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Riot's struggle with toxicity turns inwards

After years of focusing on toxicity in its player base, Riot Games faces up to unpleasant revelations about its own work culture - and the industry at large should take note

Over the past few years, I've written several times in appreciative terms about Riot Games' efforts to tackle toxicity and anti-social behavior among their player base. The company has arguably been second only to Blizzard in its public commitment to making its games into a pleasant and welcoming place to play for everyone.

The high profile nature of those commitments in regard to its games may explain some of the disappointment (though not surprise) which greeted negative reports about the company's own internal culture in recent weeks. First through some good investigative journalism at Kotaku and later backed up by statements from current and former employees, we learned that Riot's internal culture is rife with sexism and the cliquish, harassing behavior that accompanies it - and that the firm had closed ranks in response to reports rather than dealing with them openly and effectively.

This isn't a "Milkshake Duck" moment for Riot; the discovery that the firm has internal problems contextualises its efforts to detoxify its games but does not devalue or permit dismissal of those efforts. Regardless of what was happening internally at Riot - the company itself is now clear that its workplace culture was unacceptable and must change - the efforts to make its games more welcoming to a wider variety of people were still the right thing to do. Nor is there any suggestion that Riot was simply presenting a progressive face in public in order to cover up its internal issues; all evidence suggests that the company's leadership firmly and truly believed in doing the right thing by its player base through fixing anti-social player behaviour.

"Hiring people out of a community which you yourself recognise as having problems with anti-social behaviour risks creating a feedback loop that concentrates that selfsame behaviour within your company"

Now those good intentions need to be turned inwards; to the company's credit, their response thus far suggests that they're taking the issues exposed very seriously indeed. All too many companies would hunker down and issue bland, placatory PR statements at this juncture, heaping on platitudes about how much they value everyone and love diversity. Riot's response has been more credible and more raw; its leadership gives the impression of being deeply upset by what's been revealed (as distinct from being upset that it has been revealed - there's a wide gulf between "we're sorry this happened" and "we're sorry people found out this happened") and having a determination to take significant action to fix the workplace culture that has proved so negative and exclusionary for some employees.

Fixing a workplace culture is a delicate piece of work in some regards - but not quite in the regards that some people seem to imagine. It's not uncommon to come across hand-wringing about how changing some part of company culture (in terms of rooting out sexist, cliquish, or otherwise aggressive and bullying behaviour) might damage or destroy other parts of company culture (in terms of the capacity to continue creating unique and successful games).

Yet the idea that those positive and negative aspects should be somehow entangled or difficult to separate is pretty much unsupported; just about every case study or report of situations where companies have strongly pushed back against sexist or cliquish workplace cultures shows the opposite, in fact. Creative and valuable employees of all genders and backgrounds find themselves more motivated, more relaxed and more engaged in their projects when their workplace is rid of the negative tensions that come with this kind of culture.

Riot Games' leadership has demonstrated how serious it is about tackling a toxic workplace culture - but must now do so under public scrutiny

Riot Games' leadership has demonstrated how serious it is about tackling a toxic workplace culture - but must now do so under public scrutiny

What's delicate and difficult, then, isn't the task of teasing out the sexism or bullying from the creative process; like invasive ivy strangling a healthy plant, workplace toxicity hampers and damages the creative process, starving new ideas of sunlight and stunting the growth of a company and its games. Claims that a negative company culture can't be changed without ruining the games being created are easily dismissed as special pleading. The difficulty, rather, lies in effectively identifying and rooting out the causes of the problems in a company.

At some firms, it's easy to see why a toxic culture has taken hold; it's a top-down problem that originates from a CEO or senior team who disrespect and exploit their staff, mistake humiliation and belittlement for motivation and infuse their own discriminatory attitudes throughout the organisation. At others, though, a negative culture takes root despite the finest intentions of the leadership team - and identifying and fixing the causes of those problems can be a painful process that demands some honest introspection and tough decision-making.

"Other firms who suspect they're not doing any better than Riot should take note; tackle these issues properly and honestly before a big public exposť, because it'll get far harder to do so afterwards"

That's an important lesson for other companies across the industry who are watching the Riot situation unfold; that these problems can become deep-rooted and genuinely damaging even despite the finest intentions of leadership, and that saying a company leader is a great person doesn't actually serve as a rejection or defence of workplace culture problems at their studio. I don't have the sense that Riot's problems are the result of the firm's senior team deliberately cultivating this kind of culture or knowingly participating in it themselves; on the contrary, the management team there seem like decent people who wanted to do the right thing in these regards.

The toxic culture that emerged was the result of a series of bad decisions and a lack of careful thought about what the consequences of other cultural approaches, hiring decisions and workplace policies might be. The firm will work through those errors in detail in the coming months, but at the heart there seems to be a certain naivete about the consequences of focusing the company's hiring on "core gamers" - a move which is pretty laudable in some regards (building bridges between a company and its audience is generally a great move) but which lacked thought about how some of those people would bring with them the insular, cliquish and deeply sexist attitudes and behaviours that all too often attach themselves to the "gamer" identity. Hiring people out of a community which you yourself recognise as having problems with anti-social behaviour risks creating a feedback loop that concentrates that selfsame behaviour within your company; Riot needed, and lacked, clear and proactive policies for handling that.

The other major difficulty Riot will face - and another lesson for other companies watching the situation - is that they're going to have to do this transition in the glare of public attention. It's good that the company is committed to making these changes now, but they're going to pay a price for having waited until they were exposed in public before acting. That price is that every move they make is going to be scrutinised, and they're likely to face some aggressive criticism from both sides of the aisle - but especially from the angry, regressive elements who view common-sense employee protection and workplace policy as some kind of capitulation to the "SJW agenda".

Had these problems been tackled before they became a public concern, it would have been much easier to handle them. Other firms who suspect they're not doing any better than Riot on this front (and there are plenty who should suspect precisely that) should take note; tackle these issues properly and honestly before someone runs a big public exposť on your workplace culture problems, because it'll get far harder to do so afterwards.

The buck, ultimately, stops with the company leadership - and Riot's management team seem to understand that very clearly - but for other leadership teams across the industry it's important to see that good intentions don't mean a damned thing without putting in the hard work to make sure they're reflected throughout a company's structures and policies. You might have the most even-minded, well-intentioned people in the world running a company, and still end up creating a deeply toxic and negative work environment through simple miscalculation, carelessness or lack of attention to specific details; that doesn't make the people in charge into monsters (or Milkshake Ducks), it just gives them a hell of a job to do in clearing up after their mistakes.†

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