Two years ago, a contract game tester named Hannah (not her real name) had a harrowing experience that led her to quit her dream job at Nintendo of America after nearly a decade. Several employees had created a group chat on Nintendo’s Microsoft Teams server called “The Laughing Zone.” It was supposed to be a lighthearted place for coworkers to share memes with one another. That changed when a male translator was added to the group. Soon, he posted Reddit screenshots about why Vaporeon was the best Pokémon to have sex with. Hannah was disgusted by the explicit descriptions. When the conversation turned to Genshin Impact, the translator posted a gif of Paimon, a child character in the game. He posted about how it’s okay to be sexually attracted to Paimon despite the character’s childlike appearance, voice, and personality. Hannah screenshotted the sexual comments and attempted to escalate the situation with Aerotek, the staffing company she was contracted under while working at the Redmond, Washington headquarters.
“Nintendo was almost like a nightmare. It’s sad because I love Nintendo; I grew up with Nintendo. I was so excited to join Nintendo when I first got there, and I thought I was going somewhere,” said Hannah. “I had my supervisors telling me I was doing such a good job.” But by reporting the incident, she had set off a chain of events that led her to quit her job testing Nintendo’s games.
Nintendo is not the only company that uses contract labor to test games, but it is one of the most profitable. A corporate responsibility report showed that net sales of its properties from April 2020 to March 2021 totaled over $13 billion. Contract workers are an essential part of making the company such enormous profits. Nintendo does not publish the number of contract workers in its annual report. But at the time of writing, Nintendo’s careers page indicated that roughly 25 percent of the roles it advertised for its North American headquarters were on a contract basis. Full time Nintendo employees were referred to as the “red badges,” a term used to describe the bright red stripe on their employee ID cards.
The problem was that women were both underrepresented among contractors, but also not often hired into full time roles. Five sources who worked at Nintendo estimated that the percentage of women contractors in testing hovered at around 10 percent (based on the head-counts on their own teams). In some projects that sources worked on with several dozen team members, women on the team would number in the single digits. This discrepancy can be explained by the fact that many Nintendo games were not tested by staff who were classified as Nintendo employees. They were employees who worked under the contracting company Aerotek. But even among full time employees, 37 percent of Nintendo of America’s salaried employees are women, and only 23.7 percent of its managers are women globally.
Hannah also told Kotaku that she struggled to assert her financial worth while testing Nintendo’s games. After working at Nintendo for nine years, she found out a more junior male contractor in her testing department was making $19 an hour while she was making $16. She asked Aerotek what she could do to close the wage gap and fought for a pay increase for several weeks before she finally landed at $18. One woman said she stayed at the same base wage for six years until she got a higher offer elsewhere and threatened to leave. Another woman was offered double her current pay when at a different company.
Hannah claimed that Aerotek management warned her to be less outspoken after she reported the incident. She said that her friends from the work group chat blamed her for reporting the incident, and that the only repercussion the translator faced was being assigned sexual harassment training. Aerotek had previously fired one of its contractors for making comments about the color of Hannah’s underwear, but the translator who made the sexual comments in group chat was a full-time Nintendo employee. Working for Nintendo meant the third-party contracting company couldn’t terminate his employment. Several months ago, Kotaku reached out to the Washington-based Aerotek managers to whom Hannah had reported the incident. They did not respond by the time of publication.
Nintendo staffed its testing departments with temporary employees from the contracting company Aerotek (now reorganized into Aston Carter). According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Aerotek has had multiple labor lawsuits filed against it across the years. And Aerotek has previously been embroiled in controversy for discriminatory business practices. Just last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forced the company to pay over $3 million to settle an anti-discrimination lawsuit in regards to “age, sex, and race.” According to the Chicago Reporter, the federal agency had been investigating the contracting company for racial and gender discrimination since 2008. In a statement to the Chicago Reporter, Aerotek said: “First and foremost, there is no place for discrimination in our company or our industry. Equal employment opportunity is a fundamental value at Aerotek.” Neither a PR spokesperson for Aerotek nor Aston Carter responded to a request for comment.
