Over the last two years, in a protracted and devastating #MeToo movement for the video games industry, hundreds of women have spoken out about the manipulative and predatory behaviour they have experienced in their video game careers. A 2018 investigation by games website Kotaku led to legal action at California developer Riot Games, where five former employees sued the company over workplace harassment and discrimination and hundreds more joined walkouts to protest. The company promised to overhaul its workplace culture and a settlement was made in 2019.
Then, last summer saw a wave of stories on Twitter about people in the games industry generally being plied with drinks and pressured into sex at industry parties, belittled and gaslit at work by male bosses, stalked, groomed, harassed, or treated with contempt when a senior man’s advances were spurned.
In the past month there has been another surge of allegations against men from all areas of the video game world – developers to the games media, Twitch streamers and YouTubers to competitive players. A particularly alarming volume of complaints about harassment, sexual predation and misogynist bullying at French video game developer Ubisoft – particularly its Toronto and Montreal studios – have led to the resignation of a number of senior figures, and urgent statements from its CEO Yves Guillemot promising swift retribution for offenders and a transformation of the company culture.
This follows years of escalating exposure of games industry sexism. But after so many women – and not just women, but queer people, nonbinary people and men, too – have spoken out, is anything actually changing? Is this finally the point at which the industry reckons with its astonishingly widespread problems?
The beginnings of this protracted and public reckoning were in 2014, when members of what became known as the Gamergate “movement” spent months hounding female games critics, journalists and developers, both online and in real life. (Some still insist that Gamergate was about ethics and corruption in games journalism; presumably it was pure coincidence that almost all of its targets were women, in an industry that’s barely 20% female.) But this was blamed on a lunatic fringe of the “gamer” audience, organising on forums. When some women insisted that it was connected to an insidious culture of sexism in the games industry itself, they were not listened to. It has become undeniable that women working in video games are routinely abused and undermined in the workplace as well as by online trolls.
“Many of the workplace risk factors cited by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are commonplace in the games industry: overwhelming male workforce; lots of young workers; workplaces where some “superstar” employees are perceived to be particularly valuable; workplaces with significant power disparities; and workplaces which endorse alcohol consumption,” points out Emily Greer, CEO of Double Loop Games and the Independent Game Developers Association’s vice-chair, who is giving a talk at this year’s Game Developers Conference about how to prevent abuse at work.
“Games is a passion industry that people are eager to join, so companies can easily replace employees … it’s also drawing the majority of workers out of a core gaming culture that very much sees itself as a boys’ club, which affects the game industry culture, which affects the gaming culture in a reinforcing loop.”
Workplace sexism is not unique to video games – just ask women in tech, or film, or politics, or media – but a toxic confluence of worker disempowerment and a male-dominated managerial class can make it an especially unwelcoming place for women, says Meghna Jayanth, an award-winning narrative designer and workers’ rights activist. “I think our industry sits at the intersection of the worst of the casting couch, predatory networking culture of the entertainment industries, and the unregulated boys’-club mentality of Silicon Valley,” she says. “There’s an entire culture of silence, complicity and even enabling toxic behaviour.”
It doesn’t help that when women actually do speak out, whether publicly or within their companies, the backlash can be immense. Stories abound of HR departments working much harder to protect companies than the well-being of employees, of complainants having to band together in groups for fear of corporate reprisal, and a gauntlet of social media abuse for those who take their accusations public. And while sexual abuse is at least sometimes taken seriously, some everyday aggressions and obstacles that many women experience day-to-day are brushed off.
“It’s easy to read about all the incidents and think, why yes that’s clearly abuse,” says Anisa Sanusi, UI/UX designer and founder of Limit Break, a mentorship programme for underrepresented genders. “But the burnout of a marginalised person in the games industry is like death by a thousand cuts … How many times have you heard the story about women being passed by for promotions because they’ve been ‘too emotional’? ‘Be assertive, but not bossy. Laugh along with the jokes else you’re just making others feel awkward. Oh, he just put his hand on you? It’s not that bad. You’re overreacting. Why are you being difficult?’ We’re so fucking tired [of it].”
