The Dark Side of the Video Game Industry

video game

License to kill, slappers only, no Oddjob. You guys remember Oddjob? You couldn’t kill him because he was shorter than R2-D2. But now, video games are so much bigger, and there’s no better sign than what went down in New York City last weekend. A huge tournament at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, and we ain’t talking tennis. “This is the Fortnite World Cup Finals.” “Sixteen-year-old Kyle ‘Bugha’ Giersdorf is waking up $3 million richer.

The first ever Fortnite World Cup Champion.” “There’s his family looking on. And there’s the dance. I don’t know what that is.” That is the dance of someone who no longer has to stay married for the kids.

You know five seconds after that he downloaded Hinge. Now, gaming culture is popular culture. It’s the new social currency.

Right? You can’t be a kid and not play Minecraft, which is why in just a few years, gaming has exploded in a way it never has before. Gamers on real money casinos in Singapore have sent the video gaming industry to record levels. Netflix says that Fortnite is a bigger threat than HBO.

Red Dead Redemption 2 made $725 million in its opening weekend. This is a bigger new industry -than marijuana. -Absolutely. He’s like, “Marijuana, it’s a medicine that comes in a biscuit. Brilliant!” Now, the gaming industry has grown faster than anyone could have ever imagined. It is now a $139 billion a year business.

In terms of revenue, that’s bigger than worldwide box office, music streaming and album sales, the NFL, the NBA, MLB, and the NHL combined. Yeah, every sports league right now is terrified, except for the NHL. They’re like, “Yay, we made the chart!” Think about this, this is insane.

Add up Kanye, Tom Brady, LeBron James, and Mike Trout and they are still no match for a Swedish dude named Felix, who loves the n-word. One of the biggest reasons video games have blown-up is live streaming, which is exactly what it sounds like. Gamers stream themselves playing games in real time… even during natural disasters. Bro, it’s an earthquake, 100% it’s an earthquake.

Okay, Muffin is his dog, but I like to think that it’s his safe word. He’s like, “Muffin! Brioche! Why isn’t it working?” Millions of people watch gamers live stream on Twitch, the world’s biggest streaming platform, and it gets 15 million visitors a day, which has transformed games like Fortnite, PUBG, and League of Legends into enormous sporting events. Activision’s Overwatch League has kicked off its new season. “Take-Two’s NBA 2K League launched its second annual draft.” “A $74,000 prize.

Their game of choice? Counter-Strike.” “Call of Duty World League Tournament.” “The final of this tournament drew more viewers last year than game six of the 2015 NBA Finals.” This is where things are going. I swear. Next year, you’re gonna see Jay-Z and Beyoncé sitting courtside watching a pasty 16-year-old kid play Fortnite. They’re like, “Jay, who are you here to see?” And he’s just like, “My man, Buttsoup98.” It’s the Rock. Video games have become a cultural force unlike anything since the creation of television.

Two and a half billion people play video games. Business is booming. Gamers are treated like athletes, and yet, the gaming industry is filled with stories like these. Video game maker Electronic Arts says it is laying off 350 employees. The studio behind BioShock, closing its doors and laying off most of its employees.

Zynga announced that it will be cutting 5% of its workforce. Activision Blizzard slashing about 800 jobs. That’s 8% of the video game maker’s workforce. Jeez, game companies treat their workers like pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto. They’re like, “There’s just gonna be some collateral damage.” Many of the most profitable American game companies routinely lay off huge chunks of their staff. And it’s part of a larger pattern of labor exploitation in the gaming industry.

Because it turns out the games that we play to relax are built on ruthless worker burnout. That’s what I want to focus on tonight, video games and labor. In the past two years alone, we found over 20 companies that have laid off thousands of workers.

Sometimes with no warning and no severance. Like in the case of Telltale Games, best known for The Walking Dead, which is based on a TV series that just won’t die. I don’t know if you watch – I mean we’re on season nine, you guys. Just shoot it in the head and end it.

