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Video Game Workers See Power in a Union

In a first for the industry, employees at Riot Games walked out to protest workplace discrimination and the forced arbitration that perpetuates the problem.

Jessica Kent joined a walkout at Riot Games. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“I reported and he got promoted.”

Those were the words on a hand-lettered sign held above nearly 200 employees of Riot Games—the publisher of the immensely popular multiplayer video game League of Legends—as they gathered last week in front of an outdoor mural on Riot’s West Los Angeles campus. The sentiments on that sign, mirrored in the megaphone-amplified speeches that workers took turns delivering to the assembled crowd, have grown increasingly visible in recent years as attention to workplace discrimination and sexual harassment has increased. For the workers at Riot, this was more than a distant news story: Five current and former employees are suing the game publisher alleging gender discrimination and violation of California’s Equal Pay Act.

In response, the company filed a motion to force two of the complainants into arbitration—and it was Riot’s binding arbitration policy that precipitated the May 6 action by employees. “Silence one of us,” another demonstrator’s sign read, “and you silence us ALL.”

This is the first labor-related walkout in the video game industry, but it likely will not be the last. The sector has been under scrutiny for years over exploitative practices, including lack of job security, mass layoffs and “crunch.” Short for “crunch time,” crunch is an industry-wide practice that requires employees, especially developers, to put in extra, unpaid hours—making for 60 to 80-hour work weeks—to deliver a game by its release date. One of the most egregious examples of crunch came in October of 2018 when reports surfaced that employees of Rockstar Games were working 100-hour weeks to finish the game Red Dead Redemption 2.

Workers have fought back in the past. In 2006, Electronic Arts (EA), the publisher behind wildly popular games such as Madden NFL, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age, paid a settlement of $14.9 million to workers in unpaid overtime in a class action lawsuit. Telltale Games was hit with a class action lawsuit in September 2018 after laying off hundreds of employees without notice or cause, but that case was dismissed. According to the plaintiff’s attorney in the Telltale case, his client had—as was the case with employees at Riot—signed a forced arbitration agreement with the company.

Forced arbitration is a provision that requires workers to waive their right to a day in a court, barring them from suing their employer and, in many cases, participating in class action lawsuits. Disagreements are instead settled by company-led negotiations. Baked into many contracts—more than 60 million, in fact—employees have little choice but to sign arbitration agreements. (Their only other option is to decline the job, passing it to one of the other myriad developers looking for work in gaming.)

Forced arbitration creates barriers to labor justice, worker solidarity, and workplace organizing, and, as Michelle Chen explained in The Nation, it creates an especially hostile work environment for women. For the gaming industry, where approximately 74 percent of workers are cis men and 61 percent are white, forced arbitration serves as a tool to maintain the status quo. Arbitration blocks routes to ending workplace discrimination that could run through the court and keeps the industry’s most underrepresented communities out of positions of influence.

This is the scenario in which Riot, a company that is 80-percent male, finds itself. In 2018, Cecilia D’Anastasio at the video game website Kotaku broke the story of pervasive sexism in the company, which includes everything from pay discrimination and unfair promotion practices to sexual harassment. Riot responded by adding a diversity page on its website, and a company representative told D’Anastasio that Riot was working on diversifying hiring practices and the employee pool. In light of the latest litigation over the same issues detailed in D’Anastasio’s story, these efforts might prove to be little more than hand-waving in the general direction of diversity, rather than real steps to correct the problem. Diversifying hiring practices and employee demographics does little good if women are coerced into signing forced arbitration and non-disparagement agreements that effectively silence them and close off avenues for dissent.

Tacitly icing women out of positions of influence with provisions like forced arbitration trickles down to the games, and shapes the communities that play them. Games crafted by a largely homogenous group of white men unsurprisingly serve up overly sexualized female characters for male gamers to control and fetishize. They can even reward violence against women. And though women make up more than half of gamers worldwide, many gaming communities mirror the toxic masculinity of the games they play, becoming hostile spaces for women gamers. So, when companies like Riot insist on hiring “passionate gamers who are talented professionals” to develop their games, it should not be surprising that female job candidates do not meet their arbitrary perception of a gamer. (Riot no longer uses this line on its hiring page.)

Eliminating forced arbitration and other legal tools, such as non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements, would improve conditions for women industry-wide—as developers and as users. Unionization of the industry appears to be the best way to make this happen. According to the Economic Policy Institute, nearly 54 percent of non-union private-sector employees are forced into mandatory arbitration procedures. And research from the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that unionization raises wages for women by nearly $2.00 per hour, which ultimately serves to shrink the gender wage gap in gaming.

Yet the gaming industry—particularly in the United States—has been resistant to unionization. Like in much of the tech industry, unionization is associated with blue-collar work, which is not consistent with the white-collar self image of the white male programmer or developer.

But the gaming industry also traffics in its own particular set of attitudes toward labor. As Graeme Kirkpatrick detailed in Computer Games and the Social Imaginary, “People who work in the games industry are, invariably, invested in gaming as a cultural practice... games are made by gamers.” Because of this cultural practice, the industry is able to disassociate game development from labor—the work is not work, it is play. Kirkpatrick also observed that game development confers a high-level of prestige that leads many workers to accept long, unpaid hours and unstable employment. Combine this with an industry that is generally hostile to unionization, and it creates a perfect storm for worker exploitation.

The Riot walkout, however, comes at a time when game-industry workers are increasingly interested in unionizing, and could force a tipping point. With the formation of the U.K.-based grassroots organization Game Workers Unite, education about unions and fair labor, and tools for organizing at the local level, are spreading across the sector. Other worker-organized movements in media and tech can serve as an example of what collective action by workers can accomplish: In the last year, both Vox Media and Google have eliminated forced arbitration company-wide.

In a 2017 Developer Satisfaction Survey conducted by the International Game Developers Association, 81 percent of respondents indicated that diversity in the workplace was “very or somewhat important” to them. Yet, employment numbers for gender and racial inclusivity have changed little from previous years. Opening the industry to more people, perspectives, and talent, however, requires much more than feel-good diversity pages on company websites and annual survey-based “check ins.” It requires collective action. Unionization—which might just be in Riot’s near future—is a step toward creating a much fairer and safer industry for both workers and gamers.