Games

Video Game Layoffs Are So Common, This Person Built a Website to Track Them

A depressing way to better understand the broken foundations of the video game industry.
January 15, 2020, 8:16pm
Video game layoffs are so common, this person built a website to track them.
Image courtesy of John Emerson

83 days, 22 hours, 59 minutes, and 20 seconds. That’s how long it’s been, as of this writing, since the last “mass layoff” in the video game industry, when Hasbro laid off 86 employees working for one of its mobile game studios. The ominous countdown clock, tracking the next drop, comes courtesy of videogamelayoffs.com, a website whose mission statement is impossible to ignore. The numbers rise, second by second, until they inevitably start over.

A mass layoff, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, is a layoff that impacts more than 50 employees simultaneously. Such events have become a regular occurrence in games, though few manage to cause enough ire to stay in the public consciousness. We have, instead, become accustomed to companies treating employees as disposable. There are egregious exceptions, of course, such as when Activision Blizzard said it would lay off 800 employees during a business call revealing its “financial results were the best in our history.”

For the most part, however, layoffs have become part of the broken status quo.

Part of the problem is that keeping track of layoffs, however frequent, is difficult. The news cycle moves quickly, and not all layoffs become front page news. That’s why a website like videogamelayoffs.com is useful—it puts the data in a single location. The website’s look is methodically simple, essentially a dressed up Excel doc. It lists the most important details about each data point: company impacted, reason for layoff, how many people were laid off, what region it took place in, when it took place, and sources who reported the news.

John Emerson is the person who created videogamelayoffs.com. He doesn’t work in the video game industry, but is the budget manager of a small city in Kansas. Emerson wants to work in games—he’s currently studying visual effects—but that’s not currently the case. The reason he started zooming in on the economic impact of video game companies is because of Activision Blizzard, but not for the reason you might think. It wasn’t the 800-person layoff, but in reading articles about how pre-Activision merger Blizzard impacted local economies.

“Of particular interest at that time [for me] was how Blizzard, as a major employer, was a major contributing factor in rapid deterioration of roadways in Irvine due to employees daily commute to and from the work campus,” he said. “While that initial focal point subsided, I maintained an interest in the video games industry from an economics perspective which intensified as the industry increasingly became part of the culture; affecting international law, trade, government subsidies, entertainment, economics and labor force impacts.”

The founding of videogamelayoffs.com wouldn’t happen until later, during a gnarly rough patch in 2018, even for the frequently tumultuous video game industry: the back-to-back mass layoffs at Activision Blizzard (more than 800 employees) and ArenaNet (more than 140). Combined with a lawsuit several women filed against Riot Games over gender discrimination, Emerson decided to try and pull together a database about these events.

Emerson hoped to provide a resource for others—and for himself. It became a way to chronicle the capitalist ills of video games, and prepare him for trying to become part of it.

Though there is a satirical tone to videogamelayoffs.com, thanks to the blaring countdown, Emerson takes his work seriously. It features places for potentially impacted workers to seek out new employment, legal resources to ensure workers are aware of their rights, and more.

Emerson told me he does “not fault or bear ill-will towards employers,” which is where the two of us diverge on how much blame can and should be assigned to the rich executives traditionally making the decisions that result in these mass layoffs, despite record profits.

“Production cycles are a natural part of the video game development business,” he said, “and as such employers must strategically plan how and when to scale up or down depending on the business environment they reside in or believe they will be in.”

The hope, of course, is that videogamelayoffs.com helps inform that calculation.

“I do believe it is possible to adjust aspects of labor force planning to smooth those transition periods for some, probably not all, developers,” he said. “If this site helps further that result, or alternatively simply helps some impacted persons, then it will have achieved its purpose.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).