California Needs to Do Better for Games Workers

It's time for the state government to act on behalf of game developers.

On Tuesday, California Department of Fair Employment and Housing attorney Melanie Proctor resigned.

In an email sent to staff and obtained by Bloomberg, she made a stunning accusation: Governor Gavin Newsom had interfered with the department’s investigation by firing her boss, Janette Wipper.

Newsom’s office denied the allegations on Wednesday in a statement to Bloomberg. DFEH director Kevin Kish said the department will continue to litigate “groundbreaking” civil rights cases, with Newsom’s full support.

“We continue to do so with the full support of the administration,” Kish told Axios in a statement. “Our cases will move forward based on the facts, the law and our commitment to our mission to protect the civil rights of all Californians.”

If true, the Newsom allegations are appalling. The DFEH could be the most vital agency in fighting for change in the California games labor industry. One filled with continuous reports of mistreatment. Sexual abuse, misogyny, racism, crunch and other key labor rights issues. The agency shouldn't receive interference.

California is one of the strictest labor states in the U.S. The state can and should set the standard across the entire video game sector that the time for taking advantage of your workers is over.

More than $8 billion in games companies call California home. That includes Riot Games, Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts, and studios owned by Meta, Microsoft and Sony.

The DFEH sued both Riot and Activision Blizzard for labor issues, including sexual misconduct in the workplace. Sony subsidiary Naughty Dog and EA studio BioWare reportedly overworked employees while finishing recent releases "Anthem" and "The Last of Us Part II." And former PlayVS employee Rachel Waynick, who's suing that company for discrimination, also filed a report with the DFEH.

This industry maintains an underbelly full of mistreatment of women and people of color and unfair pressure put on young, eager talent by disconnected executives. Get in any circle and you’ll hear such stories.

California needs to do better.

That starts with a bigger focus on gaming at the government level. Because gaming is of a younger generation, politics often lag behind. Gaming makes more money than the film industry—a staple of California. It’s time it gets as much attention.

There’s only so much that workers can do themselves. They can tweet, speak to the press, and try to make change through their voice.

Games workers are becoming more pro-union. Seventy-eight percent of workers in a recent International Game Developers Association survey said they would support unionization. Some already have. In January, more than 28 employees at Activision-owned Raven Software formed a union.

Unions are a good first step. But they don't guarantee results. In an industry chock full of young talent who would kill to work for these companies, it's hard to imagine employers taking these unions seriously.

That’s why it’s so vital that the California government steps in further.

Even under Newsom, the government made some vital, pro-worker legislation—though some of it has had unintended consequences.

Under Newsom, the government has made some vital pro-worker legislation, even though it has not gone as planned.

In September 2019, California passed AB 5, a significant change to the use of independent contractors residing in the state.

The government intended to force companies to convert its contract to employees if they fall under certain criteria. That backfired. Instead, employers made cuts of California contractors, and replaced them with out-of-staters or a smaller number of employees.

Newsom is running for reelection this summer after surviving a recall attempt last fall. He’s very likely to win, even though about half the state disapproves of him. Let’s just hope those around him in power start taking gaming and its labor issues more seriously.