Okay. Well, I am Kate Moser. I am 33 and I live in the Seattle, Washington area.
I started in games in the '90s as a kid, pretty much like everyone else at this point. [Laughs.] That got me really interested, but I was always kind of lost for there not being much for -- I guess not necessarily just girls but it was always promoted for boys. My brother always had the systems and I always had to grab them from him.
When I moved up here there was an opportunity to be a game tester at Nintendo and it was better than what I had so I jumped at it. [Laughs.] That kind of started the long, perilous trip into videogames that I kind of both love and hate at the same time. I was there for about three years. I started as a tester, moved into editing, and worked directly with localization to edit the games and since then I have been working on and off with indie-game companies here and there, working to get into narrative design. So, that's my current status in the game industry.
I guess the best place to start is the way you started. [Laughs.]
Which is what you said in February, which is you said you wanted to talk about the "weird classism and sexism in the hiring practices of game companies." At least I was under the impression from our emails that you were speaking if not exclusively about Nintendo, you were at least talking about Nintendo. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah. So, it's -- most of my experience is specifically Nintendo. So, in this case, I'm talking exclusively about Nintendo.
It's so complicated. [Laughs.] There's this weird thing where especially in the testing department where people are just kind of hustled in and they're given this dream of, "You know you can get hired on full-time. You're all contractors, but that's okay because you can live the dream and you can work at Nintendo full-time and maybe be a tester or a developer or something." Everybody in QA has some bigger dream of being something else. They don't make it at Nintendo. It's just not set up in a way that allows people to move up from QA to anything else unless you know somebody.
At the time, when I started -- this was in 2010 -- there were, I'd say less than 50 women on the team in QA and there are over 200 people. So, obviously, the numbers are already kind of skewed. And then in order to even move up out of QA and into a full-time position, all of the -- anyone who had moved up in any way who was female knew another language or had kind of, like I did, moved into editing, which is just more language. [Laughs.]
If you don't know another language, you don't get to move into checklist. You don't get to move into the chance to become hired full-time. Yeah. I honestly cannot think of a single woman who, at the time, was not bilingual who moved up.
You had said in our emails that women could only move up to better roles or get further -- you said they had to be bilingual and willing to flirt, whereas men just needed to buddy up to get anywhere. You mentioned something about the way your days are structured that complicates this, even just the chance to interact with other people? You mentioned there's an extremely regulated break schedule?
Yeah, so, every team is on their own lunch schedule. So, say you're working on the newest Pokémon or whatever. You get lunch from 12:45 to 1:45. Every day. Everyone turns in their systems, you get up, you go to lunch, you come back. If you don't come back exactly at 1:45 or before, you're in trouble. Your breaks are always at a specific time, 15 minutes exactly. The entire department goes to break. You turn in your system, you go to break, you come back, you collect your system. It's all very regulated. They don't trust the people that they hire to not steal the information. [Laughs.] So.
It's a weird situation because -- I mean, you mention that the industry doesn't trust its fans, but its fans are the people they hire, and so they don't really trust their employees either. It's -- nowhere have I seen it as obvious as in the testing department where everything is like you have to sign in, you have to sign out, everybody goes at the same time.
I was going to say, it almost sounds like working retail.
But it also sounds a little bit like prison.
Kind of. The prison aspect is the building they have is a converted warehouse that they have restructured the walls. The interiors have been taken down and built back up, like, tons of times. It's just got this weird, cold feel to it. It's very bizarre. [Laughs.]
Well, I guess it makes sense to paint more of a picture -- especially your picture of it. This is the thing obviously I'll never know, but how does being a woman in the game industry make your career harder?
I have a harder time being taken seriously.
Just in general? Or in specific contexts?
Specifically as a gamer, people will ask me my favorite game and --
Like, people you work with?
I've actually heard this before about Nintendo.
Yeah, from other people in different departments.
You're not the first to tell me that. Yeah.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Everyone's always asking, "Oh, what's your favorite game?" And so -- you know, I grew up on Pokémon. So, I'm a huge Pokémon fan. But, you know, I'm not the kind of person who memorizes --
Is it like a sincere question or is it a gatekeeping thing? Like, are they trying to get to you know from this other perspective?
It's a gatekeeping thing because they'll ask me and then they'll say, "Oh, if you have this guy at this level, what do you think is the best thing for that?" And it's like -- [Sighs.] I just want to play games. [Laughs.]
You mean you can't name Pikachu's inseam?
Yeah. That's kind of the thing. It's a weird one-upmanship that -- like, the guys do it with each other also. But it's like, if a girl can't answer, "Well, she's not a real gamer. She's just playing the part." Like, the whole sexy gamer girl thing was going on at the time with the YouTube videos and stuff and the people were just attributing all that to all girls who are in gaming.
Were there ways that -- I mean, it sounds like you're still working in games, but were there ways working at a Nintendo or working in games that made your personal life harder or more complicated?
[Pause.] Like, you mean business-wise or just hanging out day-to-day?
Day-to-day. I mean, I don't know. I've heard people say when they -- well, somebody else at Nintendo told me this, actually. [Laughs.] So, I'm not trying to collect all the Nintendo stories and compare them --
-- but, coincidentally, I remember him saying he would have to wait until a certain number of dates with a person to tell them that they work at Nintendo and convince them that they don't just play games all day.
So, I mean, I'm not only asking about romantically but were there ways that it stigmatized you in your personal life outside of work?
Not as much. Mostly because this is such a tech-centered city that it's not that big of a deal for me. It might just be that people that I hang out with don't really care that much. [Laughs.] On top of that, I was somewhat new to the city when I came here. So, I didn't have to worry. Like, most of the people I met were at Nintendo at the time. So, my experience is probably a little different than that because I didn't have to justify myself because the people I knew were basically in the same place. [Laughs.]
