Activision Blizzard faces unfair labor practices complaint over staff unionization efforts

The Communications Workers of America has filed an unfair labor practices complaint against Activision Blizzard, accusing the company of retaliating against workers over their unionization efforts. If you’ll recall, the quality assurance workers at the Activision studio Raven Software announced their plans to unionize in January. That’s after Activision laid off 12 of its QA contractors despite Raven asking to keep them on. Workers at the studio went on strike following the event, demanding that all contractors be hired as full-time employees. 

In its complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the CWA accused the company of violating federal law by terminating those QA workers. The group also pointed out that Activision reorganized the studio by disbanding the QA team and embedding testers in other departments just mere days after they requested union recognition. In addition, Activision Blizzard allegedly withheld pays and benefits in April in response to the workers’ unionization efforts. 

According to previous reports, the company also actively and strongly discouraged workers from voting to unionize. Union organizer Jessica Gonzalez revealed on Twitter back in January that Activision VP of QA Chris Arends posted a message on a locked Slack channel diminishing the benefits of unionization. “A union doesn’t do anything to help us produce world-class games, and the bargaining process is not typically quick, often reduces flexibility, and can be adversarial and lead to negative publicity,” Arends wrote. 

A piece by The Washington Post also said that company leadership held town meetings to dissuade workers from organizing and sent out emails with a message that says “Please vote no.” Those efforts had failed, and CWA won the election to unionize at Raven with a vote of 19 to 3. Xbox head Phil Spencer reportedly said before the vote that he would recognize a Raven union once Microsoft’s acquisition of the developer is complete.

Game Workers Alliance/CWA organizing committee members Erin Hall, Lau Nebel-Malone and Marie Carroll said:

“The reorganization and withholding of pay raises and other benefits and the company’s failure to rehire laid off QA testers were clearly attempts by Activision to intimidate us and interfere with our union election in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Meanwhile, an Activision spokesperson disputed the allegations in a statement sent to Bloomberg:

“We respect and believe in the right of all employees to decide whether or not to support or vote for a union, and retaliation of any kind is not tolerated.”

As the news organization notes, complaints filed with the NLRB are investigation by regional offices. In case they’re found to have merit and aren’t settled, they can be prosecuted by the agency’s general counsel.

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Staff Picks: Why Metroid Dread is Our Game of the Year

Picking the “game of the year” is never easy. While every Digital Trends writer who helped deliberate is a gamer, their tastes differ wildly. I came out strong as an advocate for medium-defining indie darlings. Others are RPG enthusiasts who felt Tales of Arise deserved the top spot. Depending on who was in the conversation, we could have shuffled the deck a dozen different ways and come out with any number of winners. There’s an alternate universe somewhere where Forza Horizon 5 is our game of the year, I’m sure.

So when we do find common ground on a game, it’s truly special. It means that something has transcended its genre enough to win over a panel of gamers with disparate tastes. It’s always hard to predict what game in a given year will pull off that task. And even then, I was still shocked when Metroid Dread topped our voting sheet.

Long live the queen

Metroid Dread is a long-awaited sequel to Game Boy Advance classic Metroid Fusion. It brings the Metroid series back to its 2D roots while trading the sprite art for modern visuals. For longtime fans of the series (myself included), it was a cathartic release. Announced as a genuine E3 2021 surprise, it was a sequel no one really expected. The Metroid series seemed like it was dead in the water with Metroid Prime 4 currently languishing in development hell. The last thing any fan expected was a return to 2D.

While it was always going to be a significant game for fans, it was harder to predict how the general public would embrace it. In truth, Metroid is more of a cult hit for Nintendo, and one that hasn’t been truly great for over a decade. It doesn’t make the same kind of money as Mario or even Animal Crossing — it’s more of a “gamer’s game.” Fans of the industry revere it and the impact it’s had on the industry, but Samus Aran likely wouldn’t be a household name if it weren’t for Super Smash Bros.

Metroid Dread would become a pivotal game. It felt like the fate of the entire series was resting on it. If it failed, like Metroid Other M and Federation Force before it, that could be a nail in the coffin. Developers would continue to draw inspiration from it in the form of indie Metroidvania titles, but Samus’ reign as queen would reach an unsatisfying end.

Thank God that didn’t happen.

Using the Omega Cannon in Metroid Dread.

An instant classic

Rising to meet expectations, Metroid Dread gave the Nintendo Switch another instant classic. An increased emphasis on fast movement proved to be exactly what the series needed, buffing up both its exploration and combat encounters. Mechanical additions like the melee counter widened Samus’ moveset, making her feel more like her Super Smash Bros. counterpart. Battles are legitimately challenging, but always fair. Modernized visuals brought more detail to the 2D world, adding depth to each corridor. Oh, and the E.M.M.I. scared the ever-loving crud out of players, too. It’s the kind of genuine crowd-pleaser that Nintendo excels at.

What makes Dread stand out most, though, is its story. The secret truth about Metroid is that it’s always told one of gaming’s best stories. It’s a space epic where Samus’ history and decisions matter. When she saves the baby Metroid at the end of Metroid 2, it’s not just a stand-alone moment. It plays a major role in the events of Super Metroid, which makes it one of gaming’s most impactful moments.

Metroid Dread carries that narrative strength over by bringing decades worth of plot threads together in a dark crescendo. It’s a game where Samus’ recklessness as a bounty hunter finally catches up to her. We finally get to see the long-term consequences of her decision to eradicate an entire species for money. That plays out in a series of shocking plot twists that reward anyone who’s kept up with Metroid lore over the years. The David Cronenberg-esque conclusion still lingers in my head months later.