They’re zombies not the Simpsons. Now, you may not have heard very much about this, and that’s not an accident. When we were researching this story, very few people were willing to talk to us on camera. A lot of game workers sign NDAs, and they’re afraid of getting blacklisted, but one worker agreed to talk to me. Emily Grace Buck, a game developer who used to work at Telltale. She was there the morning they fired everyone.

Tell me about the horrific day at Telltale. We get to the conference room, everybody’s standing around, we walk in and the CEO is making jokes. He’s got a microphone standing in front of everybody.

He’s trying to make us laugh. So he opened up the meeting to fire you guys by doing a set? Yes, and then he sat down and just said, “Our journey has ended.” We were getting no severance. Our health insurance was only lasting until the end of the week.

They told us that we only had 30 minutes to leave the building. We were expected to leave very quickly. To me, Telltale sounds like a really bad boyfriend who was like, “I’m telling you, like, this is great

We’re going the distance.” And then two weeks later was like, “This is the end of our journey.” One of the things that’s scary about games though is they’re all kind of bad boyfriends, and you just need to pick which kind of bad you can live with. Working in the gaming industry shouldn’t be worse than using Tinder in Boston. Think about it.

Imagine being ghosted by some dude named Parker who’s also in charge of your health insurance. That’s what every gaming company is. Cyclical layoffs are just the start, though. One of the worst issues in gaming is the hours. I worked about seven days a week between 14 and 16 hour days.

“And when would you go home?” I would go home when I was ready to collapse. Other people refused to do overtime, and all of a sudden, their reviews were negative, and they were fired. I lived away from home for almost three months, uh, helping get the game done.

I didn’t see my friends, my family for a while. Although, I was allowed some conjugal visits. Cool.

I’m sure your wife loves being referred to as a prison luxury. He’s like, “Hey, babe. Can you come to the office?

The warden says we can smash.” Now, leading up to the release of a game, companies often work their employees for months nonstop with no overtime pay just to hit deadlines. Almost every major gaming company does this: EA, Rockstar, Epic, Activision, BioWare. There’s actually a term for it.

It’s called “crunch,” and it’s practically mandatory if you want to work at a major studio. 95% of game developers say that they’ve crunched or worked overtime, and over 80% of them say that they weren’t paid for the extra hours. And it’s not like your typical video game workers are getting stock options. At best, they’re getting carpal tunnel and their nephew’s respect, which doesn’t pay.

Crunch wrecks people mentally and physically. Workers say months of crunch have caused PTSD, memory loss, and ulcers that make them cough up blood. Yeah, it sounds like video games are being made in a Civil War hospital. By the way, it gets worse, and that’s because of one game in particular. “And there’s the dance.

I don’t know what that is.” It’s Fortnite, the second biggest reason Drake is friends with 14-year-olds. Now, Fortnite… Why are you texting them? In what scenario do you text them now has 250 million players worldwide and has made over $3.9 billion, making Epic’s founder Tim Sweeney a multi-billionaire, which is frustrating when you find out how terribly he spends his money. Why does it feel like a combination of MTV Cribs and Making a Murderer? He has to be the only tree hugger who makes trees feel uncomfortable. Now look, games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and League of Legends are making crunch even worse because they’ve built their businesses on something called “The Microtransaction Model.” Now look at Fortnite, they let everybody download the game for free, but then they charge you for additional features, like dance moves for your characters, “skins,” and tools, like axes and hang gliders.

Fortnite is using the same business model as drug dealers. They give you free. They get you hooked, and then before you know it, you’re sucking someone’s dick for a candy axe. We’ve all been there. Don’t judge. Now this business model, it’s great for players and Tim Sweeney’s weird-ass rock collection, but it is a nightmare for workers.

