Last week, when I dramatically slapped a hand to my forehead and took you through the endless terror of open-world games, other things were happening. Important things were happening. Revelations were emerging; accounts of sustained and systemic abuse of, and by, the people who make games, accounts of studio bosses ignoring – or unceremoniously covering up – allegations of all shades, from bullying and harassment to rape.
Like many of us, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. I was frozen with indecision. The same happened when the Black Lives Matter protests swept across the world. I sat about in a bit of a daze, supportive and angry and passionate and retweeting but ultimately unsure what difference I – a lone voice in a crowded room – could make. I was frightened of saying the wrong thing, worried I would make things worse.
So when I sat down to write this week’s column, flicking through my chaotic mental scrapbook of memories and ideas, everything seemed so… trivial, I guess. This console looks so funny, lol. This game isn’t coming to consoles, wah. How can I keep touting the wonders and delights of gaming when those wonders and delights seem to come at such a cost?
Remember when those The Last Of Us Part II leaks first emerged? It was initially rumoured the leaks came from a former employee, someone angered by alleged “crunch culture” – the long, punishing working hours mandated by management that exploits the passion of artists. The video game industry’s crunch is an open secret. We’re getting better at talking about it, sure, but not tackling it. Not stopping it. Not opposing it. In extreme cases, we know some individuals burn out or quit – or both – becoming physically and mentally unwell. Some of the people behind your favourite games have grown to accept the misery of burnout as an inevitability. But this is video games! Surely the entertainment we love should never come at such a cost?
And now gaming’s latest #MeToo has arrived (unbelievably, this is not the first time victims have come forward). There have been dozens and dozens of allegations of predatory senior developers and content creators preying on colleagues and fans and supporters. Reports that some have abused their positions and used their influence to make – and break – other people’s careers, and worse. Consequently, some of the companies that create and distribute games have made formal statements. Some of those implicated by the allegations have even stepped down from their high-profile roles.
It’s not that victims failed to report what happened at the time, either. Where possible, they followed the right protocols and reported these things to their line managers and HR. But I spent 15 years working in the civil service in this very area. I know firsthand how HR works (or doesn’t, in the silent majority of cases). Escalating these issues seemingly did nothing. In the past – in the now, sometimes – whistleblowers can be villainised and ousted, deemed “difficult” or “aggressive” to work with. Yet many of those alleged of abuse remained in their jobs.
I’m “lucky” that while I’ve seen, and experienced, enough outrageous -ist behaviours – sexist, racist, as well as homophobic; the extremes of toxic bro culture that not only make our space feel unwelcoming for women but anyone who isn’t a straight white male, too – I’ve “only” been harassed, never assaulted. But we don’t talk about it. Not openly. Not with the people who develop our games nor the people who buy them. Not until now, anyway.
Gaming is a fundamental part of who I am. Many of my life-long friendships were forged through raids and firefights. But the underbelly of this industry – one that offers so much excitement and escapism – can be a damp, dark and deeply unpleasant place, and somehow, developers and the press who report on it alike have accepted this as an inevitability. But we’ve accepted the unacceptable. We don’t properly challenge the studios that tout 100-hour working weeks as a badge of honour. It’s a system that abuses passion and pride, a system that creates “rockstar“ developers and famous content creators that feel so invincible, so “irreplaceable”, they go on to violate the trust, and more, of others.
This isn’t about social justice or “cancel culture”, nor is it about the content or representation in games. It’s about supporting the passionate, talented people who make them. It’s about amplifying their voices and making the industry safer so that they can keep making great games, and do so in secure, inclusive environments that don’t abuse or burn them out.
We, the people who buy and play these games, need to be mindful of the choices developers and publishers make and hold them accountable. We need to unsubscribe from the streamers and influencers who have abused their platforms and power. We need to ensure the polished statements that promise reflection are meaningful and actioned, not dusty promises that are never followed up.
We need things to change.