Toxic Workplaces and the Role of the Complicit Consumer

Another day, another AAA gaming company revealing a viciously toxic workplace culture. At this point, I would be more surprised if a big game company was revealed to be healthy. 

As a gamer, the last few years of continuous allegations regarding the industry has made me extremely wary of supporting big gaming companies. When I was younger, it was so much easier to be dazzled by the glossy polish of the gaming experience. Amazing graphics, cool storylines, and inventive gameplay made it incredibly enticing to focus on the product over the process. Yet the repeating stories of toxic culture, workplace crunch, and phobia around stories that don’t center straight white cis men are increasingly difficult to overlook. And to be true to myself, and the causes I believe in, I can’t overlook them. Not if I want to maintain any sense of my own integrity.

Yet what truly breaks my heart, as I learn more about systems of oppression and toxic environments, is realizing that these issues have always been present. The marginalized have always been victimized in these corporations. In all industries. In all places. It’s been happening forever. And without the courage of the people speaking up, it would all still stay under the rug. And even with those speaking out, chances of change are slim – if we are to rely on these industries to improve themselves.

"Ugh, these stupid women keep going public. What do we do?"

In a similar vein, NPR recently reported a story on the world’s biggest meatpacking company, JBS, a Brazilian corporation. This company gives a whole new meaning to the word “corruption” from their complicity in the deforestation of the Amazon, to bribery of top officials, to their horrific treatment of workers leading directly to Covid-19 outbreaks in multiple countries. You probably haven’t heard of them. But if you’ve ever eaten meat, you’ve bought from them. We all have. Their brand logo will never appear on what you buy, but they get your money all the same.

I’ve been thinking a lot about both of these news stories this week. I believe deeply that it is possible to create a healthy and balanced workplace culture, yet when the roots of an industry are so deeply toxic, how do you even begin to foster change? Especially when those that have power are guaranteed to do the absolute minimum in “improvements” so they can maintain the status quo?

"I have an idea...ooh, what's that over there!?"
"Bob has resigned, and since everything was clearly his fault, we have no more problems here!"

As aptly noted in this piece by Kellen Browning for the New York Times (a publication that has been having their own issues with accountability at the top levels), the current accusations leveled at gaming giant Ubisoft are simply part of a new cycle of reports. Every year, and often every few months, we see this cycle repeat. Not just in gaming, but in many different industries.

And Ubisoft’s reaction has been utterly predictable. The statement released by their PR firm was a recycled and cliched response that we have seen a million times before. 

“We strive to create and foster a culture that Ubisoft’s employees and partners can be proud of” – ✅ 

“We do not and will not tolerate abuse, harassment or discrimination of any kind.” – ✅ 

“The recent claims and allegations are deeply troubling, and we take them, and the underlying questions they raise, very seriously.” – ✅ 

“We have policies and procedures in place that address misconduct and provide ways in which employees can report any inappropriate behavior.” – ✅ 

“The recent allegations and employee feedback have made it clear that we must do more as a company” – ✅ 

I could have told you what the statement would be without ever reading it. The formula is painfully obvious. It’s also straight up bullshit. The PR firm is working to smooth things over, Ubisoft is rushing out announcements of new games to change the focus of news coverage, a few people are resigning or will be fired, and nothing will actually change. 

As quoted in the Times piece, “‘They just purge the evildoers and think that they’re OK, not realizing that they’re all complicit and that there’s a culture that devalues women,’ said Professor Gray, who studies the gaming industry.”

Honestly, I think Professor Gray gives some of these companies too much credit. I think a lot of them do realize they’re complicit. They just don’t care.

In truth – we’re all complicit too. They don’t become billion dollar organizations alone.

Anyone wanna play?

This is not to say that companies are incapable of change, or that none ever have. There is some cautiously optimistic buzz around a few gaming companies that came under fire in previous years around their workplace culture. But again, so much of this buzz relies on leaders who are claiming to know all their mistakes and how to make lasting change. Will their efforts provide real change, or just a new veneer for the surface? That remains to be seen. 

In the meantime, we can’t afford to wait for every organization to have an internal reckoning. Or we’ll be waiting forever.

So what do we do? 

In truth, there are so many gaps in accountability. We live in a world where Boeing was allowed to do their own safety assessments, OSHA is missing in action in regards to protecting food and farm workers from Covid, and journalism is often impacted by the whims of advertisers and corporate sponsors. We can vote and hope that the political arena will move back towards a structure that holds corporations responsible, but even that usually only catches the most egregious abuses, and both major parties in America still virulently favor businesses over individuals. Supporting unions is important for workers’ rights, but there’s still a ton of pushback in many industries and many roadblocks to overcome.

Similar to the discussions of late about J.K. Rowling and our ability to separate the art from the artist, I think this is where individual accountability and choice comes into play. It is so easy to dismiss our role as individuals in changing culture, yet there is a great power in the choices of multiple people following a common cause.

The truth is, we often avoid these sorts of decisions, because it’s exhausting. It’s horrible to have to think about everything we do in these contexts. And in reality, none of us have time to examine every item that comes into our home for a background of corporate responsibility. 

But I think it’s important to try.

"Ok, so how do we say something along the lines of we're sorry and we screwed up, but without any chance of sounding genuine or like we really intend to change?"

Admittedly, when it comes to large groups of people committing to holding organizations accountable, it can be a long and slow process. Yet it has actually proven effective.

Let’s face it, the owner of the Washington NFL team clearly had no intention of changing the name of his franchise. If he had already been thinking of it, he wouldn’t have been forced to use the idiotic “Washington Football Team” placeholder until something more substantial gets run through focus groups. He didn’t learn, he didn’t become better, he didn’t make a change because he suddenly realized it was the right thing to do. This was a change that happened because the perspective of the public came to a point where it was no longer financially viable to keep the old, racist name.

This is the same reason that more and more companies are using marketing that works to appeal to people from different races, genders, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Sure, some of these companies are probably understanding the benefit of inclusive advertising from a social and moral perspective, but in the end, marketing is always about money. It’s just bad business to ignore a segment of the population who can add to your bottom line.

"I will never change our team name, never!!
"Um, Sir, we're losing advertisers due to public pressure..."
"I am happy to announce our new team name!"

There’s no way to do this perfectly. There’s no way to be the perfect consumer. But there are a lot of ways to be a better consumer. To acknowledge that our wants should not be superior to the safety and well-being of others.

There will always be challenges, finding a balance between what we can afford, and where we can access what we need. There are a number of companies like JBS that hide behind other distributors to stay safely anonymous when it comes to accountability. There will be other companies who cover their tracks well while doing harm.

Yet each step we take in the right direction, each time we pull back from supporting a company that engages in toxic practices, each time we ask for accountability, each time we ask questions about where things are sourced or how workers are treated, each time we support a small local business or farmer, each time we decide not to buy the latest, coolest release that led to multiple breakdowns for employees, we drive a tiny crack into the toxic monolith that is American workplace culture. Add enough cracks, and something gives.

We may lose out on a bit of fun. But frankly, in the end, what could be more fun that crashing the system and beating the bad guys? There’s nothing more video game than that.

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