🕹️ video game internship
underage fan labour as exploitation
The video games I played as a child involved robots helping me learn how to spell (Reading Rabbit), do basic mathematics (Treasure MathStorm), as well as a particularly excellent game where I pretended to be a truck driver shipping commodities around Canada (I had to play that one at school in the computer lab) - RIP Cross Country Canada.
While I was proud of my ability to spell and engage in arithmetic, I wasn’t training any algorithms or connecting with others and interacting while I played (Web 2.0) - unless you count my twin brother sitting next to me. It was Web 1.0, and it was sort of the best. 💾
Unsurprisingly, the internet and gaming for children has since changed. Multiple outlets have covered allegations of the video game Roblox, calling it a “video game empire built on children’s labour.” Web ~3.0 is here, baby, and shareholders are monetizing your child’s creativity!
To be clear, I don’t play Roblox but I find it intriguing. It is described as an “online game platform and game creation system that allows users to program games and play games created by other users.” It has also been referred to as the “YouTube of Gaming.” Players can earn ‘Robux’ by creating content and experiences. This virtual currency can be used in-game or exchanged for real currency - currently at an exchange rate of USD 0.0035 per Robux. The minimum to redeem is 50,000 Robux or $175. So, the labour isn’t entirely unpaid, but it does raise the question:
when is work (fan labour) masquerading as play?
Policy people, advocates and scholars are thinking about how young people fit into Canada’s tech accountability agenda. Children (minors) are emerging as an important focus in updated privacy rules in other jurisdictions - but minors were not a carve-out in the previously-proposed privacy legislation in Canada. Recent debate has focussed on how the previously proposed Bill C-11 “gutted” the requirements for valid consent. Updated privacy regimes in the US and Europe have explicit protections for minors. A child’s right to privacy is certainly paramount and these are important considerations. The relationship between the virtual world, work, and play also seems significant.
Already, in the analog world, hustle culture blurs hobbies into entrepreneurial side hustles, burning out millennials. Another emergent area of interest for regulators should be the relationship(s) between child labour and various forms of participation in video games. Starting with the fact of work itself, but also exploring the nature of the labour - what might young people be learning when they are encouraged to actively create virtual worlds ‘for fun’ and what is being modelled for them? For instance, a “big bounty” creates a clear incentive to identify a glitch in a game that is arguably mutually beneficial: the firm fixes an error and the person that finds the “bug” is rewarded for noticing a shortcoming.
The province of Ontario got rid of unpaid internships in 2015, and since then, has recovered wages owed to interns. Under the Employment Standards Act, there are limited circumstances where a person can work as an unpaid intern, such as under school co-op work experience programs done for credits. A creative regulatory solution for Roblox’s fan labour could be curricular, AKA a young person is gaining ‘work experience.’ However, the minimum age for work in Ontario is 15 (provincial minimums vary across the provinces, with British Columbia at 12 years) AND a player needs consent from a guardian to enter into a contract with Roblox.
When we conjure an image of a child working at the brickyards, it is associated with discomfort. When we talk about the future of work for adults, we are generally talking about the impacts of automation. The future of play for children seems to involve crafty exploitation disguised as fun. The definition of “exploitation” under the Convention on the Rights of the Child is: freedom from economic exploitation. There are four Articles in particular that seem relevant to video games: Article 3 (the child’s best interests), Article 12 (the child’s right to participate), Article 32 (protection from economic exploitation); and Article 182 (the worst forms of labour convention, which aims to bring about better working conditions).
Maybe improperly compensated labour in video games isn’t that big a deal. Like, it may be valuable for kids to link into work-like experience and develop digital technical skills, which is totally rational for a young person to want to do. But it seems clear that there is an unfairness that is occurring - they are not treated fairly by the designers of the game.
Gaming companies ‘profit’ from players contributing to their metaverse(s). This allows them to scale by having players create experiences and worlds in the game that other players can interact with, creating exponential feedback loops. Games are “rated” by age-appropriateness based on violence - should they factor in the prospect of unpaid (or underpaid) labour?
I’m sure there are tons of other places where unpaid fan labour occurs in the gaming world. I think we should start by thinking about it in a children’s rights context, where regulators may be less blind to this crafty exploitation. Then, we can get to the bigger question of whether video game players should be entitled to compensation for in-game contributions (and if so, what kind?). From there, we can ask intellectual property questions. I see an interesting role for the instrument of public policy here, though shareholder motions and associated activism could be another productive vehicle for change.
As we look ahead to back-to-school, policy people should also recognize that young people across the province are being exploited for these unpaid internships. Potential policy interventions for youth online have generally focussed on what is passively extracted from youth online (through violations of their privacy) and we also need to be realistic about what is actively extracted through their “play.” Then, we need to ask whether we may already have the appropriate tools or lens with which to evaluate this activity, or whether we need shiny new laws for this implication of a metaverse. I think we already have what we need to address unpaid fan labour from kids if we take a child’s rights approach. The question is whether the resolution will be found in compensating children in a more appropriate way with more Robux (potentially still illegal, also LOL) or banning that exploitation altogether.