Wildlife Studios, a Brazilian gaming unicorn worth $3 billion, is responsible for some of the most popular free-to-play mobile games currently on the market, with titles such as Zooba, Sky Warriors, Suspects, and Tennis Clash. Publicly, the company attributes part of its success to its guiding principles, including “an environment where people from all ethnicities, genders and backgrounds that share our values can feel safe, achieve their full potential and be happy.”
But, behind the scenes, some Wildlife employees say they’ve had a different experience. And in May 2020, the company’s HR department published an internal report, a copy of which was obtained by Rest of World, that outlined repeated incidences of gender wage imbalances and discrimination. Interviews conducted with eight current and former Wildlife employees corroborated some of the report’s findings.
The Wildlife HR report also comes amid a broader reckoning for the video game industry around the world. In the U.S., Activision Blizzard has been rocked in the wake of lawsuits filed against the gaming company, one of which alleged it had failed to respond to “numerous complaints about unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.” In another complaint, senior executives were singled out for allowing it to become a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.”
Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that CEO Bobby Kotick was aware of sexual misconduct allegations against the company, and was himself the subject of settlements related to other harassment allegations.
The video game industry has proven to be lucrative the world over in recent years. Global developers have become billion-dollar-valued giants within months of launching their first game. For engineers and designers in the developing world, the industry can be a ladder to the middle class.
But the industry has been marked by poor working conditions, sexism, and racism. The rapid success of gaming companies like Turkey’s Peak has, at times, also driven the rise of precarious working conditions. In China, problematic racial associations have made their way into the gaming jargon, as players vie to be Europeans, who are considered “lucky,” instead of Africans, who are considered “unlucky.”
And, driven by an exposé earlier this year, anonymous interviews revealed a culture of sexist and racist treatment in Ubisoft Singapore’s offices; allegations which are now under investigation in the country’s employment watchdog agency.
The video game industry in Brazil, which commands a huge and growing market, has also been hit by substantial criticism in the past months. Early this year, the country’s gaming community had its own #MeToo moment, in which Brazilian women took to social media to denounce sexism and harassment in the industry. The community was also shaken by the February murder of an e-sports gamer, Ingrid “Sol” Oliveira Bueno da Silva. The killer, a fellow gamer, reportedly confessed to the crime.
Reports of conditions inside Wildlife Studios suggest that the company suffers from similar issues faced by its industry peers.
Founded as Top Free Games (TFG) in 2011 by Brazilian brothers Arthur and Victor Lazarte, the rebranded Wildlife Studios has thrived over the last decade. The company’s most successful current product is Tennis Clash, launched in 2019. The game has more than 65 million downloads, which, alongside its other products, have helped the company establish collaborations with well-known brands like Gucci.
Earlier this year, the company launched an independent studio in Austin, hiring high-profile staff from the likes of Canada-based gaming company Kabam and U.S. gaming giant Electronic Arts. Wildlife also opened another independent studio in San Francisco this year.
But the company’s HR report details, over the course of 22 pages, specific cases of gaslighting, perpetuating sexist stereotypes, moral harassment, and salary disparity. The document was drafted by the company’s diversity team, which was created in light of ongoing internal issues with racial and gender diversity in the company, said one ex-employee.
In one instance, the report refers specifically to two cases of a gender wage imbalance, noting that one woman manager, who had just been promoted, was offered a salary of almost 30% less than a male counterpart.
The report also highlights concerns with how one female character was represented in Tennis Clash. It details an in-game video that “presented the woman [player] in an extremely sexualized manner, with exaggerated features and clothing that was completely inappropriate for the context of a tennis player.”
A later section of the report described a manager’s efforts to encourage his team to similarly sexualize a character in another Wildlife game and to “silence the team’s female opinions on the subject.” According to the report, the manager, who is still employed at the company, is said to have told the team, “We are not in the business of breaking stereotypes but of reinforcing them.”
The report goes on to underline a broad company culture in which women are sidelined and silenced. The report details three specific allegations of sexist behavior. In one, a woman employee was told to “be more humble” when requesting improvements be made to the product; in another, an employee was systematically ignored in a meeting; and in one case, a woman employee was discouraged privately by a manager from contributing ideas to the group and within meetings.
“There is a culture of moral harassment [at Wildlife],” a former employee told Rest of World.
The report also highlighted an all-male WhatsApp group in the marketing art department created for members to “be able to speak more freely” — a turn of phrase that the report states is merely “a euphemism [to create a space] for macho behavior.”
Though the women in the department are quoted as saying that they were “relieved not to be included, since the jokes and comments coming out of the group were nothing short of terrifying,” they also came to believe that their exclusion resulted in them not being involved in work-related matters and meetings that were brought up on the chat, according to the report.
The May 2020 report concludes that efforts to remedy the behavior — including accounts of individual incidents and conversations with the managers — had not resulted in any amelioration of workplace conditions. The report concludes with the hope that its detailed registry of accounts and incidents would result in “making this environment safer, more fruitful and motivating.” But current and former employees suggest that little action was taken and internal affairs at Wildlife continue to be fraught.
In an email response, a Wildlife spokesperson said, “Wildlife Studios takes any and all allegations seriously. We have a robust Integrity Program, a company-wide initiative to enhance our commitment to a safe workplace by reinforcing our values, and strengthening the ethical culture that can be found in our Code of Conduct.”
The spokesperson added that in June 2020, a month after the internal report was published, the company created “‘Talk To Us,’ a channel run by an external provider, in which employees, former employees, and third parties can make anonymous reports on behaviors that are counter to our code of conduct and policies.”
“I have close knowledge of the compliance program,” responded one ex-employee. “But I put my complaint through it and nothing was done. I’ve heard of a few cases that were solved. Others, however, remain unresolved or even unacknowledged by the company.”
Other former employees who spoke with Rest of World described a challenging workplace with long hours, which one ex-employee described as “demoralizing.” One publicly available Glassdoor review for Wildlife Studios says, “Subsidizing therapy sessions and keeping people working 16 hours a day is paradoxical and hypocritical.”
Brazilian labor attorney Felipe Barco said that the reported behavior at Wildlife described to him by Rest of World could be considered “moral harassment” by Brazilian law, defined as “repeated exposure of employees to humiliating and embarrassing situations during working hours and while employees perform their duties.”
He added that it has been historically difficult to hold Brazilian companies accountable for the types of transgressions described in the company’s HR document.
The report acknowledges that the accusations of workplace malpractice could threaten the company’s growing ambitions.
“This behavior of harassment could greatly discredit the company and could result in people leaving us,” read the internal report. Many of the former employees who spoke to Rest of World said that the type of behavior documented in the report pushed them to leave the company. “The two happiest moments of my time at Wildlife were the day they accepted my application,” a former employee told Rest of World, “and the day I handed in my resignation.”