To keep players happy Fortnite has to roll out new features all the time, which means for developers, crunch never ends. And guess what? Epic workers say that their managers expect them to crunch without complaining, otherwise they might get fired. On top of all of this, players expect graphics to get better and better every year.

Just look at GTA. It went from a Chuck E. Cheese arcade game to a deepfake of murder. Here’s the thing people don’t realize… graphics and animations take a lot of work.

I mean, making high quality visuals can be really time intensive. And I know this because sometimes our graphics team has to work really long hours. I mean, look at this, you guys. Look at this design. This doesn’t just happen overnight, okay?

And I’ll be honest, I haven’t been great about giving our team enough time. But you know what? At the end of the day, I can go to sleep at night knowing that I’ve made a lot of progress.

But the thing is crunch and layoffs aren’t two separate issues. Games have hard release dates. They can’t just fall behind schedule.

So companies staff up, crunch their employees, then they lay people off when the game comes out. They’re given so much work and then none at all. They basically treat people the way all of us treated Freddie Prinze Jr. It was just everything and then nothing. I’m looking for him, too. What?

Where is he? Freddie, come back. And they can do that because there’s an endless supply of people willing to work in gaming.

That passion is something that prestigious colleges are happy to take advantage of. Hi, Mark. Heard about what happened with your job. Maybe now you should do something you enjoy. -Like what, something with video games?

-Yeah. Hey, guys. Finished testing that game yet? We just finished level three and need to tighten up the graphics a little bit. Great.

I can’t believe we got jobs doing this. I know, and my mom said I would never get anywhere with these games. That is the whitest video of all time. You have a blonde dude in a pink polo, playing video games, yelling at his mom for not believing in him. By the way, that last ad couldn’t be further from reality.

First of all, I’m pretty sure “tightening up graphics” isn’t a thing. But the most unrealistic part of this ad was the fact that these two Chads had a female supervisor, and they treated her with respect. Look, gender discrimination is another huge labor issue in gaming, which is probably the least surprising thing you’ve learned tonight. It’s like finding out Mike Pence pulls his underwear down to his ankles when he pees. New information? Yes.

Surprising? No. Even though women now make up half of all gamers, the industry is almost 75% male, which is obvious when you look at any female character. I mean take a closer look. As you can see, all of these women have one thing in common.

Look closely. It’s their attitude. So much attitude. It’s just bursting through the screens. Developer surveys consistently find that discrimination and sexism are endemic to the gaming industry. But to understand how bad it’s gotten, we have to look at one company in particular that is crushing it on the sexism leaderboard.

That right there is the same face you make when someone says they’re excited for the next Woody Allen movie. You’re like, “Oof.” These lawsuits were the result of a bombshell investigation from Kotaku, a gaming news site that exposed widespread sexism at the company and because of Kotaku’s reporting, the state of California is now investigating Riot for gender discrimination. So I sat down with the woman who broke the Riot story. She’s an investigative reporter named Cecilia D’Anastasio. So, how did you hear about what was going on at Riot? Did you just drive by the offices and hear a bunch of mouth breathing and you were like, “Something isn’t right?” I first heard what was happening at Riot when I was investigating another gaming company for alleged endemic sexism, actually.

That’s really, really dark. Yeah. I heard stories ranging from… women not being able to hire other women into positions of leadership. I was also hearing stories about other women being on the list of, like, sexy employees that higher-ups at the company wanted to sleep with.

A lot of men told me about the COO, like, going behind them and humping them at meetings where women weren’t present. You know, I’ve always wondered what a COO does. Now I know.

The culture at Riot was nuts, okay? People said they saw not just dick pics, but their boss’s dick pics. Now, look, if you see your boss’s dick, at the very least, you should get to host Fox and Friends.

Even men complained about Riot’s bro culture. Cecilia, in your report you said that if there were no women in a meeting, one of the managers would fart on someone’s face. -Yeah.

