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Q&A: Catching up with the protestors ousted from The Game Awards

Game Workers of Southern California discuss being removed by security outside The Game Awards venue LA Live, and what message they were hoping to send at the event.

In the hours preceding last week's Game Awards held at The Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, in-person audience members of the show were greeted by an unexpected (but not surprising) sight as they approached the event. 

In front of the venue, a few members of the group Game Workers of Southern California stood near the security checkpoint with messages of support for Activision Blizzard workers--and a demand that the 20 laid-off (and protesting) employees at Raven Software be re-hired.

Or at least, they were in front of the Microsoft Theater initially. Right as we began speaking with the protestors, security walked up and asked them to relocate off private property. The Microsoft Theater sits in the middle of LA Live--a privately-held commercial zone adjacent to the Los Angeles Convention Center that also plays host to a major sports venue (that was recently renamed the Crypto.com Arena). 

Because of its location, ejecting the protestors back to the public streets meant they'd be further away from The Game Awards as attendees poured into the event. Undeterred, they relocated and continued their protest.

How did the move impact the group's activism? What kind of message were they hoping to share with attendees? To get these answers, we caught up with Robin Trach and Julie Lieu to discuss their experience, and discuss how experiences like this shape worker activism.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Game Developer: What brought Game Workers of Southern California out to The Game Awards in the first place?

Trach: We'd had just our normal general meeting and were looking at recent news, and we realized we're Southern California-based and the Game Awards is happening relatively soon. We came [because] this ceremony is supposed to be kind of a celebration of 2021 in the games industry, and you're not going to see all of the parts of it celebrated [at the awards]. 

I'm sure some great games came out of some fantastic work by game developers this year. It is a seismic year for game industry organizing, and is perhaps the most important year for game industry organizing. So we weren't protesting that the awards were happening or saying they should be boycotted. Really, we just wanted to be part of that conversation and make sure that when people look back at 2021, they're also looking back at the organizing that took place. 

To that end, we drew up this little brochure--The Game Worker Awards--where we just recognize some of the organizing that happened this year with the Paizo Workers Union. The Better Ubisoft and Better ABK Workers alliances, etc. 

The other bit was we wanted to call attention to the fact that Raven QA workers, folks who worked on Call of Duty: Warzone, about 20 of them were let go right on December 3rd, just in time for the holidays. And meanwhile, their game is literally up for an award. It's just cruel and bizarre, and kind of end-of-quarter number pumping. They've been out on strike, and we wanted to make sure that they also had some representation at The Game Awards. We had some buttons with the slogan, "re-hire them all." 

They're really going out on a limb with the strike and they're really putting everything on the line. I think the whole industry needs to just needs to support them. It's historic! And as a game developer I know it could have been me. It could have been any of us. So we had to support our colleagues at Raven so that the next time--at my company, if I'm laid off, if I have to go on strike--then you know people are gonna have my back as well.

Lieu: On top of that, I personally work in QA, and most of the time in our studio...a lot of QA feel like they don't matter in the company. Some of the Raven testers have even said, "I can't believe people actually are doing this. They're helping us and that's very emotional to see too."

What was your hope for the evening--and how long had you been intending to protest the ceremony before your removal by security? Was there any intent of bringing the protest inside the event, or gaining visibility during the broadcast?

Trach: By the way, when security came around, we were still demonstrating for the duration of the entry period, we just had to move on to some of the public sidewalk blocks as we split up and hit the three different entrances to the area. 

First things first this was a, I want to say, three-day turnaround for us. We kind of realized kind of a little bit late, like, "oh, shit, these are happening in our city." We're still kind of coming back into live events, and so the idea that you could actually show up to something is still novel. 

I think we were hoping to make relationships, start conversations like this one, [and] just make sure that the attendees who are coming to celebrate this year in the games industry are also celebrating the organizing. The purpose of the buttons was definitely to try to just get some visibility in the audience. 

I think that we had some good success in terms of how many people we were able to reach. Being put on the sidewalk made us a little bit less effective. And I think for a lot of the awards, the developers didn't come up and actually accept them. 

We did have a couple of kind developers (who I won't name for their security), who took buttons...which was some really good solidarity. We were really happy with just about everyone who took a button. It's very intuitive! Twenty people wo worked on [Warzone], which was nominated at this very show, just got canned for no reason. So we had really good uptake with the people we started conversations with. 

Overall, I'm really happy with how it went. We were there between 3:00 PM and maybe 5:00 PM. The awards pre-show started at 4:30 PM. So everyone was coming until 5:10 PM. We probably could even have said to come a half hour earlier. It's a great learning experience for us as we get back into the swing of doing canvassing and live events. For a three-day turnaround, I'm really happy with both what we were able to muster and the response that we got from attendees.

Lieu: Honest, it was really quick. So these brochures that we made, these buttons that we made... We were just on the fly with it. It was a definitely team effort. Even though our our group was small, I think we did manage to spread a lot of good news and got new supporters along the way. 

There were people in the public that didn't really know what was going on that started to understand. So I thought that was a huge success as well. I definitely had some people who were not so happy I was there, but for the most part I'm still really happy of how it went.

