Welcome to Pushing Buttons, the Guardian’s gaming newsletter. If you’d like to receive it in your inbox every week, just pop your email in below – and check your inbox (and spam) for the confirmation email.
Sign up for Pushing Buttons, our weekly guide to what’s going on in video games.
If you’ve followed gaming news over the past couple of years, it has been impossible to avoid the many appalling stories about workplace harassment and discrimination that have emerged as part of a long-overdue reckoning in the games industry. As a woman who’s worked in the games media for over 15 years, I can only say that I have been grimly unsurprised by the revelations. The consequences that women face for speaking out on these issues has meant that until recently, few were willing to do so publicly. Last month, however, marked a turning point, as Riot Games paid out $100m in a settlement to more than 2,000 women who brought a case against it for gender discrimination. Other scandal-hit publishers and developers will be quaking in their boots.
It is not an exaggeration to say that workplace harassment is endemic in the video games industry. Off-colour humour, boys’-club mentality and sexist or racist ‘banter’ might once have been written off as “studio culture” (I have heard this with my own ears), but companies are now facing consequences for failing to protect their employees from the harmful people who have unfortunately found a home in game development. At this point, few of the biggest companies in gaming remain entirely untouched by allegations and lawsuits. So what is it that can actually be done to ensure that the people making games can count on a decent working environment free of creeps and bullies, especially at huge studios comprised of hundreds or thousands of people?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is difficult to get executives at big video game companies to comment on this. But I spoke to EA’s Chris Bruzzo, who as the company’s chief experience officer was put in charge of creating a more positive culture both for EA’s employees and its players, and seems committed to the task. “It was about four years ago that we as a leadership team spoke very clearly to the whole company about not tolerating harassment, abuse or misconduct,” he says. “We have made significant investments and seriously stepped up consequences in our offices all over the world, to ensure that people who feel that they’ve been harassed or abused get heard … I myself have exited several people from the company in the past five years.”
EA has 11,000 employees globally, which of course increases the odds of someone, somewhere behaving inappropriately on any given day. Bruzzo acknowledges that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done to ensure a safe and welcoming work environment for everyone, but believes that the biggest companies in games have the resources to combat harassment at the source. Unconscious bias training is now mandatory at EA, reporting tools allow anyone to flag issues they may be experiencing, and the company has also diversified its hiring; as of this year, EA is one of few companies to have closed its gender pay gap, according to its internal reporting. When somebody is told that they’re breaking the code of contact, he says, they will generally apologise and change their behaviour. “When you tell people about what they’re doing and the harm it’s causing others, intentionally or unintentionally, 9 times out of 10 that’s all you gotta do.”
Bruzzo tells me that he was previously himself the victim of a toxic working environment, involving a boss who was a bully, and so has first-hand experience of the toll it can take. “This person would call me late at night or on the weekends and scream and yell, threaten to fire me; in large meetings they would question why I was even at the company or why I was born,” he says. “I had to take anxiety medication, my health was deteriorating … it was pretty serious. When I resigned, people said, we didn’t know that you couldn’t take it. This is very personal to me.”
There are, in Bruzzo’s opinion, three things that the biggest companies in gaming need to prioritise if things are going to change for the better. “First we have to really set the expectation, be on the record, that we will no longer be bystanders; and second we need great tools for investigating and enforcing. Third and most importantly we have to take concrete steps towards improving diversity and inclusion, in our company and in our games … We’re not going to get the kind of real gains we need to get until we start to hire our employees in a way that eliminates more biases and creates diversity.”
I agree entirely that if actual, lasting change is going to be effected in the games industry, it needs to be a priority for every company that makes games. People known to be toxic can’t be allowed to simply bounce from studio to studio. Lip-service to diversity can’t take the place of actual investment of serious time, money and effort in rooting out problem people and solving hiring biases. It’s an expensive problem to solve – but given the legal, reputational and share-price cost to publishers and developers who have let these issues run riot, it’s going to be much more expensive to ignore it.
What to play
Word of mouth … A screenshot of Wordle, the word going viral this month Photograph: powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle
It’s unlikely that you’ve escaped Wordle so far this year, a super-simple online word game that went from totally unknown to ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE in the last month, but if you’re still wondering what all those wee squares in your social media feeds are, this is it. It’s extremely simple: go to the Wordle website every day and try to guess a new five-letter word. You have five guesses and it’ll tell you which letters you got right. What’s particularly endearing about this puzzle game, as Simon Parkin explains in his review, is that it was made by a guy called Josh Wardle last year as a gift for his partner, and remains entirely unmonetised. Given how wantonly capitalistic the games industry mostly is, that makes for a nice change.
What to read
A few weeks ago this newsletter took a critical look at the sketchy economy behind Roblox, the wildly popular game platform that’s valued at over $40bn and used daily by tens of millions of kids. For the Observer, Simon Parkin uncovered several truly alarming stories of abuse, exploitation and grooming from the platform’s young developers, which only highlights the urgent need for more scrutiny of these platforms.
Speaking of kids and online safety, the UK’s data watchdog is “seeking talks” with Facebook owner Meta because a bunch of parents bought their kids an Oculus VR headset over Christmas and were shocked to discover that it has no parental controls, and apps like VRChat are basically unmoderated, resulting in a lot of inappropriate conversations with minors. I donned my Quest 2 headset and returned to VRChat after a couple of years’ absence to discover somewhere that reminded me of the wild west of the early internet: random, full of trolls and dominated by edgelord humour. So, pretty much like most other places online. Given what we all know about Facebook, and given how endemic toxicity is in all online worlds, at this stage I highly doubt that any big tech company has the will or the means to make the virtual world universally safe and pleasant.
E3 – the June event at which every company that makes video games traditionally whips up a frenzy of hype for whatever’s next – will again be digital-only this year. For me, that means three days of sitting in front of a laptop watching an overwhelming barrage of game trailers and trying to calibrate what’s most interesting, as opposed to three days of running around a big sweaty conference hall in LA watching an overwhelming barrage of game demos and trying to calibrate what’s most interesting. For the wider games industry, this raises questions about whether these huge in-person events will ever return, and whether they should.
The developers of forthcoming run-away-from-the-zombies game Dying Light 2 have proudly announced that it will take at least 500 hours to 100% complete it. The Internet has reacted to this news with either excitement or a kind of dead-eyed existential ennui, depending on the age and life circumstances of the player in question.
What to click
This week’s question comes from Pat McGibbon, who asks: As a keen gamer and also a hobbyist language learner, I often change the settings to play games in a foreign language. Do any other readers do this, or am I the only one?
You’re definitely not the only one, Pat, because I am also a huge language nerd and I also do this! It’s how I learned one of the Japanese alphabets: in order to navigate the menus in the weird PS2 games I used to play on import as a teen, I had to be able to read katakana. I played the first Mass Effect with German subtitles to make myself feel better about playing it instead of studying for my German degree. The Yakuza games helped me keep up my Japanese for a while after living there. In Assassin’s Creed I switch to the “native” language of the game wherever possible. When you’re a native English speaker it can be really difficult to find films, TV or music to absorb in another language, because English is the global default – but plenty of games have full voicing in several languages, and I find that because you’re actually doing stuff in games rather than just watching, some of it actually sticks.
If you’ve got a question for Question Block or anything to say about the newsletter, email us on [email protected]
Sign up for Pushing Buttons, our weekly guide to what’s going on in video games.