The Video Game Industry’s Ongoing Struggle with Workplace Misconduct

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The video game industry’s ongoing struggle with workplace misconduct continues to grab headlines. This week, Riot Games announced a $10 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit relating to gender discrimination.

On December 2nd, 2019, it was announced that Riot Games will be paying $10 million to settle a class-action lawsuit relating to claims of gender discrimination. Payments will be made to approximately 1,000 employees and contractors who identify as female and who have worked at Riot over the past five years.

“We’re pleased to have a proposed settlement to fully resolve the class action lawsuit. The settlement is another important step forward, and demonstrates our commitment to living up to our values and to making Riot an inclusive environment for the industry’s best talent.”

Riot Games Spokesperson

The video game industry has been a hotbed in terms of allegations of workplace misconduct. From small, independent developers to large companies like Riot, disturbing claims of harassment, discrimination, and other problematic behaviors have been commonplace. Industry analysts believe there are many reasons for these troubling issues:

  • The industry remains predominantly male. While an estimated 46 percent of gamers are female, according to 2017 data only 21 percent of game developers are women. This is largely consistent with the software industry as a whole, in which an estimated 18 percent to 21 percent of developers and computer programmers are female. Similar to other industries, a small percentage of women in the workplace can lead to cultural problems that include harassment and other inappropriate behaviors.
  • Sexism continues to be far-too common among players and developers alike. Despite the large percentage of female gamers, they are often targeted online in offensive ways. This 2008 article published in The Guardian shows how longstanding and persistent these issues have been. All you need to do is “Unmute” players during matches to hear, first-hand, how common misogynistic attitudes continue to be within the gaming community. This excellent essayWhen Gaming Goes Bad: An Exploration of Video Game Harassment Towards Female Gamers – written by Kaitlyn Williams during her studies at Stanford shines a bright light on this problem.
  • The infamous “crunch culture” leads to intense stress and increases the risk of misconduct and bad behavior. Since its earliest days, the video game industry has been characterized by very tight deadlines and stress-filled deliverables. As the industry has grown and the dollars involved have gotten bigger, the pressure throughout the organization to deliver blockbuster games, on schedule, has continued to intensify. There have been a number of “open letters” over the years from employees and spouses who have detailed the downsides of crunch culture. Even the AFL-CIO is jumping aboard with criticism of the industry, encouraging employees to band together and unionize in a fight to improve working conditions. In 2014, 2,500 industry professionals signed an open letter condemning harassment, bias, discrimination, and bullying. People have been aware of these problems for a very long time, and many have been working hard to build a healthier culture throughout the industry.
  • The industry has experienced hyper-growth, and leadership skills and systems haven’t always kept up. What was once a cottage industry of small, independent game developers is expected to generate nearly $180 billion of global revenue by 2024. When small companies get very large, very quickly, they typically run into substantial cultural challenges. In particular, junior to mid-level managers are often promoted from ‘production’ roles into positions in which they find themselves responsible for sizable teams of direct reports. As great as their technical skills may be, they are often lacking the maturity, soft skills, and experience required to handle these new responsibilities effectively. This is certainly not unique to the video game industry, but the rapid scaling that has taken place has put a profound level of pressure on these managers and many are not properly equipped.

The video game industry has been a tremendous success story. From humble roots, the industry has grown into a financial juggernaut that is now larger than both the traditional Hollywood box office and the streaming services. As global growth accelerates, the industry needs to continue to do more to address legitimate concerns that employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders have about workplace culture. Taking steps to (a) moderate online behavior; (b) address bias and stereotyping in the games themselves; (c) encourage more diversity (women and minorities) throughout the industry; and (d) equip high-potential managers and leaders with the skills they need to address challenging workplace conduct issues, effectively and decisively, whenever they arise.

Success and responsibility walk hand-in-hand and, as the gaming industry continues to mature, aggressive steps need to be taken to ensure that all stakeholders are well-positioned to benefit.