It's kind of cohorts in prison. Basically, like you said, it's kind of like a prison. [Laughs.]
I think we already touched on this, but you said that women are seen as less deserving of the few positions that are available. But how did you start to sense or notice this as a pattern?
It was almost immediately. Like, people openly talked about it.
You mean, like, superiors?
Colleagues. The department itself is kind of a giant rumor mill. Everyone's always got dirt on somebody else. It's basically high school. It would be like, "Oh, you know, this person moved up." "Well, what did she do to get it?" Like, that was always the first question: What did she do to get that job? And then it just kind of compounded from there, like, the little things that women are used to hearing and then it gets worse after that. [Laughs.] There were always rumors about so-and-so going on a date with a “red badge” -- that’s what full-time employees were called -- and then she mysteriously made checklist. Whether dates actually happened or not, I don’t know, but there was always a sense that any girl who moved up had traded something for it. And then every once in a while there were girls who seemed to buy into it or -- I’m not sure the best way to describe it because it’s one of those survival moves that women have done for centuries and I can’t really blame anyone who uses it for that, but I also don’t think they’re totally blameless. It’s just the system -- but sometimes there were girls where it seemed like they were playing the “sexy gamer” part and it made the rest of us roll our eyes at them and complain because it worked. They’d be moved up or kept on projects where their work was outshone by a girl who didn’t play the part.
For example, there was a girl who was Spanish bilingual. Beautiful girl by any standards. One of the male contractors once said she was “the kind of hot that makes you angry.” Whatever that means. And the other guys who were in the conversation just nodded along in agreement as if that made sense to them. She wasn’t amazing at testing, maybe slightly below average, but she was hired for Spanish so whatever. Everyone tests in QA whether they’re there for that or not. But looks are an asset for girls at Nintendo, and she used that. She turned her mediocre testing into a checklist position by openly flirting with the people who could make it happen. And that’s probably the most toxic thing about Nintendo’s culture. Women are shown that they have to do that to move up.
Someone had told me that -- a female former employee of a Western game company told me about a memo that was circulated saying that female employees should be unquestionably subservient to all orders from male superiors because men have been in the workplace longer than women. I think it's always such a surprising thing when I talk to people "outside" of the game bubble or game world or game industry or whatever you want to call it that there's so much -- that it's so regressive in the videogame world. I have always wondered what the influence of the Japanese origins of the game industry -- like, if that's a potential root of it in any way. I don't know and I'm trying to find people to interview about that. Do you get a sense of any of these things, you know, because Nintendo is a Japanese company and even though they have a Western branch -- I don't know. I only have an outsider's perspective, but from what I hear about Nintendo, Japan makes the decisions. But maybe I'm wrong.
No, they definitely do. It is knowing at least a little bit about that Japanese business culture where superiors are superior. Anyone up the totem pole is more knowledgeable than you. That's very much in the Japanese business system. It's absolutely a part of Nintendo's system.
But does that extend to the gendered things you're mentioning as well?
That's where it gets complicated is that I'm not sure if it's specifically the Japanese influence or -- like, we can't really blame it all on Japan.
Like, there was a guy who didn’t agree with a bug I wrote up for a 3DS game. He was trying to get me to close it even though that wasn’t his role -- it was the developers who would say if they were fixing something or not. And the testing PMs were the gatekeepers on bugs. So if it were a bad bug it wasn’t even supposed to get to the devs. When I told him I was leaving it up to the devs, his response was that I was wrong because “girls don’t see 3D as well.” You can’t blame that type of stuff on Japan.
No. No, no, and I'm not looking to -- I don't think it's any one thing. But that's something I've always wondered is because there is a lot of gating of information anyway throughout games, which I think does stem at least in part from the Japanese business culture you're saying. For the transcript's sake, I'm not at all judging it.
I'm just trying to parse and trace why things are the way they seem to be today. As you had mentioned in our email -- I don't know if it's people have gotten tone-deaf to hearing about these things, but what aspects of the things you've been through at Nintendo do you feel like you don't see discussed, that you haven't seen written about, that you feel people just accept is a reality?
Gosh, I think the weird contractor versus full-time scenario that they've got set up. Like, part of the reason people don't really move over is when contractors will apply for jobs, they can't be referred by a full-time employee.
They cannot. That is actually part of the full-time employee's policies, that they can't be referred. I was told this by more than one full-time employee.
I don't know.
Wouldn't you want people you already hired to already recommend people?
You would think. Because I had gone for a full-time position and had asked one of my former PMs to recommend me and he's like, "I really want to but I'm not allowed to do that."
Is that a Nintendo rule? Or have you heard that about at --
No, that was specifically Nintendo. I haven't heard that anywhere else.
Like, that's probably a really good example of the weird murky hiring practices that they have there.
I've been a freelance journalist for about six years and I personally am painfully aware of the important distinction between contractors and full-time people. To me, for the sort of contract work I do, it almost doesn't really matter where I am. It's isolating in a different way than the way you're talking about, which is you go to an office but it sounds juvenile, it sounds cutthroat, it sounds -- I don't know. Maybe it makes more sense first to back up.
What did you think videogames were going to be like what you realized what the reality was?
It was interesting. [Laughs.] So, I've had a really conservative idea of what it was gonna be. I was like, "It's just gonna be an office job. You know, a generic office job, you go in and sure it involves videogames but there's gonna be data entry, there's gonna be bug logging."
Right, it's a job.
