Going by the truly troubling stories coming out of Activision Blizzard recently, it feels as if the industry is due a primer on what healthy leadership looks like.
Now, bad management and intolerable working conditions aren’t unique to Activision Blizzard – which is currently being sued by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, who accuse the company of having a ‘frat boy culture’ that has contributed to years of sexual harassment and unequal pay for women at the company.
While they’re certainly the most extreme examples to break out into the public eye in recent years, these problems have long existed in our industry, and without action they will continue to do so.
There are many causes for this abuse (and people better equipped than I am can certainly elucidate on the treatment of women in our industry) but ultimately these stories often come down to a failure of leadership to prevent toxic cultures and protect their employees.
This failure runs the gamut of the problems that plague our industry: from sexism to crunch and worker exploitation. We believe one way to tackle these issues is to promote a healthier view of leadership – one that prioritises the wellbeing of an entire workforce, rather than protecting high-profile and well connected individuals at a company.
Poor leadership exists on a spectrum, of course. You don’t need to be as bad as Activision Blizzard to be failing your employees.
It’s for this reason that we feel it’s important to present our Healthy Leaders award at IRL on September 16th. Particularly given the overwhelming changes our working lives have undergone over the past 18 months, we want to celebrate those who understand that making great games is about looking after great creatives.
And that’s a mission that is supported by Hutch, who we are delighted to have supporting the award. To celebrate our partnership, and to understand what healthy leadership means to Hutch, we sat down with Shaun Rutland, CEO and co-founder of Hutch.
LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
As Rutland explains, Hutch’s understanding of healthy leadership came from their founding, having previously worked at PlayStation up until 2011.
“PlayStation is an amazing place,” says Rutland, “but – and this is gonna sound weird – I learned a lot of my best things about leadership from poor managers there. It’s such a huge company, the culture there was that everyone was doing anything they could to get to the top of the ladder. And that meant a lot of secrets, a lot of behind the scenes, Game of Thrones kind of stuff.
“As a game maker, I found it incredibly frustrating not to have an honest and straight answer about what it is that I’m meant to do, and not really being treated like a human being that’s trying to build a product.
“So when we started Hutch, we decided to be really transparent about everything that was going on in the business. And being transparent is easy to say, but to actually do it, to tell the team where you’re struggling and have to improve, that was actually quite empowering for the team. It enabled them to make their own choices on whether they wanted to stick with the mission. And I think that sort of transparency meant that they were being treated like humans.
“For me, it’s about looking at your workforce like human beings that have made big decisions to change their lives, they’ve got families, they’ve moved flats, houses, whatever. There’s almost a lack of recognition that we’ve moved from this industrial era of factory workers, to knowledge workers that are using their heads and need to be treated as such.
“It’s about treating people as human beings, and empowering them to do the things they want. When you go along this journey together you think, actually, if I want my employees to take responsibility for their work, and if I want them to look after players, then empowering them is really important.
“As a leader, you have to create quite a safe work environment. If something is not right or feels wrong, [employees] should be able to reach out with complete safety that there’s no retribution to them, in order to help you as an organisation change. Back at PlayStation, all we used to do in the pub was whinge and moan about the leadership, and they had no idea about all the problems that they could fix, because there was no ability to tell them without recourse.”
While the current conditions certainly look bleak, especially looking at recent headlines, Rutland remains optimistic about the future of the industry. As more and more companies wise up to the novel new idea of “treating people like humans,” it in turn encourages others to do so as well – or risk losing valuable talent to competitors.
“There used to be less jobs than there were people applying for jobs in games,” notes Rutland. “So that scarcity of jobs meant that employees put up with terrible working conditions.
“Whereas now, the games industry is under so much pressure – if you talk to any developer, the number one problem is hiring quality talent. There’s now a scarcity of people versus opportunities. That’s why we’re seeing such a huge shift in the work environment changing, it’s business driven.
“This market is heating up, and there are not enough people coming into it. If games are going to be a $200bn plus industry in the next five years, we’re gonna need to have vast workforces. It’s just not going to magically appear, it’s going to come from younger people. And they’re going to be pretty picky about where they go.
“For me personally, our purpose is to create a great place to work and make amazing games from that. So I think that’s starting to happen, I think that some employers are starting to realise that ‘man, we’ve got to make the best work environment, otherwise we won’t get the talent.’”
