For the last four decades, collective action in the ever-growing $138 billion game industry has been nearly nonexistent, despite the fact that workers are regularly subjected to exploitation in the form of 100-hour work weeks during “crunch time,” or sexist corporate cultures. While the characters they’re creating are regularly confronting bosses, the real-life video game workers themselves haven’t.
That changed on Monday when an estimated two hundred employees of Riot Games, the developer of the popular “League of Legends” PC game, marched out of their Los Angeles office to an on-site parking lot to picket management’s private arbitration policy and call out what they describe as a sexist and nepotistic environment.
“Sexual discrimination and harassment is an issue at Riot and a larger issue in the video game industry,” said Jocelyn Monahan, a social-listening strategist at Riot and one of the walkout’s organizers. “This is not an uncommon story, we’re just one of the first big companies to have an article about it that sparked this movement.”
Monahan referenced an in-depth investigation by gaming website Kotaku last August. The piece paints a picture of rampant sexual discrimination and harassment against the women who work at the game developer, which is owned by Chinese online company Tencent Holdings. Of the company’s 2,500 workers, only about 10 percent are women.
“I was devastated last year when this story came out because [women workers] are very isolated from each other here, and we didn’t realize how widespread these experiences were with this culture of misogyny and nepotism,” said one Riot employee who walked out on Monday and wished to remain anonymous. “I will quit Riot unless they get better. They need us, we don’t need them.”
After the investigation was published, five former or current workers sued the company for sexist practices, including violations of California’s Equal Pay Act. One lawsuit, for instance, claimed that the plaintiff’s working conditions were negatively impacted by “the ongoing sexual harassment, misconduct, and bias, which predominate the sexually hostile working environment of Riot Games.”
Then two weeks ago, Kotaku broke the news that Riot management was forcing two of the workers who’d filed suits into arbitration, a process which allows companies to mediate disputes internally to avoid lawsuits and keep sexual assault and harassment cases away from public scrutiny. It’s the same kind of policy that prompted 20,000 Google employees to stage a walkout in November 2018 after sexual misconduct allegations against the tech company. Other Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Lyft, Microsoft, and Uber have also committed to changing their mandatory arbitration policies.
Riot’s decision to mandate arbitration was like a “powder keg” that ignited Monday’s walkout, said Monahan. “People were pretty upset for two reasons: one which was that they heard about it through Kotaku instead of internally and secondly, it’s just kind of a shitty thing for victims of discrimination,” she said.
Last Friday, Riot Games responded to reports of a forthcoming walkout by posting a statement on their website saying that its leadership “understand and respect Rioters who choose to protest” and said they planned to give new employees the ability to opt out of mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment and sexual assault claims. But they didn’t say how they’d handle current employees who had already signed contracts with arbitration clauses.
That response isn’t good enough, said Monahan. “This current conversation started because [mandatory arbitration] is being used against people who are current employees of the company. They’re the ones who deserve our support the most, and using them as collateral damage to have a future conversation is unacceptable.”
If Riot management doesn’t commit to ending mandatory arbitration by May 16, organizers say they’re planning to take further action, though they haven’t specified what that might look like.
The company’s workers remain non-unionized, but the walkout’s organizers say the possibility of unionizing has been part of the group’s conversation.
As it is, Monday’s action was a landmark one that could reverberate throughout a gaming industry that has been inching towards labor organizing recently.
Game Workers Unite — a grassroots advocacy group that helped Monahan and other Rioters organize the walkout and offered a letter of solidarity in support of the action — has quickly grown from a private conversation on a game chat server in March 2018 to an organization with 800 active members and seventeen North American chapters a year later. Game Workers Unite wants to help those inside the industry organize at a time when the industry’s anti-worker practices are finally getting more media attention, such as stories of overwork and abuse at Rockstar Games during the making of the game Red Dead Redemption 2.
Video game companies are rife with long hours, poor treatment, and a race to the bottom in terms of opportunistic employers who — according to the Game Workers Unite website — “encourages workers to sell their craft for the lowest they can, just to be in an industry they love …”
Monahan believes that the walkout will spark other actions — both at Riot and throughout the tech and games industry. “Even if we wanted it to be the end, we kind of started a lot of stuff. I don’t see this dying down anytime soon and I don’t want it to die down.”
“I hope other folks at other game companies are having these same conversations. I think no matter how the issue of forced arbitration goes at Riot — what we did was make people realize they’re part of this community and we as workers have the power to make change collectively if we’re loud enough.”