Yeah, it's a job. That's what I expected. What I got was a return to high school/possible prison yard. [Laughs.] It was very strange and I've worked contract jobs before and it's never been this stark of a difference between contractors and full-time employees.
What was this thing you emailed me about someone writing a message in feces on the men’s room wall?
Because you mentioned high school, but it also sounds like preschool, too.
What was that? You said they wrote a message on the wall and nobody was reprimanded. What did they write on the wall? What happened?
How vulgar can I be? Can I cuss?
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. No, please do. It's fine.
So, the message was, "Fuck Melvin." Written in feces on the men’s bathroom wall. Melvin was one of the full-time managers at the department and he was very much a gatekeeper to full-time employment from contracting. He's one of the only people that you can go through to get what they call checklist training, which is basically just everything that games absolutely have to have done to go out. You go through this checklist and any other bug testing is, like, you try to break the game or you try to fall through a wall. [Laughs.] Everything else is more free-form, but the checklist is very a specific list of guidelines. In order to get hired on full-time, you have to have that checklist training. And in order to have that checklist training, you have to be friends with Melvin. [Laughs.] So.
You have to be friends with Melvin? Where is the management wisdom coming from? Like, is Japan aware of these types of -- I mean, it's not even minutiae, but because Nintendo is an international corporation, I just don't understand how stuff like this is able to persist. Yeah. I guess that's it.
It's so crazy to hear about things stuff like this for three years because it's like, "How is this even able to happen and be tolerated?" Especially without any repercussions, because you said nothing happened in that instance. But, like, what's up with Melvin?
That's a question I've often asked myself. [Laughs.]
Yeah, it's this weird power dynamic where anybody who has a full-time position -- it's almost like they have absolute power over your job if you're a contractor. Like, if they don't like you, you're not coming back on that contract.
Do they feel like you're competition for them somehow?
It's not that.
No, like, that would make more sense to me. Like, it'd still be crazy but it would make more sense.
But some of the stuff you mentioned, it just sounds spiteful or sloppy. You also mentioned stuff like management intentionally ignoring vegetarian lunch orders, be they for religious reasons or personal preference. Are people being petty?
I don't think it was intentional. I think it was just -- it's just one of those things where one person really wants something and so they do it and they don't think about the consequences. [Laughs.] So, in this case, one person really wanted barbecue, and so they ordered barbecue, and didn't really think about what the rest of the team was gonna need. The manager ordered the food. Anytime you have, like, full days -- I don't know if they still do this because they cut a lot of the budgeting, but anytime you were there on the weekend, they would order in lunch because the place where the building is situated, there really is nowhere you can go within the time allotted and come back in time. It's all -- it's right next to the Microsoft campus, so it's just kind of surrounded.
There really isn't anywhere else you can go other than the corner 7-Eleven, which, you're not gonna send 50 testers to the corner 7-Eleven. It's not possible. [Laughs.]
So, they would order in food and one of the managers was like, "I really want barbecue from this place." And they're like, "Okay, that's what we're gonna order." But they had at least one Muslim tester and they didn't order anything he could eat. [Laughs.] They had a few vegetarians and barbecue isn't exactly conducive to vegetarianism. Those people, I think they ate coleslaw. Like, that was their lunch. Just coleslaw. But, I mean, it's just sloppy.
Yeah. I mean, I'm sure you're aware of -- many outlets seem locked in just writing about how hellish and awful a lot of tech companies are to work for. It seems to be shaped by the types of people who rise through the ranks at tech companies and I think also at game companies -- by that, I mean they're not necessarily very adept with interpersonal skills.
Do you get a sense it's typically stuff like that? I mean, if you would go to other people at Nintendo at your level or above and did you ever talk to them about this stuff? Did they try to dismiss it or you? Did they know what you were talking about? How would they react?
I did try to go to people when I first started there. It was almost like -- like, I would get angry responses. They'd say, "Oh, did you guys think about this?" And then be like, "Well, you should just be grateful." So, it's -- it's almost like they don't want to acknowledge that there could be a problem. [Laughs.] And so, yeah. When the people couldn't eat, everyone was in the room watching -- like, we were all getting food. The guy who was Muslim who obviously can't be eating pork, he's like, "Well, is there chicken?" And they're like, "Oh yeah! There's chicken. It's in here with the pork." And he's like, "I can't eat that." [Laughs.]
And everyone saw it and nobody did anything. Like, nobody could do anything for him. Because the full-time people have so much power over whether you come back or not, whether you have a job in a week, nobody does anything. Everyone's afraid of being the nail that sticks up.
One thing I remember happening when I first started was getting a survey request from my contracting company asking for a review of the process and how I felt about the job. This was supposed to be an anonymous survey. There were multiple points during the survey where they said it was anonymous. So I called out the problems that I saw, because I was naïve and I believed in the word “anonymous.” But less than a week later I was sitting in a conference room with my contract manager asking me why I would write what I did. And I was afraid of losing my job, so I did my best to placate. Looking back, that was one of the things that I carried with me. It signalled that I couldn’t trust anyone higher up there.
That's kind of a persistent thing I've noticed in the last three years of doing these interviews, is there's this notion -- people are almost uniformly like, "I wish someone else would do something about this."
They don't want to be the ones -- which I completely understand, especially in the economy, with whatever's going on now.
But I am curious, because this is something most people -- it's weird, because I did an interview late last year about the restaurant world, with an activist in the service industry, and she thought it was interesting that in the game world people don't really talk about their salaries but they'll talk about all these other things. In the restaurant world, it's the other way around: They're more willing to talk about how much they make but not these types of problems.
