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Game development crunch can be changed by bringing abuses to light

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Individual and collective action can force companies to mend their ways

photo of a flashlight sitting on a wooden surface Wako Megumi/Getty Images

I’ve received many thanks for reporting the grim experiences of developers at Epic Games, who worked brutally long hours making updates for Fortnite. It’s always nice to receive recognition for one’s work, but it’s important to note that it’s my job to be a reporter. I have something to gain from breaking a big story.

The picture is more nuanced for my sources.

The employees and former employees at Epic took a risk by speaking to me. Few employers will take on a person who has a record of whistleblowing. Talking to the press without permission can be a fireable offense. The people who spoke to me gained nothing personally, apart from the knowledge that they were making a difference.

Still, they are making a difference at a collective level. Sources in gaming who speak to journalists about workplace toxicity are seeking to right a collective wrong, to set their weight against an injustice. They are the ones pushing back against serious issues like crunch, exploitation, and cultural ignorance.

I wanted to write this short follow-up piece to honor them for their bravery, and to let others know that speaking to the press can help make a difference. A trustworthy journalist will listen to your story and will report your experiences, and they will conceal your identity. A trustworthy journalist will only post a story about workplace toxicity after speaking to multiple sources. Sources are never alone.

I tried to speak to many people at Epic before writing my story. Many declined, or ignored me, as is their right and privilege. Some articulated their reasoning, but most did not.

Perhaps they don’t see crunch as a problem. Or they don’t see it as their problem. Or they don’t trust the press. Or they place a high value on loyalty to their employer. Or they are just too busy. There are a lot of good reasons for not responding.

But most, I sense, are afraid. And they are right to be afraid, at least to a certain extent. Employers hate media scrutiny. Your boss will likely hurt your career if they catch you talking to the press about abusive working conditions. Epic, and most other major companies in gaming, tie their employees to nondisclosure agreements that continue to be enforced long after workers have moved on.

Media scrutiny often means a public accounting. It can mean angry meetings and calls for change. It raises the question of reform, which is good for employees but can be costly for the companies involved. Finally, it can also be a stain on the reputation of the executives, many of whom have become accustomed to lavish praise from the media.

While moves are afoot to create union protections for workers in the game industry, most people still rely on their individual power to protect themselves. If they feel abused, they are usually required to move on to some other employer, to some other place.

Most of the workers I speak to tell me that their bosses pay lip service to employee care. They create sets of rules and internal guidelines that protect the organization from legal trouble. Yet the norms they establish are a long way from these niceties. The way many gaming companies actually operate can be damaging to the health and happiness of workers.

This is why it’s useful to talk to the media, to tell your story to trustworthy journalists who will protect your identity. Companies that are found to be abusing their power, that are shamed in public, are almost always forced to change their ways. They are certainly forced to consider the way they treat people. That alone is a significant collective payoff.

Of course, no one should feel obliged or shamed into speaking to the media, or indeed into tackling the ills of the world. It’s just an option. I also want to be clear that revealing workplace abuses to the press is not the same as revealing commercial secrets. As a reporter, I’m not especially interested in scooping the world on Publisher X’s next big thing. When I speak to you, I want to hear what you have to say. I’m not going to grill you.

While I was reporting on the Epic story, many of my sources were nervous at first. When I speak to sources (or connect via email or other apps), I try to put them at ease, to let them know that I’m here to listen and that they can walk back anything they regret saying, without consequences. I find that people are often just glad to get things off their chest, to feel that someone is listening. Now that the story has been published, some of my sources have come back to me, to say they are glad that change might be effected by their actions.

So if you have a story to tell about workplace abuses, please contact me (colincampbellx at gmail, etc.), or contact other reporters who have a demonstrably excellent record of reporting abuses in the game industry, like Megan Farokhmanesh at The Verge, or Cecilia D’Anastasio and Jason Schreier at Kotaku. Your identity will be protected. Your story will be heard.

Workplace crunch and other abuses in the games industry are unacceptable. Change comes by shining a light on these malpractices.