Just a few weeks ago, a 16-year-old boy from the US made headlines worldwide. He won the inaugural Fortnite World Championships. His prize money: $3 million. The video game Fortnite launched only two years ago has blown up. There are 250 million Fortnite players worldwide. In 2018, the game reportedly generated $2.4 billion. The gaming industry as a whole has exploded – making the once niche industry part of popular culture. However, behind the flashy graphics and billion-dollar industry all is not well.
In the most recent episode of the Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj’s political comedy show on Netflix, he exposes the dark side of the fast-growing industry. The gaming industry in America is worth $139 billion a year.
Yet, the industry is plagued by so many issues. Chief amongst those is the exploitation of game developers and a generally terrible working environment.
For the longest time, the biggest conversation around the gaming industry has been the connection between real-life violence and violent games. After the two recent mass shootings in America, video games were once more brought up as a cause.
Yet Minhaj looks deeper in the industry and its problems.
In his report, Minhaj interviews a game developer who details how the developers long hours to prepare games from launch. This exploitative labour practice is well-known and even has a title: crunch. Crunch culture is when companies expect employees to adjust to “a sudden spike in work hours, as many as 20 a day, that can last for days or weeks on end.”
Game developers are expected to sleep at work and remove any distractions that would take them away from their work. These “distractions” include bathroom breaks and food. And after they’ve worked long hours to prepare for the launch of the games, many of those developers are quickly laid off without any severance packages.
In 2018 Cecilia D’Anastasio, a journalist at Kotaku exposed the culture of sexism and sexual harassment at one of the biggest gaming companies in America. Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends were at the center of the scandal. Women employees at the company including those in senior managerial positions detailed the harassment and sexism they faced at the company. Kotaku spoke to 28 former employees from the company for their investigation. The company, founded in 2006 have only released League of Legends. The game had 100 million monthly players in 2016.
The South Africa gaming industry is nowhere near as big as the American one. Yet it still faces some of the issues of its American counterparts. Amongst those is the racial and gender discrimination with white men dominating the industry. However, the industry is trying to tackle issues of sexual harassment and sexism through policy.
During the show, Minhaj shows how there are positive shifts though. There is the growing talk of the unionisation of game developers. Even though game workers have spoken about this for quite a while, the conversations have increased recently. Game Workers Unite is a grassroots organisation dedicated to unionising the gaming industry. They are working in many different countries and communities to achieve this goal.
The unionisation of game workers would mean they would be protected from the issues they are currently facing. This includes excessive hours, no severance benefits, unfair contracts, and unfair work environments.
Minhaj and many other journalists who have raised this issue all make the same point. The onus is on fans to care about what is happening and raise the issues with the companies. Fans need to boycott and call attention to the exploitation happening to developers at these gaming companies.
“The only way the industry will change is if players know how their games really get made,” said Minhaj in closing.