Samus melee attacks an enemy in Metroid Dread.

History matters

If you had to boil Metroid Dread down to one thematic takeaway, it’s “history matters.” The snap decisions we make can carry consequences that snowball in unexpected ways. In video games, we’re not usually punished for our actions. Kill 1,000 people in Uncharted and it won’t matter much by the start of Uncharted 2. Metroid Dread rejects the “video game reset” by turning decades’ worth of reckless mercenary work into a nightmare for the usually cool, collected Samus.

Metroid Dread isn’t devoid of hope. It doesn’t leave Samus to die haunted by her ghosts. Redemption is still possible, and the ending leaves the door open for that. By the final moments of Dread, Samus has transformed (in more ways than one). She’s snapped out of an apathetic trance and seems to understand that her power is corruptible. Perhaps she’ll stop accepting missions from a shady Galactic Federation that hires her to do their dirty work and become an actual force for good.

What’s exciting is that we won’t have to wonder for long, hopefully. With Metroid Dread garnering praise from critics and Switch owners alike, it feels like Saums is about to start a new chapter. She’ll continue to evolve, just as Nintendo has with the uneven series itself. History matters, but its repercussions aren’t always negative. Sometimes we learn from the unflattering parts of our past and use it to build a better future. Metroid Dread is a moment of growth and reinvention for the series, coming out of a dark decade of failure with an earned moment of redemption.

Mission accomplished.

Editors’ Choice

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Tech News

New Amazon robots could enable ‘safer’ exploitation of warehouse staff

Weeks after a study revealed that Amazon warehouse workers are injured at higher rates than staff at rival firms, the company has revealed it’s testing new robots designed to improve employee safety.

The e-commerce giant has ingratiatingly named two of the bots after Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie.

Bert is an Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) that’s built to navigate through Amazon facilities. In the future, the company envisions the bot carrying large and heavy items or carts across a site, reducing the strain on its human coworkers.

Ernie, meanwhile, is a workstation system that removes totes from robotic shelves and then deliveries them to employees.

“The innovation with a robot like Ernie is interesting because while it doesn’t make the process go any faster, we’re optimistic, based on our testing, it can make our facilities safer for employees,” said Kevin Keck worldwide director of Advanced Technology at Amazon.

The duo may one day be joined at work by another pair of robot colleagues: Scooter and Kermit, which transport carts across facilities.

Amazon said it plans to deploy Scooter in at least one Amazon facility this year, and introduce Kermit in a minimum of 12 North American sites.

[Read: Why entrepreneurship in emerging markets matters]

The robots were unveiled amid growing concerns about worker safety at Amazon. Earlier this month, a union-backed report on safety data found serious injury rates at the company were almost 80% higher than the rest of the industry.

Amazon has previously been accused of deceiving the public about the rising injury rates in its warehouses. But in recent months, the company has begun to publicly acknowledge the problem.

In April, Jeff Bezos revealed another system designed to improve worker safety: an algorithm that rotates staff around tasks that use different body parts.

These initiatives are unlikely to discourage accusations that Amazon treats workers like robots. But hopefully, the systems can provide some support for their overworked human colleagues — and don’t end up replacing them.

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Tech News

AI diversity groups snub future funding from Google over staff treatment

Google’s AI ethics drama has taken another twist. Three groups working to promote diversity in AI say they will no longer accept funding from the search giant after a series of controversial firings at the company.

Queer in AI, Black in AI, and Widening NLP cited the dismissals of Timnit Gebru and Margaret, the former co-leads of Google’s Ethical AI team, as well as recruiter April Christina Curley, as reasons for the decision.

Ia joint statement issued on Monday, the groups said Google’s actions had “inflicted tremendous harm” and “set a dangerous precedent for what type of research, advocacy, and retaliation is permissible in our community.”

Until Google addresses the harm they’ve caused by undermining both inclusion and critical research, we are unable to reconcile Google’s actions with our organizational missions.We have therefore decided to end our sponsorship relationship with Google.

Gebru was sacked in December after a conflict over a research paper she co-authored about the dangers of large language models, which are crucial components of Google’s search products.

[Read: 3 new technologies ecommerce brands can use to connect better with customers]

Mitchell was fired three months later for reportedly using automated scripts to find emails showing mistreatment of Gebru, while Curley says she was terminated because the company was “tired of hearing me call them out on their racist bullshit.”

The three groups said Gebru and Mitchell’s exits had disrupted their lives and work, and also stymied the efforts of their former team. Curley’s departure, meanwhile, was described as “a step backward in recruiting and creating inclusive workplaces for Black engineers in an industry where BIPOC are marginalized and undermined.”

The groups urged Google to make the changes necessary to promote research integrity and transparency, as well as allow research that is critical of the company’s products.

They also called for the tech giant “to emphasize work that uplifts and hires diverse voices, honors ethical principles, and respects Indigenous and minority communities’ data and sovereignty.”

None of the organizations have previously rejected funding from a corporate sponsor. Wired reports that Queer in AI received $20,000 from Google in the past year, while Widening NLP got $15,000.

The trio joins a growing number of individuals and organizations who have spurned funding from Google over the company’s treatment of staff.

Five months after Gebru’s firing, the fallout continues to harm Google’s reputation for AI research.

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