I apologize if it's tacky to ask, but just because it's difficult to track what these jobs are really like: How much were you getting paid at Nintendo for this job?
So, the starting salary was $10 an hour, which is -- you can't even really live off of that in Seattle. Most of the people would talk about it at the lowest levels. Some of these testers are in their first corporate job. There were people whose parents dropped them off and picked them up who thought the pay was fine. And then there were the people who lived in apartments with four other roommates and counting pennies to get by. It ran the gamut.
How many --
Forty hours a week.
So, it was a full-time job but they treated you like a contractor.
Yeah. I know when they hire on in the department full-time, you go to $23 an hour. That's what it was when I was there. So, it's possible that it's changed. They've also since restructured the pay scale because they were basically bleeding people. Like, they couldn't keep testers longer than a single project.
Why do you think in the restaurant world what's discussed publicly is the opposite of in the videogame world? Or, it might be unfair to ask you to fathom a guess, so I guess the thing to ask here would be: Why do you think these types of things in videogames aren't publicly discussed more? Why doesn't the audience care more, which could help give the workforce leverage?
The thing that I think about immediately is the case where the girl discussed her salary at Nintendo and was then fired. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was hitting the news outlets a few years back. In the restaurant industry I don’t think people often get fired for saying how much they make. But in games -- and tech in general -- it’s more of a taboo.
[Sighs.] This is something games has in common with tech, which is they'll entice people -- companies like Google and eBay, they're notorious for dangling the carrot of, "Oh, you could be working for Google!" But they don't give you any benefits. They actually stipulate that you can't tell people you actually work for them because they hire you through a subcontractor. There's zero promise of them ever actually hiring you. [Laughs.] I think for tech companies it's a ploy to protect their reputations so they'll say, "We only hire the best!”
Do you think the game industry is doing that as well? Or is it something else, as far as stringing people along as contractors?
I think in their case it's the only way they can keep the knowledge in there without paying the money they need to pay to keep the people there long-term. Because there are people who would eventually demand more money for being there a long time. If they had played the politics right, they would get it. So, it's definitely not that they don't have it to pay people, but they can get away with it. Half the people that were there were barely 18 to 25. Like, that was the workforce. And so, people who are kind of naive to the workplace don't really know how to advocate for themselves in that way. It is a revolving door. They're in for maybe six months and then they're gone.
What's the carrot being dangled? What's the highest you can hope to climb at Nintendo in USA? Treehouse?
You can get into the corporate side of it. There were quite a few people there who were students at Digipen, which is maybe two miles away from where Nintendo is located. They want to get in, and they’re told they’ll get the experience.
I mean, no one's gonna be hired today and it's like, "Well, your job is to make the new Legend of Zelda."
Yeah. [Laughs.] Where I was, since I went in as editing -- the thing is, all of their games aren't even made in the US. You're not going to be making Legend of Zelda. You have to go to Japan for that.
But the offices in the US, it's all the marketing, business strategy. Sometimes you do work on the consoles. There is some programming as far as changing things over from Japanese to English and Spanish and all of the other different languages. But most of those people, they want to be full-time QA. They want to be on the test side, they want to run projects, or just get that game experience to push themselves into another industry job. But the knowledge is so gated that you're not getting that experience.
There was an exception to some of this, which is you mentioned you noticed relatives of full-timers who work as contractors were treated differently than other contractors with no other attachments?
So, how does that work? Full-timers can't recommend people but relatives of full-times can apply?
There's one case specifically where the son of one of the full-time managers in -- I believe he was in lot check, which is the next highest thing from the checklist.
Yeah, I have heard that is a coveted spot but also a limbo of its own.
Yeah. If you want to be full-time, you're more likely to be hired full-time from lot check, but it's still like, "Maybe. Maybe not." So.
I feel like we're hopping around quite a bit here, but have mapped out a horizon here that wasn't particularly welcoming or nurturing for your career. Why did you decide to leave Nintendo?
I left specifically because there wasn't any future there for me.
So, I was in the editing team that was about eight people. Two full-time, one department lead, and then everybody else was contract. We all did the same thing. We all edited, except for the department lead. She was the PM for editing.
Did you get insurance --
-- through this job?
That's also a strong motivator to leave, as well.
Insurance wasn't a requirement at that time. Now that it's required, I'm sure that they do. But at the time they were like, "Well, we have someone we can recommend to you but we won't be providing any insurance." It's like, "Okay, I'll just not have it."
So, you're working 40 hours a week, 10 dollars an hour, and no benefits.
There had been a position that opened up. One of the other full-time editors kind of rage-quit one day and suddenly there was a position. I sat down with the department head and said, "You know, I'd like to take on more responsibility." You know, the things that you do when you want to move up at a company. And she decided to turn that meeting into telling me I was a mean person and that she never wanted to hire me. [Laughs.]
I don't know. We were always really quiet. It was this weird silence where if you said anything wrong, you're worried you might say something that would set the PM off. So, she had decided at one point that I was mean and I'm not really sure why. From then on, it was like, I would write up a bug and it wouldn't get put through. And somebody else would write it up and it would get put through. Like, I'm not really sure what I did to set it off. [Laughs.]
Did you get a sense there was less bullshit the higher you climbed? That things were better above a certain title at the company? Or did everybody seem uniformly miserable?
Once you get into management, it sounds like where all of the bullshit kind of originates from. [Laughs.]
Interesting. How so?
