Sep 29, 2022 - Technology

Exclusive: Fired Nintendo worker speaks out, alleging union-busting

Illustration of Mario's hat with a fist instead of an "M".

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Mackenzie Clifton, the Nintendo worker who filed a labor complaint earlier this year against the gaming giant, is stepping forward by name for the first time in an interview with Axios.

Why it matters: The veteran game tester alleges Nintendo and contracting firm Aston Carter had them fired in February because they asked Nintendo management a question about unions.

  • The complaint alleged that the employers had interfered with Clifton’s federally protected rights to discuss unionization without fear of retaliation.

What they’re saying: “I hope that sharing this story can get more and more people thinking about how the games industry works and how these companies, that everyone’s come to know and love as providers of fun entertainment, are so much more than that,” Clifton tells Axios.

Details: Clifton traces their firing to an online company meeting for hundreds of Nintendo testers in January.

  • During a Q&A portion with Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser, Clifton asked, “What does NoA think about the unionization trend in QA in the games industry as of late?” they told Axios. (The incident, without specifics or names, was first reported by gaming website Kotaku.)
  • Clifton’s question wasn’t addressed in the meeting. But later that day, Clifton says, a supervisor from Aston Carter called them, saying it was a “downer question” and advising them to direct such inquiries to the contracting firm, not Nintendo.
  • Clifton was “baffled and kind of angry.” Less than a month later, Clifton was fired.

Nintendo has denied that unions had anything to do with Clifton’s dismissal, instead saying the tester was let go for publicly disclosing “confidential information.”

  • Clifton tells Axios that they had pressed supervisors for proof of a violation and were shown a tweet they posted on Feb. 16, which stated: “in today’s build someone somewhere must have deleted every other texture in the game bc everything is now red. Just like, pure red. it’s very silly.”
  • Clifton says that is misdirection, noting the tweet is vague. It does not clearly identify what Clifton was working on.
  • Nintendo and Aston Carter did not reply to requests for comment about Clifton's account. The NLRB declined to comment on the status of the complaint.

The big picture: Current and former contractors for Nintendo of America have said that Nintendo treats them like “second-class citizens.”

  • After Clifton’s NLRB complaint made headlines, dozens spoke out on social media and in the press, saying Nintendo consigns hundreds of crucial workers in its game-testing, customer service and even game-writing teams to precarious and stressful temporary deals. Even some top performers say conversions to full-time status are rare.
  • Amid those remarks have been accusations of workplace misconduct, which Nintendo has internally told its workers it takes seriously, But neither Nintendo nor its contracting firms have spoken publicly about the company’s widespread use of contractors.
  • Two former contractors previously told Axios that in mid-2014 a nascent effort by some Nintendo customer service contractors to unionize fizzled after their management firm caught wind of it (neither Nintendo nor the firm commented on the matter when asked).

Clifton got their first contract gig at Nintendo in 2018.

  • “Things were actually very good initially,” they said, citing an early promotion and raise. Best of all, after a manager noticed their skill trouncing coworkers in the Smash Bros. fighting game during breaks, Clifton was shifted to testing the then-forthcoming Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
  • Clifton worked on Smash for much of the next two years as the game received new post-release content. Co-workers recalled Clifton as one of the best testers on the team, with a sharp eye capable of spotting bugs that others would have missed.

Working on Smash Bros. was special, Clifton said, in part because of their connection to the game.

  • They’d experienced bouts of severe depression since college and said campus Smash Bros. tournaments had kept them going.
  • But at Nintendo, they’d become frustrated with their contracts’ forced breaks and the lack of agency as a temporary employee.

Clifton hoped thousands of hours of work might get them and their fellow testers added to Smash Bros. Ultimate’s credits. When they heard in 2021 that an effort to do so was refused somewhere up the chain, Clifton was “utterly crushed.” “It drove me to suicidal ideation,” they said.

  • “If all of this work I had done for all of these years meant nothing to these people, that they couldn’t even just modify a text document, why bother?” they remember thinking. Citing a medical emergency, they told their bosses they needed to stop coming to the office.
  • After they left, the game’s credits were eventually updated with their name. And in January 2022 they began a new contract at Nintendo before their firing in February.

Clifton’s decision to file a complaint against Nintendo and Aston Carter was “more to show the world and show my former coworkers that something like a union would be not only beneficial but maybe even necessary in the coming years.”

  • As the investigation and talks for a possible settlement ensued, Clifton issued a condition: They wanted a letter of apology, signed by NoA president Bowser.
  • Nintendo countered, Clifton said, with an offer to speak to HR, then offered a neutral letter of reference.
  • The NLRB, which is still handling the complaint, told them a letter wasn’t required as part of a settlement.

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