May 12, 2022 - Technology

A worker reckoning at Nintendo

Animated GIF of a fist emerging from a green Super Mario pipe

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Workers at gaming giant Nintendo of America say the company’s reliance on temporary workers is exploitative and that efforts to bring about change have been stymied by fear of reprisal.

Driving the news: Current and former Nintendo contractors have been speaking up over the past three weeks, since Axios first reported a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board against Nintendo and a contracting firm.

What they’re saying: “I loved what I did. I hated how I was treated,” a former contractor named Ash, who asked that their last name be kept private, tells Axios.

  • They worked in Nintendo’s customer service center for several years through 2015. Strict time-off rules for contractors and limited pathways to full-time employment added to stress that contractors could be dropped at any moment. That pressure, they said, aggravated a heart condition.
  • Ash says their moment of disillusionment came when their grandpa died: “I was told if I went to his funeral, I wouldn’t have a job when I came back.”

State of play: Ash’s story echoed those shared by seven other current and former contractors who spoke with Axios about their time at Nintendo.

  • Their accounts square with those published by gaming news sites Kotaku and IGN. Those outlets cited interviews with dozens of workers who say Nintendo treats its large contingent of contractors, technically employed by staffing firms, as second-class citizens.
  • These contractors fume about a status quo they believe was established to avoid violating labor laws: cycles of 10- or 11-month contracts that can be quickly cut short and are followed by two-month breaks, with expectations they’ll come right back.
  • They describe employees who log three, five, even 10 years of these cycles, without many of the benefits of full-timers, but are never converted to full-time.

The contractors’ stories center on Nintendo of America, the U.S. subsidiary of the Kyoto-based maker of Mario, Zelda and the Switch.

  • NoA, headquartered in Redmond, Washington, has for more than a decade supplemented its full-time labor force with hundreds of contractors, one longtime contractor estimates, who largely work in its customer service and product-testing divisions.
  • Even in the company’s vaunted Treehouse, where games are translated from Japanese and localized for America, Nintendo uses contractors for nearly half of its team, two sources say, keeping them in that status for years at a time.
  • “It goes up to every level,” one current localization contractor told Axios under the condition of anonymity. “It even affects the people writing the games you love.”

Nintendo hasn’t commented publicly about the uproar from its workforce and did not reply to questions from Axios. A few days after contractors began speaking out, NoA president Doug Bowser sent an internal message to employees regarding “stories appearing in some media today about alleged working conditions at Nintendo.”

  • “Like many of you, the executive leadership team and I find many of these points troubling, and we are closely reviewing the content,” he wrote.
  • The message reiterated Nintendo’s “zero-tolerance for inappropriate conduct, including harassment, discrimination or intimidation.”
  • A current contractor in product testing told Axios they found the message disappointing, as it didn’t mention the contractor issue core to so many accounts.
  • (Kotaku had cited four sources saying the NLRB complaint stemmed from a worker being fired after asking about unionization, which Nintendo, in a public statement, denied.)

Between the lines: Nintendo of America’s use of contractors is somewhat typical of game companies and the wider tech industry.

  • But contractors are disappointed with Nintendo, a wealthy company that markets its penchant for putting smiles on faces.
  • “Maybe it’s just because on some level I expected better,” the current testing contractor said. “These companies rely on a contract workforce with no stability.”

Former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé, who worked in senior positions at the company from 2013-19, told Axios that “what’s being described is not the NoA I knew.”

  • He said the company hired “a significant number” of contractors, or associates, into full-time roles during his tenure but added that he “truly understands” the frustration of those who haven’t been.
  • He attributed the company’s use of contractors to the seasonality of Nintendo’s business, where it would generate 60% of its annual revenue around the holidays. “You can’t run a business at that scale without utilizing associate labor to get you there.”

Stymied activism: Contractors who spoke to Axios said they and their peers largely avoided pushing back against management, but two recalled a mid-2014 effort when a group of Nintendo customer service workers began meeting offsite to discuss ways to force change and possible unionization.

  • Those meetings ceased after their management at Nintendo-affiliated Parker Staffing found out about them. Two sources recalled getting an email from a Parker manager encouraging them and their colleagues to think of the company as a family and that organizing wasn’t necessary.
  • “It was union-bustering without technically being union-bustering,” a former contractor recalled.
  • Current contractors say union talk at the company is rare.

What’s next: Former Nintendo contractors hope recent revelations bring change. “If any change is going to happen, it’s going to have to be a bad publicity thing,” says one current contractor.

  • Workers have usually only vented more privately, including in a recently shuttered Facebook group called the Nintendo Recovery Center.
  • Former contractor Ash, who moderated the group, said it had a few hundred members but that they shut it down out of fear of drawing management’s attention.
  • “There’s a really strange and shared trauma between all of us,” they said.

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