I still keep in touch with people who are there and especially people in Treehouse. There's a lot of weird, "We don't want to hire women because they're not funny, unless they're cute girls from testing who might maybe be okay with editing, and then that's all right." But all of the hiring comes from those upper management positions, so they're the ones that are perpetuating these things. I didn't really have an experience with what they dealt with above me. So, I don't know if they're getting the same nonsense as, say, from Japan or -- I don't know, maybe up to Reggie [Fils-Aimé, chief operation officer of Nintendo of America]. I don't know. [Laughs.] But, like, I don't really know what's coming down from them. But at least at the department level that I was at, the managers were definitely the origin of much of the nonsense that was happening.
Why do you think this is such a shock for people? Or, I guess more specifically I could ask the inverse: Why do so many people assume making software is some sort of utopia career?
Oh, because that's what places like Google and Facebook and Apple make it sound like. Their marketing departments have made their jobs sound amazing, but nobody wants to talk about the flip side.
Well, it's ironic because you get up many tech companies, especially in Silicon Valley, they think marketing is a waste of time because the product should sell itself, which seems to be what games wants to do. But the emphasis on any individual is the player and someone who worked for Konami once remarked to me -- he thought it was pretty weird that people who play games are more well-known than the people who make games. Of course, none of them are household names.
But why do we keep buying all of this? That making videogames is some sort of miraculous haven? Or that these places still try to bill themselves as being meritocratic when obviously they're not? Like, why still in 2017 is this still a thing people believe, you think?
I don't really have an answer to that because I don't think I really know why. It feels like somebody had a PR idea one day and it stuck and everyone's just been repeating it ever since. [Laughs.] I don't know if that's accurate but that's kind of what it feels like. [Laughs.]
I'm pretty sure the word “meritocratic” was coined sarcastically, but it seems to have been pretty steadfastly embraced. But which do you think is more toxic about working in the game industry then, do you think it's the personalities or the practices?
Sometimes it's hard to divorce the personalities from the practice because a lot of the practices have originated from the personalities. Like, the people who had reached management at the levels that I was interacting with had been there for 20+ years. They've been there since Nintendo came to America, so, the practices basically came from them and it's hard to know if -- are some of these things just inherently part of becoming a big company and not really thinking about what you're doing as you're growing or is it because of somebody is deep down kind of an asshole. [Laughs.] And they just kinda spread it around. Like it's hard to know if there ever really was a reason behind it because some of it's just rote, like, the things that they do. Which is like, "Well, we've already done it this way. We've done it this way for 20 years."
That's definitely something you think of as going along with being "innovative," is the defensive response, "Well, we've always done it this way."
[Laughs.] That’s what it’s like in a lot of corporate jobs. That’s why we hear terms like “innovator” and “disruptor” coming out of tech. “It’s always been this way” is the go-to for a lot of corporate America. I can’t say it’s unique to Nintendo because I know for a fact that it’s not.
But do you have any examples of specific practices that feel like they came from assholes?
It’s more like a lack of practices, if that makes any sense? The leadership was so loathe to deal with bad behavior that it became almost practice not to. There was a guy who would randomly shoot people with a Nerf gun and thought it was hilarious. Some people like that work atmosphere, I guess, but he enjoyed doing it to people who weren’t into it. No one ever did anything to stop him. It just went on. He was definitely an asshole, because aside from that there were other things that happened. But what about the people above him? That’s where it’s hard to know if it was just bad leadership or if those people were more actively contributing to the problem. I think someone finally hid that guy’s darts because I remember it stopped for a time.
Well, but I wonder about stuff like clout in the game industry. A lot of the figures who have been the exception -- people who become synonymous with a certain series or platform, it's completely imperceptible publicly what they do with that status other than try to sell products.
But how much of that -- do you think you have to be an "asshole" to "succeed" in this business, or is it just a coincidence?
In the department I was in, you kind of had to be an asshole to succeed.
I've wondered that about myself and my own career; what if I behaved in a different way other than what I actually feel? Would that have done something for me? Would I have wound up someplace else? It's hard to tell but it does seem like that's the way to get ahead.
Yeah. I feel like that's just kind of part of our capitalist society. [Laughs.] The people who are held up as being No. 1 businessman are the people who are also assholes. [Laughs.] It's just an expression of this toxic masculinity that just becomes the goal for a lot of people.
What's the most pathetic thing you've heard or seen as an example of how people brag about working at Nintendo?
There are two guys in particular who have been testers for over 10 years there.
Still contractors. They are almost always on the Pokémon games. One of them is known as being a bragger and the other one is this super-sweet quiet guy. It's as opposite as you can get. [Laughs.]
The one who's known as being a bragger, whenever somebody -- a new tester -- would sit next to him and he'd be like, "Well, I'm in a videogame." Because they named dragon tamers after the two of them in one of the Pokémon games and that was like, "Well, I'm in a videogame." [Laughs.] That's his way of promoting himself. But it's like -- you haven't gotten anything out of that. [Laughs.] You've worked on this series for so long and yet --
How old is this person?
At least in his forties. [Pause.] Yeah.
Is someone -- I don't know, I don't understand how someone works a job like that and is able to support themselves. It just doesn't seem possible.
A lot of people have roommates. They all live with other people who work there. A lot of people are on Section 8 housing, like, you're below the poverty line working there and so you have to get poverty assistance. Or they live with family. There's quite a few locals. I mean, people kind of scrape by. They do what they have to do.
It sounds like when you're in a spot like that, when you've been there for a decade, are you hoping for advancement? Do you feel like you've already "made it?" Were most of the people you worked with there -- were they find where they were or did everybody think they were going to "make it," whatever "it" is?
Like, I'm still fairly good friends with one of them who's been there for a decade and --
And to be clear, I'm not mocking them. It just seems like --
Like, what's the goal?
Yeah. Either they're in fine with it or they're in denial about something or they're completely happy.
