Discriminations in the video games industry: systemic problems require collective solutions

Waves of accusations of sexism, harassment, LGBTphobia and other forms of discriminations in our industry keep repeating and, even though their scale increases, the process stays unchanged. A few people raise their voice, putting their careers, financial stability, and mental health at risk. This in turn liberates others and motivates them to speak up as well. A few particularly toxic predators become the public face of the problem. Companies react by silencing the ensuing media storm and/or by firing the problematic persons (when they didn’t quit by themselves), without really changing their internal structure. At the end of the day, studios and aggressors suffer no real consequences, especially from a legal standpoint.

Multiple oppressions

It is noticeably clear that there are mechanisms in place to protect predators in the video games industry, just like in other sectors. Those lead to complete impunity for the people at the top of the chain. Conversely, younger and more precarious people form the bulk of the industry’s workers, yet they are seen as dispensable, which heightens their vulnerability and makes it virtually impossible for them to defend themselves from aggressions.

This is compounded by the low proportion of women in studios (in France, on average, they make up about 14% of the video game industry’s workforce), the culture of crunch and secrecy, as well as the industry’s employment pressure (“You’re lucky to have this job, if we need to replace you we’ll find 10 other people who are willing to”), all of which makes it harder for workers to oppose sexism. Not only are these elements fundamentally unbearable, they also worsen the violence enacted upon women and minorities. In a society where social roles unfortunately remain gendered and where women are still burdened with most of the day-to-day tasks, these industry practices put an overwhelming pressure on said women, which makes them even more likely to stay silent. The stakes, and therefore the risks, are much higher for people who are not men.

A toxic culture reinforced by its structural aspects

We believe the French video games industry is just like in other countries, and we know its structure does not encourage victims of harassment or sexual aggressions to speak up nor report these behaviours. The STJV regularly receives reports and grievances, by mail or through conversations, about working conditions and the everyday life within companies in general, and about sexism and sexual harassment in particular. Yet it is very rare for this kind of affair to be made public. This omerta is partly due to the concentration of power in the hands of employers and their organisations.

One can find the same kind of institutions, employer organisations, at the helm of every big industry event in France: the SNJV is behind the Gamecamp and the Pégases ; Capital Games organises IndieCade Europe and Game Connection Europe ; the SELL manages the Paris Games Week, etc. These spaces meant for showcasing your work, meeting other people from the industry and exchanging with them, are therefore managed by groups whose priorities do not align with forcing employers to solve their harassment problems as quickly as possible.

The importance of these meeting spaces (and of all their local, informal equivalents) in a video games career makes them rarely safe places, in which predators can use their power and connections to abuse others.

Company parties, another regular occurrence in the stories we hear, bar meet-ups or conference parties are not specific places where bad behaviours suddenly emerge, they are instead a magnifying lens that shines a light on the actual day-to-day reality of the industry. Matters are made worse there by the fact workers, overburdened with mismanaged quantities of work and omnipresent pressure, end up using those moments to let loose in a festive atmosphere, which makes them even more vulnerable.

This kind of behaviours also fit very closely to the testimonies we receive about the French video game schools. How could one expect meaningful change if students are taught before they even get hired that crunch is to be expected, that parties are an outlet, and that sexual wrongdoings are not punished?

While there are specificities, video games studios are not the only places where sexism and other discriminations run rampant. The problem is pervasive to our whole society, and it has to be addressed at every level.

When no other solution works, public call-outs are the last resort

The recent accounts point specifically to HR departments being at best passive, and at worst complicit in covering for aggressors. HR is presented as the first line of defence in situations of harassment or discrimination, yet they end up working against victims. That this many complaints did not lead to swift and efficient action is absurd. Let us remind all workers that, in France, employers have a legal obligation of results when it comes to protecting employees. They must use any and all measures available to prevent problems like harassment, and put an end to it as soon as possible if it still happens, and are legally liable if these measures fail.

The employees’ situations are made harder to cope with because legal complaints of harassment or sexual aggressions are extremely hard to follow through (be it because of the police refusing to open cases, or because legal proceedings are slow and rarely reach a conclusion). The global trend in diminishing the budgets of French employee protection institutions does not help the situation. It ends up being an unsurmountable task to actually face companies in court, when they have all the means necessary to defend themselves.

How can it be a surprise to anyone, then, that in the absence of any other channel, victims turn to social networks and broadcast their calls for help in the form of call-outs?

Crisis management over meaningful change

With employee defence groups being historically absent from the video games industry, companies have gotten away with ignoring their duties, worsening even further the isolation and precariousness victims are faced with. Recent initiatives such as the STJV aim at upending that situation.

When faced with call-outs, the studios’ first reaction is to protect their brand image. This is primarily geared towards consumers and financing firms, but also because they want to preserve the very widespread (and wildly misleading) idea that the industry is an informal place with a welcoming and safe atmosphere. To react to the call-outs and recognize that sexism is a reality of our industry would destroy this idyllic image that employer lobbies worked very hard to craft over the years. Admitting that there is a sexism problem in the company is admitting the employer’s responsibility, and weakens the position of some of the people of power in the studio. That is a step very few executives are willing to take.

While there have been sparse efforts, the situation mostly stagnates. More and more employees speak up and are aware of the problems in their studios but, as long as no structural change is enacted, no real evolution will happen. Most executives refuse to reconsider the way their studios work because of financial and managerial frictions, and because it would also question their own reactions and attitudes towards discriminations. Only a few independent studios have really managed to tackle these issues, but we attribute that ability to their small size, which means a small number of people feeling concerned or being aware of the problems is enough to prompt change.

What are the solutions?

We believe more than ever that a fix to those issues will not only come from management. Since the necessary transformations go against the economic interests and the domination structures companies are based on, they cannot be left to decide alone of the solutions.

External companies whose missions and goals are fixed by employers, and whose findings are not binding, cannot be a proper measure alone. Solutions must come from the workers themselves, and be overseen by independent structures. Unions, by nature, are properly equipped to allow marginalized people to organize and act while shielding them from management’s pressure.

The reports make one thing very clear: subordination within the company is a major obstacle to any honest and exhaustive evaluation of moral or physical harassment within studios. This reinforces our determination to keep creating strong union sections within companies, enabling them to counterbalance studios’ management and demand concrete action. These sections free the workers from the subordination they would otherwise encounter in the company, and make it easier to report the problems they encounter. They can then coordinate with other structures like CSEs (social & economic committees, elected workers representatives within companies) to find suitable solutions.

We call on studio executives to face the truth: up until now, what little they did was not efficient. If they really wish to change things, they should first stop treating call-outs or reports of discriminations as crisis management opportunities, but instead engage in true reflection, that includes workers, about the way discrimination accounts are handled, as well as the means to prevent further wrongdoings. If studio executives do not reconsider how subordination affects the freedom for workers to talk and denounce those problems, or if they do not include workers in the discussions, management will remain untrusted.

If we want to find a solution to those problems, all workers of the industry need to unite. The control mechanisms in place in game companies are very tightly linked to the general organization of work. We need to gather and rally to demand the proper means to protect ourselves from the toxic structural effects.

The STJV stands at the ready to help out workers who need it, whether they’re unionised or not, through listening to people’s stories or by providing advice. If the situation requires it, we are also ready to support legal actions.