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Analysis: A closer look at MidBoss' chaotic, hostile work environment

Analysis: A closer look at MidBoss' chaotic, hostile work environment

March 28, 2018 | By Katherine Cross

March 28, 2018 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Indie, Serious



As the union discussion took over GDC this year, shocking revelations about working conditions at the indie studio MidBoss--makers of 2064: Read Only Memories--also hit Twitter in a massive thread curated by musician Jessica Levine.

Wage theft, sexual assault, hostility, and exploitation were all alleged, and often substantiated by several former MidBoss employees coming forward to tell their stories.

One, Tyler Gausvik, took to Twitter to confirm the substance of the allegations, saying there was “a lot of sexual harassment/misbehavior, emotional manipulation, and other really toxic behavior. I was threatened with litigation when I spoke out.” They elaborated on this to GamesBeat’s Stephanie Chan:

"After they spoke out about these criticisms, they said Conn messaged them on Facebook and said lawyers would have to get involved. Gausvik also said that Conn told them that they would “develop a negative reputation” for speaking up about these issues."

The crisis at MidBoss runs deep, offering a grimly appropriate illustration of many discussions about exploitative work practices in the industry, which dominated GDC last week.

From the testimony of several staffers who’ve come forward, including some I interviewed for this piece, what emerges is a picture of a company where dual passions for game design and queer representation within those games were exploited to ensure a mostly young, queer and trans group of artists and developers could put long hours for little pay into a game that was capriciously managed.

***

I’ve been a guest of honor at GaymerX in both the US and Australia (though the latter was run by an entirely different set of people). I’ve met wonderful people at GX, making lifelong friends there and even meeting a few romantic partners. To say my personal experience was positive was an understatement. My role as a guest involved comped badges and sometimes comped hotel rooms, a precious commodity at any convention. I was briefly supported on Patreon by MidBoss (to the tune of four dollars total) before I requested that they cease doing so because it created the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The substance of many of these allegations, about MidBoss being a chaotic and difficult place to work, are things I’d heard in my own circles since at least early 2017. The sexual harassment allegations were unknown to me until last week. Looking at things with a clear gaze meant recognizing that the size of my platform might have led to me being used to present a rosier image of things than was, perhaps, merited. I had no direct experience of MidBoss, after all, and I never worked GX as a volunteer.

Accounts vary as to whether MidBoss CEO Matt Conn, whose alleged behavior was at the heart of nearly all of these charges, underpaid people maliciously or as a result of incompetence. Some underpaid staff suggest he simply bit off more than he could chew and didn’t really know how to properly run a company. Others allege the exploitation was deliberate, and accompanied by angry outbursts and threats to retaliate or “destroy careers.” Multiple accounts agreed that there were virtually no contracts given to staff.

“Matt [Conn] loves verbal handshakes,” tweeted Chris Lindgren, a software engineer who worked at MidBoss. “The reason he's able to get away with such blatant wage theft is because he's ‘too lazy’ to write up any contracts. It's difficult to fight for pay not in writing, and pushing for a contract might come off as ‘rude.’” Lindgren added, “I signed one document at MidBoss and it was a government form verifying that the information required for my 1099 was valid.”

Ellen McGrody, a writer who also did work for MidBoss, tweeted confirmation that she’d heard many such allegations in whisper networks, adding, “I earned less than minimum wage. I wrote it off as okay, but in light of these allegations, I can’t justify their behavior anymore.” Photographer Emi Spicer, who worked at MidBoss’ GaymerX convention, added “I can verify that the accusations are true. I did not have the entire experience that was written about in the initial tweets, but I did experience a large amount of it.”

As a result of all of this, Matt Conn resigned from his leadership of GaymerX, adding that he would also be “taking leave of MidBoss once I can make sure the remaining employees payroll is handled.” He has since deleted his Twitter. It is unclear if “taking leave” refers to a leave-of-absence or if he’s resigning from being CEO of MidBoss. A statement made to VentureBeat suggests the latter. Longtime staffer, Toni Rocca, would lead the company and oversee reforms--such as developing an HR department--according to the statement. She tweeted that she would be “working on MidBoss moving forward,” though she’s now confronting serious allegations of her own--including inappropriate sexual behavior and racism.

