Toxic work culture in Asian gaming firms in spotlight as Singapore investigates Ubisoft
- Workers at Ubisoft Singapore, the studio behind games including Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, have accused it of sexual harassment and racial discrimination
- The probe comes as the gaming sector worldwide has come under mounting scrutiny, including in China and South Korea, with an observer saying employees lack the power to speak up
Among the buildings in the precinct is Fusionopolis, a swanky R&D complex that houses research organisations, tech companies and government agencies – and where the region’s largest video game studio, Ubisoft Singapore, is based.
The firm is behind an increasing number of famous games, including the recent Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, which sold 12 million copies within two months of its release, and the upcoming Skull & Bones.
But behind the glamour, the office with about 500 workers is under investigation over claims of sexual harassment and racial discrimination by Singapore’s national employment watchdog, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP).
The probe comes as the gaming industry worldwide has come under scrutiny in recent months.
Traditionally dominated by male engineers, the sector has attracted a growing wave complaints from workers over a work environment in which sexist jokes, sexually suggestive comments and outright sexual harassment are the norm.
In North America, there have been multiple reports of employees walking off their jobs as Western gaming titans such as Ubisoft, Riot Games and Activision Blizzard are ensnared in scandals.
Now, the spotlight is shifting to Asia as more countries in the region emerge as gaming powerhouses alongside Japan.
A quarter of the open world in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla was developed by its Singapore studio. Games are also increasingly targeting the Chinese market, leading to a burgeoning game development scene in the region.
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Gaming is so popular in Asia that Singapore firm Garena credited Free Fire – the highest grossing mobile game in Southeast Asia, Latin America and India this year – for contributing to its parent company SEA’s revenue of US$2.3 billion from April to June.
Niko Partners, a market research and consulting firm covering the Asian video game industry, found in a 2020 report that China and 10 Asian countries represented more than half of the world’s mobile games market revenue, which is projected to hit US$31.23 billion by 2024.
But as game development grows in the region, violations of workers’ rights at Asian studios have come into sharper focus.
“In the global game business, there’s no doubt the issues surrounding the working environment for game developers are reaching a turning point,” Sho Sato, head of the Tokyo-based game consultancy LUDiMUS Inc.
The news about Ubisoft Singapore’s probe broke in August when watchdog TAFEP told Singapore newspaper The Straits Times that it was acting on anonymous feedback containing links to media articles that it received on July 23.
Kotaku, a website publishing gaming news and reviews, had earlier in July released a story about Ubisoft Singapore based on anonymous interviews with workers.
Among the accusations were that a senior executive had asked a female employee to kiss him on the cheek, while another woman allegedly had her shoulders rubbed by a colleague in a lift.
Kotaku reported that the game developer, founded by five French brothers in 1986, had a “French ceiling” that made its way into the Singapore office.
“If you’re not French, you have to take their side and cover up for their mistakes,” a developer working at Ubisoft Singapore told the website.
The pay gap between locals and expatriates added up to between US$5,000 and US$10,000 a year, the Kotaku article said.
Ubisoft has been plagued by scandals regarding its work culture since last year. It took drastic measures last summer and sacked a number of high-ranking executives over sexual harassment allegations.
While CEO Yves Guillemot said in a lengthy statement in May that great progress had been made in this area, many people continued to demand changes. Nearly 500 current and former Ubisoft employees in July signed an open letter criticising the management for “empty promises” and their continued protection of the accused.
Although Ubisoft has studios in multiple countries, Ubisoft Singapore has been one of the battlefronts since the beginning.
Last year, Ubisoft Singapore managing director Hugues Ricour was replaced after he was accused by multiple sources of sexual harassment. However, he remained employed and was moved to the Paris office.
This Week in Asia was unable to independently verify the claims facing Ubisoft Singapore.
When asked about the claims of Singaporeans getting paid less than foreign hires and women saying they were touched by colleagues, Ubisoft Singapore said it denounced workplace harassment and discrimination.
The firm had a diverse international culture and “do not and will not tolerate abuse, harassment or discrimination”, the company responded through a public relations firm.
The statement then outlined the culture built in Singapore over 13 years, “with 35 nationalities and talent coming from a wide range of backgrounds”. Four in 10 of the expert and senior roles in Singapore were held by locals or permanent residents, it said.
Ubisoft Singapore also pointed to a message by Guillemot in June promising to improve workplace culture and “create real, lasting and positive change at Ubisoft”.
The firm has created channels through which employees can report inappropriate behaviour, including a platform that guarantees anonymity, the CEO said, and reports would be handled by an independent external partner to guarantee impartiality.
But in a press conference on August 6, Ubisoft Singapore managing director Darryl Long, who took over in January, said it was “very important” to “talk about these things and that we acknowledge what’s going on in our industry right now”.
“We need to start to change the way we are perceived and the way we act internally as well,” he said in a Zoom call organised to unveil an expansion pack to Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
Serkan Toto, chief executive of Tokyo-based video game consultancy Kantan Games, said there was “a wave of” workers coming forward with stories linked to “harassment, sexism, racism and discrimination of all kinds”.
Toto said because the industry was a “dream destination” for some people who had grown up playing video games, their desire to remain in the sector encouraged them to keep quiet about potential abuse or toxic behaviour.
Scandals in the region
Game Science, a Chinese developer behind the country’s most anticipated title, Black Myth: Wukong, became mired in controversy after its company’s founder made a string of vulgar comments when the game’s reveal won the studio national attention.
In describing his joy after receiving many CVs being submitted to Game Science, CEO Feng Ji said on Weibo that he had been “licked so much that [he] could no longer get erect”.
In another post praising the new game, he said he could feel “pressure in his pants”.
While those comments were not aimed at female applicants specifically, the firm faced backlash.
The scandal escalated after netizens uncovered a set of Game Science’s old campus recruitment ads, which featured salacious cartoon drawings and explicit language, with phrases, including “Don’t f*** your colleagues”.
But Game Science’s work culture is far from the exception in the industry.
In another document she received for feedback, the company that commissioned her concept art said: “Just imagine that she’s the type you most want to f***.”
In South Korea, the gaming sector was also mired in controversy in 2018 when Seoul-based IMC Games launched an investigation into a female worker who was suspected to harbour “antisocial ideology” because she had followed feminist groups on social media.
The move was slammed as “misogynistic” by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which had close to a million members as of 2018.
It left many women “in shock and fear”, the union said, adding that many gaming firms like IMC Games were “thought-policing” women workers.
A survey of 3,000 gamers last week found that one out of four people experienced sexual harassment or discrimination while playing, the Korea Times reported this week.
Toto, the Japanese consultant, said there was a climate of fear in Asia that prevented workers from speaking up.
“In my experience in the game industry spanning over a decade now, the situation is not much better in Asia [compared to the West],” he said.
“Unfortunately, the climate in most Asian countries forces people who are being harassed, abused or bullied to endure and stay quiet in the workplace, not only in gaming.”