In addition to removing alleged abusers from positions of power, game developers hit by sexism and harassment allegations, such as Riot and Ubisoft, have responded by promising overhauls of their workplace culture and HR processes, often involving the hiring of expensive consultancies and diversity officers. In its statement, leading publisher EA invited players as well as employees to report sexism and abuse, declaring a commitment to what it calls “positive play”.
“While it may be disheartening that we have to talk about people feeling unsafe within a work environment in 2020, it is important that we hear these voices, listen to their stories, and ensure we are taking action as an industry. We have to create environments where the behaviours that facilitate those situations are not tolerated in any way,” says Samantha Ebelthite, manager of the UK and Ireland at EA. “Recent events have prompted us to speak about this issue at every level of the company … Talking about these issues makes a big difference, and we hope it will help embolden everyone to speak out and ensure there’s no hiding place for those offending.”
But statements and condemnations must lead to useful action, maintains Greer. “Company leadership needs to understand that this isn’t a problem that can be fixed with harassment training and feelgood statements. It requires grappling with a lot of core culture issues that are uncomfortable, because harassment is generally more about power than sex, and is often occurring within a broader context of bullying and toxicity,” she says. “Most urgently, they need to take complaints seriously, be willing to let people they consider ‘stars’ go, and make those filing complaints feel safe, but that’s only the beginning of the change needed.”
Sanusi believes that mentorship can have a positive impact as well, giving people someone to talk to outside of official channels as well as senior role models. “One of the more common tropes of abuse is isolating the victim from their friends and family. Unfortunately this is also very similar in abuse stories within the games industry as well,” she explains. “Victims are isolated from their colleagues, leaving them feeling alone.
“Mentorship could mean having someone on the inside to stick up for you, like your lead or a senior member of staff, or someone just as experienced within the industry but from the outside who can give a more objective point of view. People tend to believe that mentorship is only good for technical skill, almost like a martial arts master and disciple kind of relationship. In reality, mentorship greatly benefits soft skills like navigating office politics, negotiating and, most of all, self-esteem and confidence.”
When I wrote in January of 2018 that gaming wasn’t yet ready for its #MeToo moment, it was because women were waiting to speak on their own terms – not to be pressured into it by journalists seeking their own mini Weinstein scoop. The fact that people are finally feeling supported enough to talk about the abusive, crass or demeaning behaviour of some men in positions of power is itself an indication of progress. This summer’s revelations might seem to have come out of nowhere, but they are in fact a long, slow trickle that has built to a flood. The question now is not when gaming’s #MeToo moment is coming: it is, has the response been adequate?
“In my opinion, no,” says Jayanth. “I do not believe that change will come from the top, or from those in power. Change is always driven by those who are oppressed, and silenced, and marginalised – and those who stand with them. So many survivors, mostly but not at all only women – have shared their pain and suffering with us to force this reckoning. Public call-outs, I can tell you from personal experience, are a last resort. Particularly in our industry, where survivors risk further harassment and trauma simply by telling their truth. It’s shameful that our industry failed them so deeply, but the people speaking out have shown more leadership and courage than the white men who have been in power for decades … I believe it is time for radical change rather than reformism.”
The current pandemic could point towards a more inclusive, accountable and better games industry, feels Jayanth – one where people aren’t reliant on in-person events or drunken networking parties for community and professional advancement. “Shifting online makes our spaces more accessible globally, opening up our talent pools to more diverse candidates, allowing for flexible working, which could account for neurodivergence, disabilities, caring responsibilities. Our events and conferences immediately become less elitist and more financially viable for a variety of developers.
“On top of this, we need a cultural shift towards accountability and the proactive protection of workers: strict codes of conduct that are enforced, paid community management teams, and empowered third-party, external investigators called in to handle any allegations of sexist, homophobic, ableist or racist misconduct. HR is PR: its role is to protect the company’s image, as we have seen time and time again. We deserve better.”
Greer feels that women are being taken more seriously now than in the past, evidenced by companies’ willingness to dismiss or de-platform accused abusers. “But deep cultural change is hard. We’ll have to see how deep it goes, and how willing leadership is to sustain it once the immediate crisis has passed … My optimistic hope is that this could be like crunch [forced overtime], something that gradually improves industry-wide over time, through a mix of internal and external pressure. That’s been slow and uneven, but enough progress has been made there that it does show the industry can change.”