The games industry is busted, and the only way to fix it is to reboot it from the ground up.
I’ve regularly written about five different entertainment industries in my time at Paste—first comics, then games, and eventually comedy, wrestling and theme parks, in that order. Yeah, it’s a weird assortment of dumb stuff I’ve loved since I was a kid and can’t really get over, but they can all be pretty great in their own way. Of course they can also be absolutely miserable. Over the last week four of them have been rocked by dozens of harassment and abuse allegations. They follow a similar pattern: somebody in a position of authority or celebrity—usually a man, sometimes a woman—uses that power to abuse, exploit, coerce, or otherwise harass an employee, colleague, fan or romantic partner. Although it’s not remotely surprising that stuff like this happens, the amount of it all has been staggering. Hopefully these revelations help reform every one of these industries, and help us realize society as a whole is deeply flawed.
All of those industries clearly have a serious problem (well, there haven’t been many theme park accusations that I’m aware of yet), but right now I’m going to talk specifically about videogames. Abuse apparently exists throughout every part of the industry, with accusations coming out in the worlds of streaming, game design, publicity, games journalism, and more. Here’s just a sampling. Vice has an overview of the whole situation, Polygon details the allegations that drove Cards Against Humanity co-founder Max Temkin to step down, and Gamasutra has detailed a variety of allegations levied against Ubisoft employees and game writer Chris Avellone. A cursory glance at gaming Twitter accounts or message boards will reveal a number of similar stories about other people and companies, from former IGN editors who mentally and emotionally tormented their employees, to streamers, publicists, and developers acting and speaking inappropriately towards others—including alleged incidences of physical assault and rape.
Obviously this cannot stand. Abusers and predators have too long preyed on people with less power than them, and everybody who’s guilty of those actions needs to be drummed out of this business and subjected to the appropriate legal action. The rot within games is so extensive, though, that this problem might require something more drastic than simply rooting out the bad actors. At this point the games industry needs to be entirely scrapped and rebuilt from its foundations.
The core issue here stretches back decades. The western games industry largely fell apart in the early ‘80s as the Atari crashed. The PC gaming market wasn’t hit as hard, but it remained primarily a niche sidebar until home computers became more widespread in the ‘90s. When the western industry started to revive itself in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it developed a boy’s club mentality that sidelined women and injected a deep, overt strain of toxic masculinity into the heart of the business. If you look back at early gaming magazines and websites of the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s, or play some of the most important PC hits of that era, you’ll find rampant sexism and misogyny (often couched in the form of jokes—terrible, toxic, moronic “jokes”) and editorial and development staffs that were almost entirely male. It was the kind of frat house vibe that prevails in too many industries, and it coursed through every corner of gaming. It’s why professional gatherings like E3 and other conventions continued to have “booth babes” into the 2010s, and why work events are still routinely held with open bars. With games work was also supposed to be a party—which effectively eliminated the lines between professional and unprofessional conduct.
The system was built this way for a reason. Many of the people who built it are still here, still in positions of power, still profiting from it. Many more people who similarly profited from a system explicitly built to favor them—from those who entered the business for that reason, to those who were corrupted by it—have helped perpetuate it. It’s incredibly rare to go to an industry event that isn’t full of alcohol. It’s incredibly rare to get much of a foothold in this business without going to conventions like E3, PAX or GDC, and having to navigate the boundary-erasing parties and after show events. It’s incredibly rare for the women, non-white men, or LGBTQ employees who are allowed into the business to break through to the highest leadership positions within the industry, the positions which would empower them to make the changes that are necessary to improve it.
So let’s tear it all down. Scrap all the parties and other events that encourage people to drink. E3 itself has become utterly redundant, as this year’s round of virtual conferences have shown; dump the whole damn convention and never speak of it again. Limit GDC to official, professional daytime events for designers and developers, without the promotional component that has become increasingly dominant. Drive out the hacks who’ve overseen the traditional games media, the website and magazine editors who have resisted change for decades, who are far too chummy with the companies that they’re covering, and who have preserved that boy’s club mentality all along. Erect legitimate borders between human resources and management so HR can actually do the job it’s nominally supposed to do. Most importantly, the industry needs to find new leadership, people who haven’t worked here for decades, who didn’t help create the toxic culture that has surrounded gaming for so long, and who don’t directly benefit from it.
This debate isn’t just about making this industry safer. The industry, as it exists, is incompatible with that. It’s too late to make it “safer.” Like so much of society, it was specifically built in a way to ensure certain people would never really be safe. To make them easy to manipulate, exploit, and take advantage of. Until the entire thing is broken down and rebuilt anew, there will always be predators using the system exactly the way it was intended to be used.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.