It's like a complacency: “This is what my life has always been for the last decade and I’m comfortable. I have the things that I want and nothing needs to change." Like, some people, it takes them longer to want to change. Some people never want to change.
Right. Some people think they've already changed.
Like, the environment where you're successful in QA if you can stick around more than a year without getting dropped. Like, my big accomplishment when I was in QA was that I didn't have a break from one project to the next for the full year. That was my accomplishment: That I was employed for a year. [Laughs.]
And people would look at me in awe like, "How did you do it?" And I'm like, "I'm not really sure." [Laughs.] I mean, that's so sad, to be like, "Well, she has really made it. She hasn't had to take a break in her employment for a year." That's so stupid. [Laughs.]
Well, I think a lot of it, too -- I mean, stupid, yeah, but it's almost so depressing if you don't laugh you cry.
Yeah. That's basically every day there. [Laughs.]
Why do you think the game industry lacks any outlet for meaning protest? For decades. Maybe even half a century at this point.
It's one of those industries where there are so many who kind of dream about it that if you get in and you hate it and you leave, there's always gonna be somebody right behind you who wants that same job who's willing to do it just for the joy of gaming. That's absolutely how they treat the contractors there: There's always gonna be somebody else.
Like they're disposable?
Yeah. They're very disposable. Because of that, because people are treated as disposable, they don't have any voice in the industry. Like, they don't have a way of saying, "Hey, this isn't right. You're not treating us fairly” because, guess what, there's gonna be somebody else who's gonna want the job and they're not gonna complain about it.
Like, that was actually one of the things about the sexual harassment that would happen in the department, where girls would be told -- guys would constantly be asking girls out and girls would say, "No, I don't really want to." But there's always another guy lined up trying to ask you out if you're a female in that department. [Laughs.] It would even extend to some of the managers. Sometimes the managers would say inappropriate things. But anytime there was a tester who would complain, guess what? They weren't back in the next project. The implication is if you complain, you're not coming back. You don't have a job anymore.
What sort of inappropriate things would they be saying?
There was one incident that I witnessed where a girl was walking away down the hallway and one of the managers leaned over and said something to the effect of, "That's a really great view." [Laughs.]
I'm rolling my eyes. It sounds like it's straight out of a cheesy training video.
I know. It sounds like a movie. It sounds really stupid.
"Things not to say."
Yeah. They actually have a fairly legendary video there as well. They do basically scenarios like that and then Wario comes out and goes, "Aughhh!" at the end of it. [Laughs.]
It's so awful that people are like, "Have you seen the video?" [Laughs.]
What was the final straw for you? I think we touched on near the end, but was there any sort of specific thing that happened where you were like, "Okay, I'm done!” Or did you just have a plan and you knew you were going to be out by a certain year? What happened?
It was mostly that conversation that I had with my immediate manager.
About you being mean?
Yeah. Where I was sitting down to say, "Hey, this is a rough time. Let's make the transition okay." She was like, "Hey, you're a terrible person." [Laughs.] I knew for sure at that point that I was never going to be hired on because she was the one who was hiring in that department. Like, she's the only person I could have gone through to get hired on and I was like, "Well, you clearly don't think I'm capable, so I'm not gonna stick around.”
Do you feel the game industry learns from its mistakes when it comes to stuff like this? Is Nintendo an outlier here or what?
I mean, if there's nobody sticking around, then there's no way to learn. Like, everybody takes that knowledge with them. So, I mean, I'm still fairly good friends with the person who did get hired and she's still dealing with nonsense even though she's hired on. Like, she's now into a new level of ridiculousness. [Laughs.]
So, yeah, I don't know. Because they recently had a bunch of people who had been there a long time in the 20+ years, they offered them all retirement packages. That manager's position was decided to never be filled. Like, they don't have a managing editor at Nintendo. They have a full-time editor who does all the work of a managing editor, but they don't have anyone who's officially managing editor.
As someone who has worked in the industry, why do you think everything about the working conditions in the game industry tends to be so unrelatable or uninteresting for the media?
I feel like gamers are still kind of portrayed in the same way that they were in the '80s. You're still the nerds with the undesirables of society. I feel like that's not sexy. That's not gonna sell papers. That's not gonna sell advertisement. It's not -- like, having that kind of stuff isn't gonna sell. And media has had such a problem funding itself that you kinda have to write the things that sell.
I mean, recently, well, it wasn't that recent but one of the things that's changing labor laws in Japan was that big suicide story where -- the woman who was working 80+ hours a week who finally just committed suicide. She couldn't handle it. That's suddenly making changes in Japan in the labor market. I kinda wonder if that is what the game industry is gonna -- like, if that's the level we have to get to before somebody goes, "We shouldn't do this anymore.”
Right. I mean, Japan, they have a specific word for that -- death by overwork. I don't think we even have that in America.
We just have heart attacks. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] We have our meritocratic heart attacks, right.
Well, but I feel like in America the message is you have to want it. You have to keep working hard and there's never -- either after you earn a bunch of money, then you realize you can try to make things for a bunch of other people or you can pull back and try to rebalance or you can try to do things that are more philanthropic.
But do you think somebody has to die? Like, what has to happen in our culture to get mainstream media to cover this stuff with any scrutiny? But then I wonder if maybe that's just an outmoded way of thinking: Like, is the media even an important part of this?
There are so many things that would have to change in the culture before anybody even notices these things. Like, Gamergate is what made this kind of culture mainstream. The media's already forgotten, basically, about Gamergate but that's just threats of somebody being murdered and raped. Like, for somebody to actually do something, does somebody have to get murdered and raped? I don't know. [Laughs.]