A brochure and button handed out by Game Workers of Southern California

Are you referring to security or someone else?

So eventually I was kind of on the sidewalk, and I guess this is where I saw a lot of people in suits were walking by. Some of them made faces...I got called a bitch. It was interesting. But there were also good interactions. 

When you come to these events, you never know what's going to happen, what's gonna be thrown out. But there are so many more positive reactions than anything, and I think pushing out the news about the [QA walkout] is really the main point here.

What was it like to have this sudden pressure from security after you'd been protesting for a bit? How did the removal play out from your perspective?

Lieu: I'll be honest, security was a lot nicer than those people in suits. They were so much more nice. We were able to talk to them. They just talked to us about the boundaries, and that they're doing their job. We were just trying to do our thing, and we were able to compromise.   

It was scary. I would say it was scary. And luckily we did have somebody with us to help calm the situation down a bit more. So I'm very, very thankful for that. But honestly, like I said, I think the [people in suits] were way worse. They were way scarier.

Trach: There was a sharp correlation between suits and response? I mean, the more kind of put-together fancy expensive looking people. *laughs* You know, I'm like, "okay, like, I'm gonna give you a pamphlet, just so you know that we're here. I'm just sending a message."

Just to clarify--these were most of the people out on the street as opposed to people where we met by the Microsoft Theater?

Lieu: They looked like they were they were going to the Game Awards show. They were walking in that direction.

Trach: Yeah, by that point, we were catching people at the public property [at the edge of LA Live]. Worth noting--the security people were very nice. We did have [a situation] where someone from the venue came down to talk to logistics, who we were able to work out a deal with, [and] who was a bit less happy that we were there. 

I think it's great to celebrate the work of the games industry. I think it wouldn't have been out of the question for The Game Awards to invite some ABK organizers. My joke has been "the labor movement in games' invitation must have gotten lost in the mail." We're just gonna come anyway. 

Again, the actual security professionals were very nice. The security uniforms versus the the suits--there was no comparison.

What message would you have for Geoff Keighley and the event organizers about why you were there? 

Trach: That's a great question. I think, number one, if we're going to talk about the story of 2021 in the games industry, you have to tell the whole story. I think a lot of people were disappointed by kind of his lack of addressing sort of anything related to that. 

One of the things that we were really trying to make sure that our canvassers knew is that this isn't really about the awards show. This is about the big picture. This is about getting these people their jobs back. This is about the labor movement in games. So [with] celebrations and events like this, definitely the more that what's actually happening can be acknowledged and not ignored, the better. 

I think we were just as much there for all the different industry members who were coming as members of the press, and we also had some great interaction with them.

I believe that the venue the Microsoft Theater is an IATSE-contracted venue, so we had some great interactions with some of the union staff. We also had an IATSE member out canvassing with us in some cross-industry solidarity. 

But yeah, I think the message for Geoff Keighley and the rest of The Game Awards is "this is happening, you should acknowledge it. This is part of the story of 2021 in the games industry."

This year's audience for The Game Awards included nominated developers, industry guests, and high-profile executives like Phil Spencer (who himself condemned Activision Blizzard's behavior in an internal memo). Is there any message you'd want to share with the latter group, who might not have heard it because of your relocation?

Trach: That's a great question. First things first, even with the sort of public sidewalk entrance we had a pretty good access to people. Being in the plaza would have helped, but I think there's there's a couple things to say. 

Number one, I think my message for a lot of the just sort of industry bigwigs who were there is that it's really easy to say "oh, Activision Blizzard is blowing up, let's make some statement about that." Who else was there, and is on the [Awards] Executive Board? We have folks from Ubisoft and Riot and EA. It's like, if we had an awards show with only the game companies doing ethical practices and stuff, that will be very short show. 

It's so easy to kind of just dogpile on the one company that's [in the spotlight], but...you can't just act like things are okay in your own backyard. 

But what I would also say is we weren't really there to send a message to them because, frankly, I don't care a ton what they think. We were there to send a message to game workers. And our message really is for game workers, because at the end of the day, change will never come from the top-down. No benevolent dictator is going to come down and be like, "I have total power over every decision. I still, I have this unchallenged employer authority. And I'm just gonna do all the nice things, all the perfect things to resolve the situation." 

Our message is for game workers, which is that you have a choice. You can choose to have a say in the circumstances that affect you, or you can choose to not have a choice. 

As we say in the labor movement: "united, we bargain, divided we beg." I'm done begging, and I think a lot of game workers are too. We want to come out to send them that message and to show Raven Software QA just how much we support their example, how much we want to see them rehired, and how much they are an inspiration for the rest of the labor movement.

Lieu: I really want to highlight the quote that Robin just said--"united, we bargain divided we beg"--I think when you are in the situation that's really scary, the company's going to try to put you against other workers. We have to remember that we are in this together and we need to fight together. 

They're going to pull anything they can to try to separate us. That's why all these walkouts are so impressive, because it's it takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of unity, to create and organized something like that. It's something that we really, really want to shout out to all the game workers who were able to pull these off this year and previous years.

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