In what many industry insiders believe is a North American first, employees of video game developer Riot Games walked out of their jobs on Monday to protest treatment at the company.
Specifically the Rioters — the internal nickname for employees of the studio behind “League of Legends,” were protesting the company’s use of mandatory arbitration in cases of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination.
While Riot announced on Friday that it would soon start giving new employees the option to opt-out of such arbitration, Monday’s event organizers said it isn’t enough.
“We are walking out against forced arbitration of past, current, and future employees, including contractors and those involved in current litigation,” an organizer who asked that her name not be used told Variety. She added that they don’t want it to be an opt-out option, but rather just not part of the contracts.
Riot’s recent decision to rid itself of some forms of mandatory arbitration will only take place after current litigation is resolved and in its current state, the promise wouldn’t impact current employees, only new hires.
The promise to make changes to the company’s arbitration came after Riot Games employees started planning a walkout. The walkout was spurred by Riot’s attempts to end two lawsuits — both about sexism and misconduct at the studio — via forced arbitration.
The organizer said that talk of a walkout has been “brewing” at Riot for about half a year. The forced arbitration is what pushed it over the edge, she said.
Sara Dadafshar, a technical product manager at Riot Games, said the company’s forced arbitration policies has her questioning the direction the company is headed.
“We’ve all experienced some form of harassment throughout our careers and we want our voices heard,” she told Variety via email. “I was really content working at Blizzard when Riot reached out to me to join them last year, but what really convinced me to jump ship was their advocacy for change and making the industry as a whole a better place and pave the way for what good can be. The recent decision revolving around forced arbitration has me questioning the direction we are moving towards, and I’d like to voice my concern around the matter.
“I’m hoping leadership will listen and realize the impact that the decision they are making has on many Rioters. Ideally, they’d reconsider and help support the whole of Riot equally.”
The walkout kicked off at the San Francisco and Los Angeles offices at 2 p.m. PT with some employees leaving the Riot offices to gather in a guest parking lot outside. The plan is to have a number of guest speakers talk, an opportunity for others to speak to the gathering, and then for the gathering to break into groups to discuss issues they face at Riot. The event is meant to wrap up at 4 p.m. PT.
Reached for comment Monday, Riot provided a statement to Variety.
“We support Rioters making their voices heard today. We have asked all managers to make every accommodation to allow Rioters to participate during the 2-4pm window, including freeing up meeting times. We respect Rioters who choose to walkout today and will not tolerate retaliation of any kind as a result of participating (or not).
“While we will not make a change to our policies while in active litigation, last Thursday we announced that we’ve made the call to pivot our approach. As soon as active litigation is resolved, we will give all new Rioters the choice to opt-out of mandatory arbitration for individual sexual harassment and sexual assault claims. At that time, we will also commit to have a firm answer on potentially expanding the scope and extending this opt-out to all Rioters. We are working diligently to resolve all active litigation so that we can quickly take steps toward a solution.
“As we have been for the past week, we will continue to listen to Rioters regarding their thoughts on arbitration and we’re thankful for everyone that has taken the time to meet with leadership about this issue.”
In the hours leading up to the walkout, a hashtag — #RiotWalkout — began to gain steam on Twitter with people mostly offering support for the people protesting including developers from other studios and Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFLCIO.
The #RiotWalkout is a step towards better working conditions for game devs. Hopefully, other companies and devs–like those that still regularly make games–take note of this moment.
— Ray Carsillo (@RayCarsillo) May 6, 2019
I am participating in the #riotwalkout today. It should not be legal to force workers into arbitration when they suffer sexual harassment– or any other discrimination, really. It's already not legal in several states. I'd like my company to be on the cutting edge of this issue!!
— Laura Michet (@lmichet) May 6, 2019
Proudly in solidarity with everyone joining together for today's #RiotWalkout.
Never forget: you're not alone. You deserve a safe workplace, and you have countless brothers and sisters ready to fight alongside you. #1u
— Liz Shuler (@lizshuler) May 6, 2019
“We are so proud of all the work the people at Riot have put into preparing for their walkout,” said Emma Kinema, international organizer with the group. “The organizers have been working tirelessly, day and night, to support their coworkers, get the message out, and fight for a better workplace. Today the workers of Riot have set an inspiring example for us all.
“We in the labor movement know that change doesn’t come about from nice words and daydreaming, it comes about only through day-to-day struggles, building solidarity with your coworkers, speaking out, and showing up even when it feels like no one else will join you,” according to the statement. “Well, today you have certainly shown up and used your collective voice to make a demand more powerful than any one of you could have done alone.
“You are demonstrating to all of us in this industry that real change can only come when you and your coworkers stand up for one another, share mutual respect, and develop deep relationships of care and support in the workplace.”
The statement went on to note that the Rioters are not alone.
“There exists a long and storied history of people, regular people, fighting fights just like yours in the game, tech, and entertainment industries,” they wrote. “Today you build upon that foundation laid by countless workers before you who refused to accept things as they were and built a better world. Today you carry that movement forward.”
Organizers believe about 150 to 200 of the staff walked out, though estimates of potential walkouts have been as high as 500. Another Riot walkout is planned for Dublin, Ireland on Tuesday, when it isn’t a national holiday in Ireland.
Some who walked out or were at the walkout posted images from the protest as the RiotWalkout hashtag began to trend nationally.
— Upcomer (@Upcomer) May 6, 2019
— Kevin Hitt (@Kevin_Hitt) May 6, 2019
The organizer who spoke with Variety said there’s no firm plan about what will happen next if Riot doesn’t change its arbitration policies to meet what they’re asking for but sees Monday’s walkout as a pivotal moment both for the studio and the game industry at large.
“I think just the fact that Riot already made a small change based on collective action is really big,” she said. “That is what is new for the industry. This has been a pretty big year for action that smells like a union but isn’t.”
She said that she hasn’t heard any talk of unionizing at Riot, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going on. Monday’s efforts, she said, is more about perception.
“I think it’s about showing that we are willing to get our feet on the ground and start this conversation,” she said. “Maybe make a small noticeable impact, a jolt.”