to do is overload them until they snap.

        If they could figure out how to sell the idea of getting paid for QA services in exposure they absolutely would.

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