She has issued a strenuous denial of one specific allegation that she’d told an employee of color to keep other non-white MidBoss employees happy purely to give the company a cosmetic appearance of diversity, rather than because of their inherent value.

Speaking to Gamasutra just before the latest wave of allegations, she’d said MidBoss was “going to restructure as best we can, which will likely mean taking a break from current projects. We'll figure out what project we can currently focus on, and then hire properly through that. I think that a system of just focusing on doing what we can slowly with a minimal staff is going to work out better.”

I also spoke to former staffers who were willing to go on the record to Gamasutra, albeit anonymously for fear of retaliation. “I can confirm the extreme underpaying, on the order of several hundred dollars a month for full time work up to and including crunching,” said Lara*. She corroborated an image of a working environment that, at best, was chaotic and poorly managed, often subject to Conn’s mercurial whims.

“He would often have people working on multiple projects at once (e.g. ports to consoles),” Lara added, referring to projects like a quixotic PS Vita port of 2064. “[He’d] then whip priorities and the developers back and forth constantly between these while complaining that they weren’t far enough along. or deciding to cancel a port via social media post without anyone on the team knowing, before he changed his mind and uncanceled it.”

Rose*, another former employee, told Gamasutra that this extended to how jobs were assigned. “Matt wanted more from people than they could give,” she said, “both in terms of time (he would demand more work than folks could possibly do) and in terms of skills (he hired people for one job, then asked them to perform jobs in other areas, then blamed them when they were not competent in those other areas).”

“He seemed not to have a clear understanding of how much work it takes to create the types of products he wanted to create,” she added, repeating a theme I’d heard in a lot of testimony, both public and private. “He pushed people constantly and most of them he never paid,” she said, contradicting Conn’s claim that he’d paid everyone he owed. “When he did pay, he did so grudgingly and with a healthy helping of guilt.”

In her interview for Gamasutra, Toni Rocca argued that the ‘bit off more than he could chew’ thesis was the correct one. “I think that a lot of this comes out of poor communication and Matt trying to just work with people when he couldn't really afford to. I think that when someone says ‘Yes I can do it for 300 dollars’ it's the employer's role to stop and make sure you have a better and more clearly defined structure than that.” When asked whether there were contracts at the company, she replied, “Not really,” adding, “it was essentially just verbal agreements and I think that's part of the problem.”

It all lends credence to the arguments put forth by Game Workers Unite, the union activists at this past GDC, that such conditions are endemic to the industry. Even spaces that are awash in a progressive ethos can slouch into destructive labor practices.

Rocca added that some of the problem lay in Conn’s troubled personal life, losing his partner to cancer recently, as well as his father. “With his father and then boyfriend dying he still kept trying to do everything and never slowed down, he kept trying to take on more and more projects...I think he was obsessed with the concept that if he ever stopped or slowed down he'd let everyone down.”

In a rambling apology (since deleted along with the rest of his Twitter), Conn wrote, “bad behavior is bad behavior but the cruelty of people who couldn’t even be there for me when my man died or say one nice thing of support watching with glee as our family and work get torn apart, I am a very sad panda,” he said, alleging that one of the claims against him was made by someone who “bugged” him about a paycheck the day his partner had died.

These deaths were clear tragedies for Conn. But the allegations stretch back years, and relate to a wider structural problem; even if no malice was involved (itself a hotly disputed point), many staffers felt taken advantage of, and the fact that so much depended on one man was clearly a larger problem at a company trying to scale its ambitions without scaling its infrastructure. Conn’s bereavement should not have prevented the smooth operation of a company that, by now, should have had the staff, workflows, and procedures to operate without his day-to-day input.

Conn added in his apology, “I was mistaken in thinking that giving as many people opportunities but at low monthly wages was the right thing to do, I had no idea the pain I was causing people.”