Like, that's what it feels like sometimes. It's awful to think about, that this would have to be the level that we would get to.
What specifically? Like, what to you is the single most awful thing about your experience working at a multinational consumer electronics and videogame company?
There was a moment when the Wii U was launching when Reggie went into all of the departments and made a big speech about how great this was going to be for the company. When he came into QA he did the same speech and there was an opportunity for people to ask questions. The first question was: “Why is it so expensive?” I think the console launched at around $350 or something. I can’t remember. I don’t even think that guy came back after his project ended. It was one of those things where as soon as he said it, everyone knew his contract wouldn’t be renewed.
But that meant that the people working on the product couldn’t afford the product. That’s the kind of thing we condemn Apple for with their factories. That’s what Nike and Mattel were condemned for. This is happening under everyone’s noses in one of those most expensive regions in America, and no one gives a shit.
That stands out, but is it the worst? Who knows. I mean I have all kinds of stories.
The son of one of the red badges would come in on contract work each summer when he was on break from school, which wasn't unusual. Nintendo tended to go through a big contractor hiring spree for the summer to cover the large fall and winter releases and then just dump people as the end of the year got closer. That's how I came in and how a lot of people I knew there started. I never actually met him in the department as the teams are fairly separated by the layout of the department, but I'd heard his name before and generally knew of him having been in QA. So I recognized his name when he was brought on as a contract writer for Style Savvy. That game had a ton of text, and it took ages to get through everything for editing -- we never actually finished a first editing pass, but that's another story. In any case, that might be why he thought it would be okay to include the line, "I'm such a stupid cow!," for one of the female characters. It was found, of course, and he had to change the line. But there was nothing else done and he was back the next summer for a new contract.
There was also the time where we had to strip out racist terms from a crossword game. We were working with a localization team outside of treehouse on that one. This was a British company. But we had to get them to change both some of the hints and some of the answers in the game, which also involved having to explain to the PMs why those terms were racist and shouldn't be used in a game. These weren’t obscure terms that no one’s heard of before and therefore didn’t know were wrong. These were the kinds of things that go into movie-villain dialogue that make you think: “That’s a pretty bad guy.” And yet here we were explaining to industry professionals that it’s just not okay to say that stuff.
I come to it from a journalist's perspective. I have my struggles with my field and as this all overlaps, I was very patient last year. I pitched from late 2015 to late 2016 things about this. I approached all the places you could think of and even reluctantly gaming publications -- because I want to be free to criticize and be able to analyze patterns of oversight in that landscape.
It's hard to get people to recognize their own complicity in things and by not saying anything, that essentially becomes complicity. You're not pointing out an important issue, so are you condoning it? Like, who knows, because nobody's saying anything. Nobody wants to acknowledge that by not saying anything, they're essentially part of the problem.
[Pause.] So, why does the game not realize that they're basically alien to their own species?
[Pause.] Part of the gaming culture is being an individual. Like, you're weird to the world. You're weird to other people. Yeah. People get to like what they like and it's fine, and that's what geek and nerd culture and game culture are all kind of wrapped up in, is we're all a little bit different but everyone wants to hold onto that difference because a lot of these people grew up being told "different is bad" and then they embrace it but then they find a bunch of people who are different just like them. [Laughs.]
So, yeah, stuff like that -- the ability to be yourself is questioned because you're like, "Well, if I'm different just like this other person, what makes me unique?" It might be too much of an existential way of looking at it. That was always kind of how I was seeing the way people acted in game culture was, like, well, I feel like that's kind of where the weird one-upmanship comes from in how much you know about certain games.
I always found -- I'll admit, three years ago before I started this, I always found the term "game culture" pretty nebulous. It seemed pretty empty. Like, I've historically felt just because you find out someone else also plays videogames that it's not much of a footing for your having much else in common or much of a desire to have a conversation with them.
[Laughs.] No, I ask that question of myself every time I think about my time at Nintendo. [Laughs.] Yeah, like, why is it such an uphill battle? Why do people -- like, you can't really miss the problems that they have, at least in that department. You can't miss somebody looking at a girl's butt and saying, "Oh, I'd really like a piece of that." You can't look at that and say, "Yeah, that's normal." You know, and be okay with it. But nobody does anything, nobody says anything. It's this weird confluence of fear, like, fear of being ousted from the job -- I think some people kind of equated that with fear of being ousted from the culture and the industry. Like, some people really loved that they were testers at Nintendo. One would brag about it to their friends and -- so, it's like a fear of losing your place in that culture. Meanwhile, everyone's going, "Oh, it's not me. It's that guy." [Laughs.]
You're right. That is true.
Well, we were talking about the media not covering it. Why do you think the media doesn't cover it?
[Pause.] I wish I knew.
It's hard to see -- like, as someone who works as an editor, a question that I constantly ask myself when I read journalism pieces is, like, everything is editorialized in someway. There's not gonna be a single story that is completely unbiased because the information that you decide to include automatically biases the story one way or another. Like, you can't really make a nonjudgmental version. [Laughs.] You have to be able to promote the pros and cons, but it's such a hard way -- it's so hard. [Laughs.]
That and the simplistic mentality of, "We have to hear both sides." But it's a little more complicated with these types of things because there's multiples sides. And yet ultimately, I think, there's only one truth. It's funny because what this project has clarified for me is that videogames have benefited from the perfect storm of a lot of unfortunate circumstances, which is it's possible videogame culture became the first internet-connected consumer group and because that came about coincidentally with the time when the internet was completely imploded the media and the media did such a bad job of covering nerd and geek culture -- just all this stuff was allowed to fester for decades and decades and then, also, the media has continued to suffer and the internet has not provided a workable replacement business model.
