Meet the YouTubers exposing the dark side of making video games

Meet the YouTubers exposing the dark side of making video games

Chris Bratt, Quintin Smith and Anni Sayers of People Make Games at their home office in Brighton. (Photos by James Forde for The Washington Post)
Chris Bratt, Quintin Smith and Anni Sayers of People Make Games at their home office in Brighton. (Photos by James Forde for The Washington Post) (James Forde for The Washington Post )

People Make Games founder Chris Bratt is on a roller coaster. As most people would do in such a situation, he is screaming. Unlike your average roller coaster rider, however, he’s screaming about how video game publishers clandestinely outsource intense labor to Southeast Asia.

The scene, captured on video, is an unusual way for a company to promote its work, but it makes perfect sense for an outlet doing some of the most impactful video game journalism on the internet. A viewer-funded YouTube channel run by just three people, People Make Games needs fans to regularly contribute money via a membership platform called Patreon. And on YouTube, few things grab attention as well as a good old-fashioned stunt.

“I remember during the pandemic just really starting to question if this is what I wanted to do … And I think part of it for me was doing things that had a bit more capital-J journalism in them.”

— Chris Bratt, founder of People Make Games

Running People Make Games has proven to be a roller coaster in itself. Bratt and Anni Sayers, a co-founder and artist for the channel, launched the enterprise in 2018 with the intent of telling fascinating, untold stories about games and the gaming industry. Early videos focused on curiosities like the first non-Valve-created game on Steam and the British teenagers who helped make “Star Fox.” But recently, People Make Games has fried significantly bigger fish: outsourcing scandals, exploitation of child labor in “Roblox” and emotionally abusive indie game developers — including one whose studio collapsed immediately following PMG’s reporting.

The choice to tackle tougher material with rigor rarely seen on YouTube was a conscious one.

“I remember during the pandemic just really starting to question if this is what I wanted to do — if it was worthwhile when there’s a pandemic ripping through the country,” Bratt said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And I think part of it for me was doing things that had a bit more capital-J journalism in them.”

Bratt and Sayers were no strangers to journalism, having both cut their teeth at the U.K.-based publication Eurogamer before going independent. In 2020, they added another games journalist to their ranks: former Rock Paper Shotgun critic Quintin Smith. But YouTube as an ecosystem has proven more hospitable to sensationalism, misinformation and drama than to heady, nuanced investigations of industries. And so, PMG often has to work to catch the eye of YouTube’s algorithm, which means agonizing over clickable titles and designing grabby thumbnail images, Bratt said.

“[In traditional journalism], if you’re coming up with a headline, there can be some kind of nuance to it, you can lead people and create intrigue. If you do that on YouTube, people are like, ‘I don’t know what the f— you’re talking about,’ ” Sayers said. “You have to kind of cheapen what you’re doing a little bit just to try and make sure that it gets through the lottery of different thumbnails and stuff like that.”

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Still, People Make Games has found a way to make its presentation fit the platform. The gentle yet arresting graphics Sayers creates lend a sense of motion to, for example, quotes from anonymous sources or a comparison of “Roblox’s” astronomical multibillion-dollar market valuation to that of other video game companies. These important details might get lost in the clutter of a video composed of gameplay footage, but in a PMG video, they pop off the screen.

“Vox has really cool motion graphics, and it condenses complicated topics down in ways that visually keep the viewer engaged,” said Sayers of her inspiration. “In video games [coverage], there isn’t really much of that.”

Smith added that PMG’s presentation conveys more than just information. It implicitly lets viewers know that both research and reporting have been handled with care.

“It lets the viewer know they’re dealing with videographers who’ve spent time with this subject matter,” Smith said. “There’s so much junk on YouTube where someone will seem like they know what they’re talking about, but they haven’t researched the topic.”

PMG’s interview and research-intensive approach is front and center in a recent series of videos about “Roblox.” Last August, a few months after “Roblox” went public with a $41 billion valuation, PMG published a video titled “Investigation: How Roblox Is Exploiting Young Game Developers” that delved into how the game/platform allegedly convinces kids to make its in-game content while hoovering up over 75 percent of profits. “Roblox” is one of the biggest video games in the world due in large part to its popularity on YouTube. But as a result of its young demographic — many of its players are under 16 — it’s also a game that has benefited from minimal scrutiny.

“Mainstream journalism leaves the video games press to cover video games, but then the video games press didn’t cover ‘Roblox’ because of snobbery,” said Smith, the driving force behind the “Roblox” video. “And I include myself in that; you know, it looks like dumb stuff for kids.”

PMG’s video was a hit on YouTube, where most videos about “Roblox” focus on updates, in-game shenanigans and memes, not comprehensive coverage of the developer’s business model. To date, it’s racked up nearly 2 million views.

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According to PMG, Roblox Corporation, the game’s developer, did not respond to requests for comment before the first video posted. Afterward, Smith said he exchanged emails and calls with Roblox Corporation, and that the company “pressured” the group to take down their video due to “errors.” Bratt, Sayers and Smith said the company failed to specify the errors.

