Riot Games Must *Be* Better

Mattias Lehman
Sep 2, 2018 · 9 min read

The day I got the offer to work for Riot Games — just as a freelancer writing articles at lolesports — was one of the most exciting days in my life. I knew I’d just gotten my foot in the door, but I knew that foot was going going to get me in the room, at the table, and eventually running my own projects.

Of course, I had my concerns as well. The representation of women and people of color in a lot of media has always been a big deal to me, and I’d even recently written about the issue of gender representation in League of Legends’ champion roster.

On top of that, I knew that Riot was going to be — like much of tech — predominantly white and asian, and predominantly male, with few other black/brown people around. I’ve been in cultures like that before, so I was — reluctantly — prepared.

Within a year, on the product side a lot had changed, and I felt cautiously optimistic. Rek’Sai, Ekko, and Kindred had given League a kickass female monster champion, another character of color, and the first non-binarily pronouned character.

On the work side, I can’t say that I had the same experience. My first day joining a new team, a non-black coworker of mine dropped a “this nigga” in telling a story. I didn’t make a big deal out of it. In fact, I didn’t say anything at all, for a lot of reasons.

For one, I was still a contractor. The last thing I wanted to do was lose my dream job. I didn’t really want to have an awkward workplace interaction with that guy forever. I worried that our coworkers — who had known him longer — would take his side and I’d burn a lot of professional bridges. I was no stranger to speaking up, but this didn’t seem like the right situation.

Another coworker would read Red Pill bullshit at work. A third coworker started a lunch table conversation about how “all of his top-tier girls were white or asian”. I don’t know if my discomfort was obvious, or if he thought I wanted to be brought into the conversation, or if it made sense in his mind to seek my expert biracial opinion, but he specifically asked me if I was “into white girls or black girls”.

In each of the cases, for many of the same reasons, I also said nothing. After the “top-tier” conversation, I asked my Facebook friends and their resounding advice was either “avoid that guy” or “go to Talent”. I did neither. Why?

I think people who have never been in situations like that don’t understand how fruitless speaking up can be. Everybody at the table was laughing along with his comments. If I spoke up then, maybe they’d all take his side and I’d hurt my connections at work. And it’s not like I record all of my conversations, so there’s no reason to expect I’d be believed if I went to Talent.

In recent years, I have found my voice. It’s no coincidence that this happened after I became a full employee, not just a contractor. For the last two years, I’ve been pretty vocal in Riot Slack channel dedicated to discussions of diversity at Riot, about issues of gender, race, and the LGBTQ community.

About how our notion of core gamer sounds like a dog whistle to those of us who weathered GamerGate, or who have been called Fake Gamer Girls, or who are met with shock or disbelief whenever we talk about being gamers because of the color of our skin or something else about our presentation.

I had that particular conversation — about my concerns with the marginalization of women and people of color within our culture — countless times in our diversity Slack. Unfortunately, my comfort “delivering feedback” did not translate into having my concerns heard.

What I have found at Riot is far too many ears unwilling to hear critiques of our culture. As at many tech companies, stances on politics and social issues are often dominated by loud voices on the centrist, libertarian, or simply apathetic ends of the spectrum, who think sociopolitical change is best made by waiting, compromising, and letting the free market handle what should be our social contract with society.

Eventually, I took to Twitter to be heard, and ended up having a two hour conversation with Marc Merrill who assured me that he understood my concerns, but that it would never happen at Riot, and that we’d fix it if it did. I don’t think he fully understood that I was discussing a phenomenon that *already* happened, that I’d seen first hand and heard second hand from coworkers. During the conversation, he pulled out a copy of a political book — The Centrist Manifesto — and suggested that I should learn better to see both sides of this issue and tolerate other viewpoints.

There have been consequences.

Weekly or so, somebody I’ve never met (or maybe only loosely met in passing) comes up to me in the hallways of Riot to tell me over the next hour how I’m wasting my time or making mountains out of molehills, or how I’m ignoring discrimination against white dudes.

More painful were the friends at Riot who would corner me in the kitchen or some thoroughfare where everybody could see as they scolded me about how they were sympathetic to my viewpoint but that they just didn’t think my approach was appropriate. That I was too aggressive. That I needed to win people over with love, not criticism.

I’ve been described as “aggressive” and “intimidating” my whole life at my slight frame of 5’7”, and after a while, it’s hard not to view that as influenced by general perception of black men.

One thing I’ve learned in my life: if somebody has to tell you they’re on their side, they’re not. At Riot we’re told to “default to trust”, but as I’ve said many times, my ability to default to trust ends where my blackness begins.

Anyway, after my tweets, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was on thin ice, and that I had risked being fired. In a meeting with my manager, I was told that my job performance was great, but my cultural misalignment was concerning. I was told that in my conversation with Marc, it was clear to my manager that I hadn’t been listening or open to Marc’s viewpoint.

