Anna* was 10 when she built her first video game on Roblox, a digital platform where young people can make, share and play games together. She used Roblox much like a child from a previous generation might have used cardboard boxes, marker pens and stuffed toys to build a castle or a spaceship and fill it with characters and story. There was one alluring difference: Roblox hosted Anna’s tiny world online, enabling children she had never met and who maybe lived thousands of miles away from her home in Utah to visit and play. Using Roblox’s in-built tools – child-friendly versions of professional software – Anna began to learn the rudiments of music composition, computer programming and 3D modelling. Game-making became an obsession. When she wasn’t at school Anna was rarely off her computer.
As she became more proficient, Anna’s work caught the attention of some experienced users on Roblox, game-makers in their 20s who messaged her with a proposition to collaborate on a more ambitious project. Flattered by their interest, Anna became the fifth member of the nascent team, contributing art, design and programming to the game. She did not sign up to make money, but during a Skype call the game-makers offered the teenager 10% of any profits the game made in the future. It turned out to be a generous offer. Within a few months, the game had become one of the most played on Roblox. For Anna, success had an unfathomable, life-changing impact. At 16 her monthly income somehow exceeded her parents’ combined salaries. She calculated that she was on course to earn $300,000 in a year, a salary equivalent to that of a highly experienced Google programmer. Anna cancelled her plans to go to college.
After it launched in 2006 Roblox was, for a while, a relatively obscure piece of educational software. Co-designed by two engineers, David Baszucki and the late Erik Cassel, who had become millionaires in the 1990s by designing and selling physics-simulation software, Roblox was built as a playful method of teaching children the rudiments of game-making. The roughly hewn, blocky aesthetics and ugly text that typified most user-made games on the platform were offputting to adults. But children loved the fact Roblox offered access to an endless stream of new and free experiences – a kind of YouTube for video games. Best of all, one’s customised avatar could be used in any game on the platform – as if Super Mario could also moonlight as the hero in FIFA Football, Call of Duty or Pac-Man, a feature that made thousands of disparate games feel like part of the same universe.
Initially, there was little incentive or encouragement for children to make money from their games – a feature fraught with potential legal complexities. Then something changed. Roblox began to advertise itself as a way for young game-makers to make money. On its website, it adopted the slogan: “Make Anything. Reach Millions. Earn Serious Cash.” The company encouraged users to create and sell costumes and accessories for Roblox avatars. These items, the digital equivalent of doll’s clothes, could be bought using Robux, the platform’s digital currency, which the company currently sells at a rate of about 80 to the pound (the exchange rate varies depending on the amount bought in a transaction). Roblox took a 30% cut from the sale of each pair of virtual sunglasses or sports car; the rest went to the original creator and seller.
The shift proved profitable. More than half of all US children now have a Roblox account, an astonishing statistic for a company that hardly advertises. Buoyed by the Covid-19 pandemic, by the end of 2021 more than 27m games and experiences had been published on Roblox, many by children inspired by success stories such as Anna’s (5% of Roblox players publish something of their own, the company says). According to the firm’s latest figures, an average of 49.4 million users logged on to Roblox each day in November 2021. When Roblox floated on the stock market in March last year, it was valued at $41bn.
Viewed by some as a blueprint for the next generation of virtual economies where users can trade artificially scarce digital assets, Roblox has now surpassed industry titans such as Activision Blizzard and Nintendo to become the most valuable video game company in the world. It is an empire built on the sale of virtual boots and hats and considering that almost half of its users are aged 13 or under, the creativity and labour of children.
From the moment she joined the project in 2016, until 2018, when the game reached the heights of its popularity, Anna saw herself as a partner in the venture, where her skills proved invaluable. “I contributed basically everything to the project – animations, sounds, 3D modelling, level design and programming,” she told me. Anna’s transition from amateur game-doodler to professional developer had been so imperceptible that she had not thought to ask for a formal contract, for which she would have required a guardian’s consent to sign. And even though Anna was a child involved in a project that had made more than $2m, no one from Roblox contacted her to provide advice or support. Anna’s income was instead reliant on the unregulated benevolence of the game-makers who owned the account into which Roblox paid the game’s earnings. They decided unilaterally how to distribute funds among the rest of the team.