Where’s he at now? Please tell me like the dude cannot work anymore. No, he’s still at the company. -He’s still at the same company? -He’s there, and he’s the COO. He’s still the COO.

He was just suspended for two months without pay. That’s it. Riot punished him the way corporate America punishes women who give birth.

They’re like, “Think about what you’ve done and come back in two months.” So when you consider all of this… crunch, burnout, sexism, no safety net, no job security. You’re probably thinking, “Okay, if it’s so bad, why don’t they just quit?” Well, that’s the problem. They do, which sucks. This is their livelihood. But it’s also bad for games.

Video games are amazing because they’re made by people who love making them, which is why the workers that haven’t quit yet are finally considering something that has never happened before. It is time, more than time that we as an industry left behind the idea that our work is made better by our pain. A lot of people are saying… that it’s time that the games industry was unionized.

“At industry events unionization is increasingly on the agenda. In Canada, the International Game Workers Unite movement is attracting new members as crunch culture forces people out of the industry.” Game workers have talked about unionizing for a long time. But the last few years, it is becoming a rallying cry, especially for Game Workers Unite, a grassroots organizing group that has actually unionized game workers in the UK, and now, they have nineteen chapters in North America. This is part of an even bigger wave. America is going through a historic swell in collective labor action. In 2017, 25,000 Americans went on strike.

In 2018, it was almost half a million. And this year, it could be even bigger, and the gaming industry is riding that wave. After Cecilia reported on the sexism at Riot, employees at the company were furious and finally did something about it. They staged a walkout. Why was there a walkout at Riot? What was the fart that broke the camel’s back?

It wasn’t a fart. Lawsuits were filed against Riot after Kotaku’s report. And a couple of them were forced into arbitration with Riot. What is forced arbitration? It’s like, “You can’t take me to court, you have to negotiate with me.” So hundreds of Riot employees walked out in what was the first walkout in game development history. And I think organizing around that would be a really good idea for game workers.

Do you realize how impressive that is? An army of gamers… walking. This is why unionization is so critical for game workers. Just look at the issues they’re facing: insane hours, no severance, unfair contracts, sexist work environments. These are all issues that unions were built to solve. They also make sure you don’t get humped from behind.

Now look, I get there are people that might be seeing all of this thinking, “Aww, boo-hoo, you want me to care about video game workers? Look, I work all the time, man. I don’t get overtime.

I’ve been fired, and my boss farts in my face all the time. So what?” Well, congratulations. You’re probably getting screwed, too. We all have to rethink what a union job looks like.

It’s no longer just coal miners and steel workers lifting up heavy. Yes, those people need protection, but so do people who work at desks. Right?

This is the future. If you work in front of a computer, what’s happening in video games right now affects you. Other industries are figuring this out.

While overall union membership is down, white collar professionals have been unionizing in record numbers. Journalists, digital media, grad students, presidential campaigns, and nonprofits. But so far, nothing in tech. That’s why this push to organize game workers is coming at such a critical time. Do you think if one of these video game companies unionizes, there will be a ripple effect across the entire industry?

I absolutely think so because the same thing happened in my industry, media. Gawker unionized and then maybe a dozen other digital media publications unionized in its wake. And I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t happen in the games industry where workers are fueled by passion and are often exploited because of that.

Gaming companies don’t want this to happen. And a lot of people outside the industry either “A”– don’t care or “B”– have no idea what workers are going through. We actually refer to people in the game industry as veterans once they’ve reached five years working because the average career in video games is only five years long, and it’s lower than that if you’re a woman or a person of color. Do gamers realize there are all these problems within the industry? Some of them do, and some of them don’t.

But I think that if gamers start caring about working conditions in the industry, companies are gonna change. She’s right. The only way the industry will change… is if players know how their games really get made.

So to get the word out, I had to go where the gamers are. Hey, it’s Hasan. I just want to talk about labor abuses in the video game industry. So I thought I’d come right in the game and talk to you guys.