Instead, Roblox Corporation sent what Bratt described as “a completely random blog post of someone who felt very passionate about ‘Roblox.’ ” In this email, which The Post has viewed, Roblox’s senior director of corporate communications and public affairs, William Nevius, links to the blog, written by a Medium user named EcoScratcher, and asks Smith: “Do you plan on editing or removing the video based on some of the things the author raises?”

“It was crazy for us to have this $40+ billion company pointing toward a blog post,” Bratt said, “which had typos in it and got [Smith’s] name wrong.”

But it was also intimidating, they said.

“[Our reaction to the email] was the kind of laughter you would do if you were also in the background worried,” said Sayers. “I think maybe it helped, because in our second video we were super conscious that clearly they’re engaging [with our work] and [it drove us] to be extra clinical.”

The team’s second “Roblox” video, published in December 2021, centered around “Roblox” users telling their own stories. These ranged from allegations of “Roblox” game development team managers taking advantage of those working under them, to bad experiences with uneven moderation. It was even more successful than the previous video, drawing nearly 6 million views to date.

In a statement to The Post, Roblox’s Nevius characterized both of PMG’s videos as “not accurate,” saying they contain claims “in pursuit of clicks that downplay or outright ignore numerous features and parental controls we have in place to ensure our platform provides a safe, civil and welcoming space for people of all ages to play and connect.”

Nevius also pointed to parents’ ability to set in-game spending limits on their kids, as well as a “large, expertly trained” moderation team that targets scams and inappropriate content and “aggressively deters” users moving “Roblox”-related transactions to unsafe websites. He also said that, despite “Roblox’s” young audience, the “vast majority” of top-earning and most-played developers on the platform are over 18.

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After PMG published a second video on Roblox, others began to weigh in. Nuance, as it often does, got lost in the churn of the content machine.

“When YouTubers and Twitch streamers are doing react videos to our video, we very quickly felt that the conversation took on a life of its own,” Smith said. “Ultimately, the reporting was there to help ‘Roblox’ developers to get better treatment. And yet now the videos have gone so viral and have impacted what people think of when they think of Roblox Corporation that there’s a cadre of successful ‘Roblox’ developers who are really annoyed with our reporting because it dented the PR of the platform that they work on.”

This was a bitter pill for Bratt, Sayers and Smith, given their goal of treating subjects with care. Still, they soldiered on to 2022, publishing what was arguably an even more impactful piece of reporting.

In March, just before the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, PMG posted a video titled “Investigating Three Indie Superstars Accused of Emotional Abuse.” The video dug into three separate indie studios with charismatic leaders who, according to employees, proved to be controlling and manipulative — especially to women. In the video, former employees accused one of the aforementioned stars, Funomena founder Robin Hunicke, of weaponizing personal information and social justice rhetoric to humiliate and undermine subordinates.

Following the video, Hunicke tweeted an apology. (Hunicke declined to comment further when reached by The Post.) Two days later, she and co-founder Martin Middleton announced to Funomena staff that employees were being let go and studio closure was likely imminent. This, according to a follow-up report from Fanbyte, stemmed directly from PMG’s video and its impact on Funomena’s ability to secure a new round of funding.

Bratt, Sayers and Smith said they felt conflicted about this outcome.

“While we can raise issues and start important conversations, the immediate aftermath of that certainly doesn’t feel like it makes the games industry a better place. Usually, there’s a lot of anger and hostility.”

— Quintin Smith

“I struggle with it,” Bratt said. “Objectively I think we did everything right in terms of reporting, and the people I’ve spoken to have universally been really supportive of the piece. But just on a personal level, the fact that we became part of the story in a small way — that our piece going up was followed shortly by people’s jobs being affected — feels crap. It just feels really bad, even if I know the reasons behind it.”

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Smith added that PMG’s overarching goal is to help make the video game industry a better place. But progress on that front is slow and hard-won.

“I think the thing that’s been increasingly tricky as the channel gets more visible,” said Smith, “is while we can raise issues and start important conversations, the immediate aftermath of that certainly doesn’t feel like it makes the games industry a better place. Usually, there’s a lot of anger and hostility.”

If nothing else, increased visibility has helped the People Make Games team chart a path toward stability. The January 2022 roller coaster video, while humorous in presentation, was not joking around with its title: “Help, we are not financially sustainable.” The fan response, as well as the successes of the “Roblox” videos and the indie developer emotional abuse exposé, boosted PMG’s finances to the point that Bratt, Sayers and Smith can now afford essential resources to continue creating hard-hitting videos. PMG’s Patreon pulls in $17,409 per month as of June.

“Outside of properly paying the team and making sure we can do this for a long time, that also allowed us to gain proper and sustainable access to legal support,” Bratt said. “Without getting too grand about it, if part of the role of journalism is speaking truth to power, the ‘power’ bit is scary!”

In the future, the PMG team hopes to bring in outside voices — preferably ones who are not “middle-class White guys,” according to Bratt — to tell their stories on a freelance basis.

“The idea of scaling up as a business and having a team of employees I don’t think is that exciting to any of us,” Bratt said. “But collaborating with other people who can tell stories, either in different parts of the world or from a different perspective than we can, feels like it will hopefully be a part of our future. That seems like an exciting next step.”


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