With no contracts in place, the scale of earnings soon caused the fragile financial arrangement to collapse. The game-makers scheduled a call with their young team and announced they were now making the children independent contractors with fixed salaries. Anna did the sums. Her demotion amounted to a 40% pay cut. “I had no say in the matter,” she told me. It was a wounding betrayal. Anna and another colleague quit that day and watched from a distance as, in the months that followed, Roblox promoted the game as an example of self-made success on the platform. There seemed to be no one to whom Anna could turn for advice. Her grandmother urged her to bring a case against the game-makers, but she was afraid that a lawsuit would wipe out her savings. “There is no HR to call,” she told me. “Roblox’s forums would have flagged any post I made about the situation as harassment. And, as I wanted to keep making games on Roblox, I was aware of the reputational risk associated with speaking out against people who were well regarded within the developer community.”
Proponents argue that by teaching children how to make, market and sell their creative work, Roblox equips young people with a set of valuable skills for the digital workplace. Max Entwistle and Simon Burgess, 24-year-old co-creators of one of the most popular Roblox games, SharkBite, met on the platform when they were 12. They learned how to make games together, sharing development responsibilities and profits evenly. Their game, which has been played more than a billion times, became profitable while they were studying at university and now generates millions each year. “When I graduated, I wouldn’t have been able to find a job that was higher paying than what I was already doing,” Entwistle told me. Rather than strike out as a junior employee at an established studio, Roblox provided a fast lane for both men to co-found a successful studio, something that might have taken years outside the Roblox ecosystem.
Few Roblox games earn major income. Craig Donato, Roblox’s chief business officer, told me that while the company paid out more than half a billion dollars to creators last year, only 1,000 games generated more than $30,000 in 2021.
For many of its young users, Roblox is their first experience of the many challenges of managing a team on any creative project, where egos jostle and commitment is tested. With so many projects made by young teams with no previous experience of how to collaborate, little supervision, and often unrealistic expectations, stories of projects gone bad are as prevalent as stories of miraculous success. Roblox offers an accelerator programme – a 12-week course run three times a year – to educate its users. But these tools are focused on how to make better games, not on the interpersonal challenges required to manage a successful creative team. So, while the early success experienced by Anna in Roblox is unusual, stories of exploitation on the platform are rife.
Sixteen-year-old Regan Green, from Ontario, Canada, joined Roblox when he was six. Like Anna, he soon began to dabble in the software’s suite of creative tools. In 2017, Green fell in with the creator of Sonic Eclipse Online, a pastiche of Sega’s seminal Sonic the Hedgehog series. Like many 12-year-olds, Green loved the character of Sonic, so when the game’s creator, Jadon Shedletsky, known on the platform by the handle “DoctorRofatnik”, offered him the chance of a lifetime to work on the game as its programmer, Green eagerly signed up.
Shedletsky, who was 24 at the time, proved to be a demanding leader. Green claims that he was encouraged to work long hours to improve the game or be replaced. “It began to have a negative effect on my mental health,” Green, who now makes games outside the Roblox ecosystem, told me. “I was constantly trying to find ways to improve the project, but [Shedletsky] always wanted more out of me and I became incredibly burned out.” Green worked on Sonic Eclipse Online constantly between the age of 12 and 14. “The pressure caused me to break,” he said. Shedletsky denies that he threatened collaborators with replacement if they did not produce enough work. “We have no such thing as hours because we’re not professionals,” he told me.
Like Anna, Green felt there was no one at Roblox to whom he could turn for support. “I didn’t reach out to Roblox themselves about it, because even then I knew about how unhelpful they were for their developers,” he said. “Things like developer credit and fair pay just aren’t their problems to deal with, I guess.”