I think the collective we has to decide on what we value, what do we want, what do we want to try to reverse course on. [Sighs.] What I have noticed in the last few months is the rise of people saying journalism is really important but not really doing anything about it. There's a lot of publications saying, "Independent journalism is really important. Please make donations." What I don't see at these publications or from those people is introspection on, "Okay, if the circumstances today for whatever reason -- the election, things before the election, whatever -- if all of that is so not okay, isn't it worth examining how these circumstances were allowed to become our reality despite what we were doing before? Like, how did we allow this to happen? What could we have done better?"
[Pause.] It was fascinating to watch the election and see people act like they were not somehow complicit in hyping something.
There's always gonna be a thing that makes videogames take a backseat, certainly the political climate distracted so many editors that I was pretty close to getting a greenlight from. But they have quotas and a dozen stories about Donald Trump every week. That's the reality. I don't know.
I feel like you're grappling with the same things that the industry as a whole is grappling with.
As you said before, all this stuff is in other creative industries.
Yeah, and it's one of those creative industries where -- I don't know if it's specifically an American thing where we think that work has to be drudgery, but if it's an industry where it look like it might be fun, then maybe you don't need to make a living wage at it. Like, that's kind of what our country sees. If you're a writer or if you're somebody who makes games or if you're someone who's an artist or makes comics or whatever, like, that sounds like fun so I guess you should just do that as a hobby is what a lot of people think. They don't realize the work that goes into it. That it's not just reading all day or pushing buttons all day. There's more to it. The fact that those parts of the economy have been devalued, it just helps open that door to people being treated as less than human.
The sad thing, too, is we don't have to dig that deep to find stuff like this. I mean, I looked up Nintendo on Glassdoor like a day or two ago.
Like, it's no secret. So, it must be people don't care. And I don't know. That's the thing I'm exploring.
Yeah. It's a lot of denial. People go, "Well, it's not going to happen to me. That's just one disgruntled employee who got mad because of a manager." They think it's a one-off. They don't realize that it's a pattern.
Just the everyday happenings of being in that place paints a weird picture, but it's hard to make a concise image of it without being able to say, "This happened and this happened and this happened." Like, I would come home at night and I would tell my husband what had happened that day and he wouldn't believe me that those things had happened. [Laughs.]
Yeah. That's what I was going to ask, if there's a story you feel nobody -- like, is there one story nobody believes? Like, I told a couple people about the feces things and nobody was phased.
I was so sure people were gonna be surprised by it. They were like, "Yeah, that's just a thing that happens."
I'm laughing because it's so sad. [Laughs.]
God, like, again, it's hard to find one story that's so bizarre. [Laughs.]
I only ask because anecdotes are a good way to tease out a specific detail about a place and the culture there. I would be hard-pressed, as well, if someone asked me about places I've worked at, too. You mainly walk away with a general malaise about the whole thing.
I guess a good example of how women are treated in the department -- so, when I was in editing, the manager was female and always told us that she was a big feminist: "I'm a feminist." Like, she threw that term around like it was going out of style but -- [Laughs.] Yeah. There were two men on the editing team. Everyone else was female. They would get special treatment in the way that -- part of the contract life is that you work 10 months and two months off. Because otherwise they would have to offer you benefits and they don't want to do that. And so you have a two-month break every year. This particular guy never once took a two-month break under this manager. He was always very important to all of the projects. He didn't do anything different than anybody else did. Sometimes he did less than other people did. [Laughs.] But he was still very important to the all of the projects and therefore needed to have his contract extended and never took a break. But everybody else took a break.
When that position opened up, there was a guy who had left. He got a job writing at a different company and the manager offered him the full-time job if only he would stay, but he had been there the least amount of time. So he was actually the least experienced out of everyone on the team. So, it's things like that where they're like, "Yeah, yeah, I'm totally out to help you guys!" And then every single action is the exact opposite. I feel like that's not very helpful.
No, no. It is. There's another revolving door in all this, too, which is on the media side. Specifically on the games media. There's not really data for this, but on average people who write about games tend to try to make a go of it full-time and because the pay is so low, they last maybe about two or three years max. It means certain things just don't get covered because a certain depth of knowledge is simply missing from the pool. And in that time, my experience is the people who you think would want to get along with one another instead choose to feel territorial and almost resent people who do stuff similar to what they do because they feel they've staked some sort of claim and that they're gonna be the one -- I don't know. They act like they're self-appointed guardians of an entire medium.
It winds up just blocking a lot of stuff in the name of pettiness.
That's a creative thing, too, like, that's such a writer thing to hear. [Laughs.]
I always jokingly say, "There's plenty of nothing to go around. It's fine." [Laughs.] We aren't a threat to each other.
Because it's so hard to get into the industry, people -- everybody wants to be the next big name. Yeah.
But none of these are even household names. All of this is on some island that people have heard of and no one wants to visit.
Well, I have one last question for you here which is the very broad question I end every interview with: What have videogames accomplished?
[Pause.] Videogames have started to establish themselves in a way that they can become a way to tell stories. To tell real stories. But it's -- the industry itself is holding it back in that regressive culture. Whenever you see a game that tells a real story, like 1979 Revolution: Black Friday -- that's the kind of thing that tells real history. It puts you into it and you can become empathetic to another culture, to somebody who has lived through something different. And I think that's what videogames have going for it, is there's a real immersive quality that you don't necessarily see in the same way in other mediums. And so I think in that sense, that's an accomplishment. But it's an accomplishment that's floundering. Like, it could go one way or it could go another.