By Joseph Carr, abuse solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp. Joseph represents survivors of childhood sexual abuse in claims for compensation and also delivers training to external organisations on the civil claims process for abuse survivors.
Like other industries where immense power and prestige accrues in the hands of relatively few individuals, the gaming industry has a problem with abuse in its ranks. Much of the video games industry is relationship and influence driven, and those in control can use their money, visibility, and influence to abuse. This can range from bullying, harassment, unwanted sexual advance to sexual assaults and rape.
Following another wave of allegations of abuse within the games industry, many companies vowed to fight against abuse in their industry but usually they offer few specific details of how they propose to do this. Promises made to cut ties with abusers are often made too late, with those connections having already ended under normal commercial arrangements. It is rare to see companies make specific promises of substantive practical action being taken to prevent abusers from rising to similar positions of power in the future.
As we have seen in other industries, if a proactive and transparent approach to investigating allegations of abuse is not taken, abuse will continue to go uncovered for decades causing immense harm and pain, affecting the lives and careers of many talented people.
So what actions should video games businesses be doing to discourage abusive behaviour?
Address the culture
There are many examples that teach us abusers proliferate in cultures that rely on secrecy, fear and power imbalances. Addressing abusive behaviour within the video games business will require ensuring that the culture of the business does not create a safe space for abusers.
As a minimum requirement, each business should have a code of conduct that differentiates between appropriate behaviour and the wrong behaviour. Businesses will need to moderate internal conversations as well as their own online communities to ensure that any form of abuse does not remain hidden, is publicly denounced as unacceptable and that support is given to those who need it.
Defined complaint process
Every business should have an easily accessible and clearly defined process for how allegations and complaints of abuse are responded to internally. Every business needs to ensure that complaints are investigated speedily and independently and that fair and reasonable conclusions are reached. These conclusions should be not kept secret within the firm.
Sometimes, a complaint process may not be enough – particularly if those perpetrating the abuse influence the outcome of the process. For this reason, businesses should have clear whistle-blower policies which ensure that disclosures of abuse can be made without fear of reprisals that those disclosing might have their careers affected.
Refer allegations to the police when appropriate
Any sexual act inflicted on someone without their consent can be a serious criminal offence. It is vitally important that employees are supported and encouraged to report offences (or concerns about offences being committed) to the police. If the police are not made aware of offences, then they may miss vital information that would have otherwise helped to stop serial abusers committing further offences.
Ending non-disclosure agreements
Sometimes, the worst abusers have been able to continue their offending even when allegations have been brought to the attention of their employer by the use of non-disclosure clauses in settlement agreements. A non-disclosure clause will expressly forbid discussing the circumstances of the abuse any further. The use of these agreements must end: many see them as a secondary form of abuse, preventing women from reporting sexual violence, harassment and discrimination.
The responsibility lies with the business
As well as the public good that would result from stamping out abusive behaviour within the industry, it will also be good for the company. The misuse of power is likely to lower morale and productivity and harm the company’s reputation.
In addition, businesses can be held vicariously liable in the civil courts for the abusive actions of their employees (and contractors), with their victims being awarded compensation for the abusive experiences and consequent losses that they have suffered. Employers can also be held directly liable under the Equality Act 2010 if they do not protect their employees and other contracted workers from discrimination or harassment in their work.