As well as game-making tools, Roblox includes communication features that enable teams to organise their work. Any messages sent this way are subject to Roblox’s code of conduct and are moderated by proprietary software that checks for abusive language. Sonic Eclipse Online’s development team ignored Roblox’s chat facilities in favour of the popular third-party chatroom, Discord, where more advanced functionality made it easier to communicate and allowed freer use of language.
Rachel*, like Green, started playing Roblox when she was six, drawn to the range of games on offer and the community of children with similar interests. She became involved in Sonic Eclipse Online when she was 12 and joined the game’s Discord chat forum. The forum was run by Shedletsky as a place to discuss development of the project, but also as a typical internet hang-out, characterised by meme-sharing and ironic in-jokes. It was, she says, “an absolute cesspool of toxicity”. Shedletsky started a private chat with Rachel soon after she joined the server. He began sending her private updates on the progress of the game, which she says made her feel special, like she was party to insider information. He interspersed these messages with innuendo and sexual jokes. “I liked the attention and, very early on, started developing feelings for him,” she told me. “I was a child who just wanted love and attention she couldn’t get elsewhere.”
Shedletsky soon changed his tone. In messages seen by the Observer, he made repeated jokes about raping Rachel and sent her sexually explicit images. Shedletsky, who was 24 at the time, was aware of Rachel’s age. “It’s fine, you’re 12, I expect you to be a little slow, but soon I’ll corrupt you beyond your wildest dreams,” he messaged her in September 2017. “Sexualising other women in the server, underage or not, was already a huge thing but was most common with me,” she recalled. Other members of the team were aware of the charged dynamic, jokingly referred to her as Shedletsky’s “underage sex doll” in the main chatroom. If ever she challenged his messages, he told her it was all said in jest and not to take herself so seriously. Shedletsky gave Rachel free Robux to spend on Roblox. “He used the fact that I cared about him a lot to his advantage,” she said. “He was very manipulative, right up until the day I left.”
Sonic Eclipse Online launched on Roblox in late 2018. Users could buy access for 400 Robux – £4.59 – for which they would receive a Sonic costume for their avatar. Rachel became a moderator of the game’s community on Roblox. By now, she had a boyfriend and was increasingly uncomfortable with the behaviour she witnessed. She says she saw Shedletsky’s talent for manipulation in the way he treated Green, constantly demanding more work, while oscillating between criticism and praise. As a co-member of the team, she felt culpable. “He should not have been in this environment, period.”
Rachel left the development team in early 2020 and later that year, at the urging of other friends she made on the platform, began to speak publicly about the abuse she suffered. Her friends created a Google document composed of dozens of screenshots of Shedletsky’s messages sent to Rachel and others during a two-year period. Shedletsky posted a response video in which he claimed the messages he sent had been jokes and that Rachel had only come forward for attention. After she saw the video, Rachel began to self-harm. Shedletsky has since deleted it, but recently told me that he stands by most of what he said. “[These] were jokes made in poor taste that could be misinterpreted at face value as something more serious,” he said. “I do not stand by the comment I made about Rachel coming out to seek attention. I made a judgment without the appropriate information.”
Friends Rachel had made on Roblox rallied. “KK”, a 19-year-old Japanese game developer, wrote to Roblox asking the platform to ban Shedletsky’s account and remove his game so that he could no longer profit from the project. KK, who joined Roblox when she was seven and learned to speak English by playing games and making friends on the platform, wanted to prevent similar incidents. “If Roblox had provided the genuine support needed for this situation, it would have never happened,” she said.
