Edmonton quality assurance testers pioneer video game union drive in Canada

Video game quality assurance employees in Edmonton could soon be part of Canada’s first unionized workplace for an industry with a sordid history of worker exploitation.

Keywords Studios employees seeking union representation

The workers are contracted out to Edmonton-based BioWare, famous for the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. (Bioware)

Video game quality assurance employees in Edmonton could soon be part of Canada's first unionized workplace for an industry with a sordid history of worker exploitation.

Last month, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 applied to the Alberta Labour Relations Board to become the certified bargaining agent for Keywords Studio staff contracted to BioWare. The process is still ongoing but the union expects a formal vote by staff in the next few weeks.

BioWare, owned by publishing behemoth Electronic Arts, is a major game studio responsible for hits from the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. Keywords Studios contracts support work to many major developers globally.

CBC News spoke to three employees, whose identities are being protected for fear of reprisal. They said one of the catalysts for the unionization drive was a mandatory return-to-work order that has been rescinded since the union application started.

Keywords Studios workers were told to return to the office while BioWare employees were given more options.

BioWare's physical offices are located in Edmonton's Epcor Tower.
BioWare's physical offices are located in Edmonton's Epcor Tower. (Stephen Cook/CBC)

A major issue is compensation. Employees said there were pay discrepancies between testers but pay typically hovers around Alberta's minimum wage of $15 per hour. They said that does not constitute a living wage and is low for the skills required for the job, especially when compared to BioWare employees doing similar work.

"We're hoping that the union gives us some level of assurance, honestly," one worker said.

"An assurance that we can keep doing our jobs the way that we're doing them and that, hopefully, we get some bargaining power in terms of wage increases."

CBC News did not receive responses to requests for comment from Electronic Arts or Keywords Studios.

Industry labour issues

Low pay and compulsory overtime known as "crunch" are longstanding issues within the industry, albeit the latter are less likely to apply to roles like QA testers paid hourly wages. Social problems have also been brought to the forefront with a recent lawsuit by the state of California against Activision Blizzard for allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment.

"What were seen as sort of one-offs, or unfortunate aspects of the industry, are now being viewed as systemic problems with labour," said Sean Gouglas, a professor of game studies at the University of Alberta.

Quality assurance workers test games for bugs before shipping, typically at the end of the development cycle but sometimes embedded throughout the process.

Gouglas said some people start in QA as a way to break into the highly competitive industry. They face many of the same labour issues that have plagued the trade for years.

"If all that is true for the industry generally — again not every company, but many companies — it is absolutely true for the quality assurance testers," he said. 

"They are generally the lowest rung of the ladder in the game development process."

Unionization rare

Unionization is rare within the North American video game development industry. 

The first union on the continent was formed just last year at Vodeo Games, a small indie studio whose employees work remotely in both Canada and the United States.

A second union was formed this year for the quality assurance department of Wisconsin-based Raven Software, which has worked on the Call of Duty franchise.

Johanna Weststar, a professor of employment relations at Western University, said the emergence of the grassroots organization group Game Workers Unite put unionization on the table.

Weststar said the organization — which is not a union itself but has chapters throughout the world — has worked to facilitate unionization and engage in partnerships with various union bodies.

"There's a lot of what I would call experimentation happening in the worker organization in this industry right now."

Weststar predicts more attempts will be made to unionize within the industry but cautioned that there has yet to be a watershed test case.

"These are still sort of unionizing at the margins with the most precarious workers, which is fair, there's a degree of sense making there," she said. 

"But it will be very interesting to see when some core game developers — so not QA — in a major studio, if a unionization attempt  happens there, then we're really seeing precedent."