Since then, I have gone to work most days wondering if I would be fired.

As for Marc Merrill himself? Two months after our conversation, he blocked me on Twitter, which definitely renewed my stress over job security (ironically this happened within a day of a court ruling that Trump could not block US citizens). I ended up having to take Marc to the heads of our Diversity and Talent initiatives over that, which led to another two-hour political/philosophical conversation, and my unblocking.

All of this to say that if you are a marginalized person, speaking up can be terrifying, and you may fear social or job reprisal. That’s much more true when not many other speak up. That’s why vocal allies are important, because you can’t *all* be punished.

The Kotaku article has brought to light so many conversations which needed to happen long ago.

In the weeks since it’s come out, I’ve had at least one conversation daily — often more — with some dude, with tones ranging from “this is awful I can’t believe I never noticed” and “what should I do?” to “so, what do you think about this Kotaku article thing?” and “I’m just worried we’re going to overreact and [start having quotas/not hire white dudes anymore/make sexy champions anymore]”.

There are a lot of Rioters who see the Kotaku article as a necessary eye-opener, who are now committed to working for better representation at Riot. There are a lot of Rioters who see it as a welcome spotlight on issues they already cared about and fought for. There are a lot of Rioters who see aggressive reactions to this article as something unnecessary and to be resisted. Those values are going to be called into conflict in the coming years, and one way or another, Riot will see some turnover.

Despite my frustrations, I love Riot as a company. I have sat on this article while I was waiting for Riot’s public response, because the last thing I want to do is contribute to an unfair pile-on that is neither constructive nor informed. It will take time for even the best-intentioned and most knowledgeable team to make a plan to fix the cultural issues we face.

It’s good that we’re apologizing for our past failures. I hope that going forward we plan on doing something to help the people who were unfairly discriminated against or harassed, or merely made to feel uncomfortable until they left. Many of those people suffered immediate, prolonged pain at the hands of coworkers while they were at Riot, and expensive therapy sessions after they left. Some will never be the same.

I also feel heartened that we are revealing our failures. Specifically, “Rioters have told us that the steps we have taken thus far aren’t enough”. The internal conversations and pain have been constant. And frankly speaking, Rioters who aren’t used to talking about diversity fucked up *a lot*. And Rioters who are used to experiences of marginalization weren’t always sympathetic (and we shouldn’t have to be, but it obviously helps). It’s going to take time, and that sucks.

But it’s a very good sign that Riot leadership is taking that feedback seriously as a sign that they need to continue to evolve their understanding of the issue, rather than dismissing it. That alone is a lot of progress from the Riot I’ve known for most of my time there.

I have a lot of thoughts on the words “gamer” and “meritocracy”, and I’m glad we’re addressing the ways in which those words can alienate, or be weaponized to exclude — marginalized people. In recent days, I’ve seen several Rioters begin using the word “culture add” instead of “culture fit”. These aren’t mere semantic considerations: they affect the way we hire, the way we socialize, and the way we work, all the way down to the five Riot pillars.

Focus on Talent and Team

Some members of Riot’s team haven’t felt at home, and we must change that. A good employee experience is fundamental to Riot, and we must do better.

Player Experience First

Which player experience is first? Is it the angry, exclusive “core gamer” who wants his hobby to remain within his closed circle? Or is it the broader, more inclusive gaming community? These are the questions we’ve seen media have to ask itself over the last few years, and the success of movies like Wonder Woman or Black Panther should tell us that there is a market for a wider array of experiences.

Challenge Convention

I appreciate that our public statement says that “Our goal isn’t just to be good; it’s to become a leader on diversity, inclusion, and culture.” It’s a bold goal, and it goes against common wisdom that the “core” audience for gaming is always going to be young men.

Stay Hungry, Stay Humble

We can’t stop the moment we see some progress. This will be a long slog, and we’ll only make it if we understand from the get go that we’ll have to make some hard choices. If we start to do well, that doesn’t mean we can’t do better.

Take Play Seriously

Games aren’t just some passing use of time. They’re the way many people engage with the world. That gravity means it’s important to create games that are meaningful and resonant, and to seek to spread those experiences to an ever-broadening audience. It’s never “just a game”, because all media is political and all media is reflective of our society, and we should make our games reflect the society we want to see.

So after all of the recent events, I wanted to speak up, as somebody in the gaming community and as somebody at Riot. To any women, people of color, and LGBTQ people who were considering working at Riot, know that you will have allies here from Day 1 (if I’m still around, I’ll gladly personally introduce you to them). Know that we are fighting to make Riot the place we want to work, and to make it a workplace worthy of your interest.

It’s not going to be enough for us to do better. We need to be better, down to our bones, and that means changing the demographics of who works here. We can’t do it without you. We’re going to put the pressure on our community and keep the pressure on Riot, and we are going to make the world we want to see.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store