We’ve looked at unpaid overtime and we’ve delved into the lack of job security. But there’s one more addition to the litany of gaming scandals: toxicity in the workplace. What do we mean by this? This covers everything from allegations of bullying, sexism, homophobia, racism and even sexual harassment.
While examples of this can surely be found in any industry, game workers have been coming forward in droves to speak out against a culture that seems not to take these allegations particularly seriously. Here’s what’s been reported over the past 12 months.
August 2018: Riot Games
From being sexualized, farted on, and sent pictures of genitals—the life of a Riot Games employee doesn’t sound dull. Described as being more of a fraternity house, the League of Legends developers came under fire after an explosive report saw accusations of sexism brought to light. Twenty-eight current and former employees spoke out, with recurring themes of women not being promoted into management roles and a “bro culture” of sexual harassment.
This all came to a head in November, when some of these employees filed a lawsuit. This lawsuit saw further allegations against the developer. In the document, the plaintiffs claim there was an “’email chain of Riot Games Hottest Women Employees,” and they had to “participate in jokes about sex, defecation, masturbation, rape, and torture.” At the time of writing, the lawsuit is still active, with a 200-strong walkout in May over frustrations of the company’s response to the allegations.
On the bright side, when we approached Riot for comment, the newly appointed diversity officer for Riot Games, Angela Roseboro sent over a promising report of her findings.
One year on, Riot now has a department for diversity and inclusion and brought in two independent experts to “hold the team accountable,” as well as begin reviews into their recruitment process, to make sure candidates get treated fairly. All “rioters” have also undergone diversity training. Kotaku returned to find them changing for the better. “Has Riot put in significant investment and shown commitment to want to be better? Yes, I do believe that,” said one member of staff in the latest report.
March 2019: Gearbox Software
This one is unique the rest on the list, but it would be amiss to not give a shout-out to the crazy year Gearbox has had. Currently, former BFFs are at war: Gearbox’s former lawyer Wade Callender and the notorious CEO Randy Pitchford.
Pitchford has sued Callender for “abusing company credit card privileges” for purchases of family holidays and firearms, whereas Callender has counter-claimed that Pitchford has been up to all kinds of things. The most publicized being the dreaded USB Pitchford left at a restaurant, which allegedly contained both company secrets and “barely legal” pornography (Pitchford’s own words, freely given in this podcast, believe it or not).
And it seems this trickles down into all the other departments. Callender labels the CEO as “morally bankrupt”, and exploiting his employees when in the same year he denied workers a bonus. Apparently, he awarded himself a whopping $12 million through a deal with Take-Two Interactive. If true, this would mean the money was stolen from Gearbox.
So what has Callender been up to? According to his former best friend, he too was fleecing money from the company, by taking out a loan with Gearbox to pay for an entire college degree, and a further $300,000 to keep up with his house payments. Both of which he has “refused” to pay back. If there’s a bit of truth to either story, it’s easy to see why workers went a year without having any extra cash being thrown at them while they worked away at Borderlands 3.
April 2019: NetherRealm Studios
We’ve already discussed NetherRealm’s issues with crunch, but that wasn’t the only watershed moment for the studio. In the same month, both current and former employees spoke to Variety about the “obnoxious, toxic and sexist” environment that Mortal Kombat 11 was developed in.
“[I was] given a disgusting nickname I won’t repeat by a set of co-workers I never spoke to,” revealed QA analyst Rebecca Rothschild. These nicknames, according to another female employee, ranged from “Silver Fox” to “Dyke Bitch.” One transgender developer was derogatorily referred to as “morph.” Rothschild further claims that women were never allowed to negotiate their contracts when they came to an end, whereas male employees frequently did so.
Outside of sexism, contractors claim management would “dangle full-time employment” in their face as long as they didn’t go to the press about the crunch and harassment. Another employee recounted a time during the development of Injustice when there was a leak about the tough working conditions. Allegedly, all temporary staff were brought into a room and “laid in to.” The source described them as a mix of “anger and fear” afterward.
May 2019: Rockstar Games
Rockstar is another one that’s already made our list. On the back of uproar regarding the “100-hour weeks” it took to make Red Dead Redemption 2, a former employee made a complaint of sexual assault against a high up in the company. Game designer Colin Bundschu alleges that, back in 2014, he was groped by Vice President of Product Development Jeronimo Barrera in a nightclub. Barrera, who is personal friends of founders Dan and Sam Houser, had been part of Rockstar for two decades, and was said to contribute to a “frat house” environment, and “culture of fear,” according to some co-workers.
Jeronimo Barrera, who categorically denies these allegations, left Rockstar in 2018, four years after Bundschu filed a complaint against him to human resources. According to Bundschu, HR did not take the incident seriously, citing that they couldn’t do anything because Barrera “did not remember the events of that night.”
Thirteen other workers, who remained anonymous, described the award-winning company as a “cult” in its California studio. They claim they were always expected to attend after-work events to strip clubs, making them feel uncomfortable. Two shared a story of about how new QA testers were late to a meet-up at a bar and were fired on spot by Barrera, then rehired hours later.
All the press seems to have had an effect, with sources close to the company revealing that a large amount of QA testers are being given permanent contracts, adding to their job security.
June 2019: Treyarch
The final entry on the list goes to Call of Duty developer, Treyarch. In another Kotaku investigation into workplace treatment, QA testers, who often bear the brunt of it, say they felt like “second class citizens.”
As dramatic as this might sound, it isn’t hard to see why. Not allowed to speak to those in other departments, forced to use a farther parking lot, and only being allowed the leftovers from the developers when lunch is served. If these allegations are true, then Treyarch clearly treats testers with much less respect than other departments.
According to the 11 current and former QA testers that were spoken to, if there is a staff party, the QA testers are allowed to stay for 20 minutes, if invited at all.
Treyarch responded to these claims, emphasizing that, “The teams who created Black Ops 4 are diverse and widespread. It’s important to us that everyone working on the game, or any of our projects, is treated with respect and that their contributions are appreciated. If there is ever an instance where this standard is not met, we work to remedy it immediately.”
While not as credible as this report, a Redditor claiming to be a fired QA tester did an AMA, which he has since deleted, allegedly due to “threat of legal action.”
While focusing on leaking information about Black Ops 4, the user (going by the name CallOfNobodyCares), also claimed he was fired after his lunch break was changed from 6 p.m.–7 p.m. after he’d already taken it at the scheduled 5 p.m–6 p.m., and management didn’t care to address the miscommunication.
According to a report at the time, the easter eggs he leaked were proven true, adding weight to his claims that he at least worked there.
Editor’s Note: We are aware of the tragic situation surrounding Alec Holowka, but due to how few details have been confirmed, we will not be officially reporting on it in this feature.