STANDING ABOVE THE COMPETITION
It’s partially a result of the growing impact of games on our culture over the past decade. As games have grown to reach a broader demographic of people, that broader demographic is in turn inspired to work in games themselves – creating a much-needed diverse workforce that can do wonders for stamping down on toxic cultures, when they’re allowed to thrive.
“It’s just another stage in the evolution of the games industry,” adds Rutland.
“We’ve got an ecosystem, and if the competition is making a better place to work, then it puts pressure on me to make a better place to work too. It’s an upward spiral. We push really hard on it. And the more we do that, the more, and I know this sounds pretty mercenary, but we will stand out above it.
“Ultimately, there’s a real commercial benefit to it. If you look at King, they have found a massive commercial benefit by having a diverse workforce. There’s a massive commercial benefit to your staff being happy, because the players will be happier. They’re all interlinked. This is not just business hippy shit.
“Going back to Activision Blizzard, I reckon they’ll be having massive pressure from the big pension funds and stuff, who are saying, ‘we’ll no longer invest in poor working conditions in places.’
When these funds set out such a stance, they weren’t thinking about game devs in LA. “They were more or less talking about emerging economies, and now they’re having to deal with their own backyard.”
The power of an increasingly diverse workforce is all the more effective with diverse leaders in place too. With more diversity in the upper echelons of the games industry, the more people can push for positive change – in their own companies and across the industry.
“The diversity of leadership subject is really interesting,” notes Rutland. “I met a woman the other day, I can’t say her name, but she’s a CEO of one of the biggest engineering firms in the world, and she went through the most harrowing personal story of hers. So now every couple of months, I have a chat with her about her experiences. If you can’t create a diverse set of leaders in your company at that time, surround yourself with diversity that reminds you of what a crazy experience some people have, and help you remove those blind spots. Put yourself in the middle of it and really try to understand the problem. Because it is definitely a big problem.”
The notion of ‘healthy leadership’ isn’t a one-time decision of course. Maintaining a healthy culture and a company that looks after its workers is a continuing process – one that requires constant self reflection and course-correcting.
“I learn things all the time about my own organisation like ‘shit, this is really bad. I’ve got to fix this!’ It keeps my job interesting, it never really finishes. And the things that you think you fix end up creating some other problems, and you need to fix those too.”
Having a toxic culture at your studio can do more than just hurt you when it comes to attracting and retaining talent – it can also affect your abillity to manage partnerships if other companies don’t want to be seen as being associated with you.
“When we went through our sales process, we really looked at this deeply about who we wanted to partner with. And there were some big companies with some really terrible stories. I was thinking, how can I turn around to the team and go, ‘we partnered with this company, and they’ve got this terrible story behind them?’ It’s affecting your own ability to get talent.”
Clearly some of the leadership in our industry has a long way to go in terms of maintaining a healthy culture and protecting its workers. But Rutland remains optimistic for the future, noting a wider change in attitudes both within the industry and outside it.
“Things have changed,” he notes. “Players care now, they want to know that products come from humane places. There is more and more pressure for companies to treat people well. When you look at the stock market, there are big, big trillion dollar funds that will no longer invest in boards that don’t have diversity. These are the big power brokers of the world in finance, and they have decided to make a huge shift.”
THE GREAT RESIGNATION
The past two years have been a period of significant change, particularly in the workplace, post-COVID. And it’s a change that any leaders with sense will have to adapt to, with workers now having more control over how and where they work than ever before.
“There’s this thing they’re calling the Great Resignation,” Rutland explains. “There’s all this data that’s come out of the US workforce, that the highest amount of resignations on record has happened in the last six months. People are reassessing where they’re working, and why they’re working there. And they’re not just taking different jobs in the same industry, people are becoming teachers, healthcare workers… the world is reassessing their purpose. And if your business doesn’t provide a decent purpose…”
Of course, it’s that note on leaving the industry that reminds us that we can’t be complacent. It’s one thing for a toxic studio to lose talent to one with better management – it’s another thing entirely for us to lose the diverse talent that is essential to moving our industry forward.
It’s for that reason we hope to continue to encourage and celebrate healthy leadership. For the benefit of both the workers in our industry, but also to boost the power of games as a whole. And one way to do that is to encourage and elevate the young talent pouring into the industry, so that they can one day come to be leaders themselves.
“In my egotistical head, I kind of hope Hutch spawns some new things out of this,” Rutland muses. “With young people in the future, in the next 10 years, going on to create even better businesses.”