Roblox told KK that Rachel needed a parent to lodge a formal complaint. Thirteen days after Rachel’s mother filed the complaint (she still has not told her father about what happened), Roblox removed Shedletsky’s primary account. Sonic Eclipse Online remained available for several months after Shedletsky was banned and was finally deleted on 27 December after Sega demanded Roblox remove the game for infringing its copyright. Shedletsky, who now provides only “narrative consultancy” on the game, told me that he did not earn any income from Sonic Eclipse Online. “I have never gotten a percentage from the game and have never profited from it,” he told me. “All the money the project makes goes back into paying for assets or developers.” Yet in December he posted a message to someone on another forum boasting: “I make more with Roblox than both of your parents combined.” Roblox declined to comment on this or any other specific cases. KK has found the company’s response gravely lacking. “Roblox’s lack of care for the safety of its users has opened my eyes,” she told me. “My trust in them to maintain a safe environment is completely gone.”
During an investor call in November, co-founder David Baszucki, known to users as “builderman”, assured shareholders that safety was at the core of everything the company built. It was, he said, “what everything rests on”. The firm employs more than 2,000 moderators around the world who review content uploaded to the platform, manually check anything flagged as inappropriate and escalate incidents of suspected grooming. The company’s technology scans communications for certain keywords. Nevertheless, Laura Higgins, Roblox’s director of community safety and digital civility, told me: “You can’t retrofit safety.”
Under-13s are not able to share personal information or hyperlinks, while users can self-moderate by blocking other users from communicating with them. “We also conduct a safety review of every uploaded image, audio and video file before these assets become available on our platform,” the company told me. Parents can limit how much their children are able to spend on Robux, a recent feature designed to stop kids from racking up stratospheric bills or frittering away earnings from their games. “There’s a tremendous amount we do to make sure that it’s safe,” Donato said. “What we do well exceeds whatever regulations exist.”
Certainly, there are challenges for a company trying to manage the deluge of content uploaded to its servers each day, the millions of messages being sent between children on its platform, all while running a vast experiment designed to replicate the adult workplace and markets with a user base that, until recently, was predominantly under 13. None of Roblox’s existing tools, however, would have prevented Anna’s alleged financial exploitation, Green’s alleged labour exploitation or Rachel’s alleged sexual grooming.
Supporters argue that Roblox provides a helpful introduction to game-making. The company provides the tools to make games, the servers to host games, an audience to find and play games and the financial ecosystem to enable young developers to profit from them. Yet Roblox also reflects many of the challenges and shortcomings of the wider commercial games industry: the risk of exploitation, of abusive managers, of miserly revenue splits and, most prevalently, of worker burnout, all of which Roblox claims fall outside its responsibilities. The firm has a limited-access talent hub – a kind of LinkedIn for game-makers to advertise their skills. The hub requires no age verification, has no mechanisms for drafting contracts or securing a guardian’s consent and offers no tools to resolve disputes. “Roblox has no employment relationship of any kind with the creators who develop experiences on the platform,” the company said. For some critics, this is not good enough.
“If you’re making or doing anything for kids, you don’t just have to be as good as the version made for adults,” Quintin Smith, a journalist who published a critique of Roblox’s practices on YouTube last August. “You have to have more safety, more care for your audience. If we’re saying: ‘Well, this Roblox stuff sounds bad, but it’s just as bad as adults have it’, that’s not a great place to be in.”
For Anna, who had spent her teens learning to make games on Roblox, her brief taste of success proved irresistible. She returned to college to study computer science but quit after one term because the course was too basic and the siren call of her previous earnings too difficult to resist. She lived off her savings, working on new Roblox projects she hoped might replicate her former success. She rarely left the house, lunging from long days of focused activity to periods of bed-bound burnout. She spent so long staring at a screen that she says she developed myopia.
“Most of my new games have been flops,” she told me. “I’ve only recently realised exactly how toxic my relationship with Roblox has been and how many years of life experience it has taken from me, all out of a desire to finally build that one game that makes it.” For now, however, Anna feels unable to step away from Roblox. “I just need to give my current project a decent chance at a successful launch, then I can walk away.”
* Some names have been changed