But the sexual harassment allegations are even more severe. One man came forward late last night to offer his own story on Twitter, alleging that Conn brought him on board for a GX internship and then immediately began looking through his phone messages, encouraging him to break up with his boyfriend. “He made constant comments about my appearance, telling me I COULD be handsome if I changed my beard, or hairstyle, etc. He used phrases similar to 'Well, I like my guys to look like that, so you should do it.' He became annoyed when I said I liked the way I looked.” In addition:

“On day three [of the GX internship] he showed me porn. In the workplace, he showed me 'what he liked' in an open laptop he abruptly turned to me. His comments seemed connected to the ones about my appearance and 'what he likes.'”

Conn brushing this off in multiple comments as him being “weird” or “sloppy about the way [he] communicated,” feels unconscionably inadequate. Earlier tweets, which he deleted, saying the campaign was “politically motivated” also ring with hollow irresponsibility in the wake of so many detailed and matching accusations, coming almost entirely from his queer, erstwhile workforce.

On a personal level, I can’t shake the infuriating sense that I and others, who were treated well and had relatively large platforms, may have been used to mask all this. Did I inadvertently take money out of a game dev’s pocket by accepting that hotel room? Did my prominent presence at GX entice other trans women of color, or gay men into thinking MidBoss was a safe place to work? I don’t have simple answers.

Part of what was politely obscured was Conn’s casual cruelty, certainly. One GaymerX speaker, Cerys R.*, gave a statement to Gamasutra about one incident she recalled:

"I think my first interaction with Matt set the stage for me in how I interacted with him. I was sharing my story on how I have fibromyalgia and working around the limitations. He flat out said maybe I should work in another industry, [asking] if I even can work.  When I tried to bring it up later he was reluctant to own up to it...I had a lot of love for those he worked with, but the stories of his abuse have been whispered for years. So none of this surprises me, but as my interaction was some time ago I had hoped he changed, and I do feel that he's genuinely going to try changing."

Whether Conn does or doesn’t change depends a lot on how he handles these allegations; his defensive remarks augur poorly, thus far.

I asked Jessica Levine about the question of incompetence versus malice, as she’d seen the overwhelming bulk of the allegations and had many people confide in her. She argued the alleged sexual harassment demonstrates clear malice as it “makes for an unsafe workplace.”

She added that “minimum wage laws exist for a reason. MidBoss is not a cooperative, and not everyone was sharing risks and profits equally. When you take on the relationship of employer, you take on certain responsibilities, responsibilities Matt Conn knowingly did not follow through on, and I don't think that can be argued as anything but malicious in an employer.” Intent, then, is irrelevant.

Both Rocca and Conn have likened the allegations to “callout culture” gone amok, but this is less a call-out than a labor dispute. Conn’s self-described “intense management style” came off to many as abusive and destructive. With no contracts and no HR department, and a sense that, in Rose’s words, “if we didn't excel, everyone would lose their shirts, and it would be our faults,” avenues for redress were entirely cut. It’s a familiar story, whose relevance goes far beyond the narrow world of queer game dev.

***

The concept of a “safe space” is often a mirage used to conceal something that’s anything but. For young queer people desperate to break into a hostile industry, MidBoss was heaven-sent. A place to get real experience while also working in an LGBT-friendly environment. Instead, it was like too many other places in the gaming industry, and as a result they let down these precious people who deserved so much better.

What I can say is that these former employees excelled under difficult conditions, in ways that testify to their technical skill; they deserve jobs where those skills are respected, and which play to their strengths. They offer much. Like so many tragedies in this industry, especially when they happen to women or minorities, there’s a tendency to fetishize the victims as people whose abuse we can gawk at before moving on to the next big story. But the MidBoss folks need work more than retweets; they are so much more than victims of a hostile workplace.

More than anything, restoration in the wake of these revelations will mean respecting that and treating them like the professionals they are.

* Pseudonyms were used to protect these people’s identities

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.



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