Aerotek split into three different brands last year, two months before it had agreed to pay the discrimination settlement. Among them, the newly-formed Aston Carter business unit continued to work with Nintendo to provide the company with contract workers. The union-busting complaint made to the NLRB lists Aston Carter and Nintendo as joint employers. Neither Nintendo of America nor Aston Carter had responded to the articles about either the April NLRB filing or how contract employees are treated at the workplace.
Hannah felt that Aerotek’s response was unsatisfactory, and she had endured enough inappropriate incidents during her decade-long tenure working on Nintendo products. She quit her job because she felt that her workplace did not adequately protect her from sexually inappropriate behavior from men. According to past and present female employees who work on Nintendo games, there were many others who felt that the Redmond, Washington office had a problem with treating women with respect.
Kotaku spoke to ten sources for this article who worked at Nintendo at different points of the past decade. They told a story of a corporate culture where sexist behavior was commonplace, and very little action was taken to address it. Most requested anonymity because retaliation could mean a loss of job opportunities throughout the gaming industry. These employees worked on games and consoles ranging from the early Wii U era to the present Nintendo Switch generation. Aside from the harassment, female contractors also faced issues with trying to advance in the company. “I applied for a bunch of other jobs in the industry, and they would ask me why I was looking to leave Nintendo [after several years]. A lack of advancement opportunities was a huge part of that,” a former contractor said.
Former tester Valerie Allison said she would ask her managers how she could be promoted to a permanent position. While Nintendo’s website listed benefits such as parental leave for full-time employees, Allison felt pressure to become a full-time employee because she needed stable income and benefits. Kotaku reached out to Nintendo about what kind of actions it took to ensure that women had a fair chance at career advancement. A spokesperson for Nintendo acknowledged our comment request, but did not return with a statement.
In order to significantly improve their status at the Redmond office, contractors hoped to be converted to red badges. Unfortunately, many former employees who worked as contractors for years realized that tenure did not help them achieve this goal.
“Your chance [of being converted to full time] was probably worse as a girl,” said a former product tester who worked on the 2017 hit The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (28 million units sold globally). “It’s usually guys [who get promoted]. They’re usually all friends. They watch the Super Bowl together.”
On the same day that Kotaku reported the conditions of contract workers, Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser internally acknowledged the media allegations about working conditions at the company. He said that Nintendo has “zero-tolerance for inappropriate conduct, including harassment, discrimination or intimidation.” Kotaku reached out to ask about what steps Nintendo has taken to enforce its zero-tolerance policy for contract employees but did not receive a comment by the time of publication.
But there are more subtle ways female contractors are kept from cultivating careers at Nintendo of America, said sources. Former testers told Kotaku about a revolving door of female talent and a management indifferent to keeping them. Contractors are given no explicit goals or benchmarks to hit that might assure a full-time conversion—or even a contract renewal. Former tester Valerie Allison worked at Nintendo of America from 2009 to 2014. She asked her managers how she could be promoted to a permanent position, but was given a slew of vague suggestions. “Nothing was based on metrics. It was things like, ‘You got to get more face time with this guy. I’m going to invite you to lunch, you know, with so-and-so. Make sure you talk about these kinds of things,” Allison told Kotaku. “Nothing that [was] specific work-related things. You weren’t given any of these tools.”
“There was lots of favoritism, cronyism,” says another former contractor who tested games during the 3DS and Wii U era. “The assumption was that if a woman was doing well, it was because she was friends with the right people.”
Part of the problem was that there simply were not enough women in the testing department to advocate for other women when Nintendo had new full-time openings. But the other reason was more unpleasant. Hannah and two other female contractors also say that in 2020 and prior they experienced harassment from full-time Nintendo workers and fellow Aerotek contractors.
“There was a male [full-time employee] that was constantly making really gross jokes and comments, but he was the friend of everybody there. Everybody loved him,” Hannah said. “Me and other female employees didn’t like that it was being said. But we didn’t say anything because if you [did], you were called overly sensitive.”
The power difference between full-time employees and contractors exacerbated inappropriate behavior—giving women contractors another reason to aspire to full-time employment.
Melvin Forrest has been working in the product testing department since the early nineties, and he eventually became the head of the department. Forrest is credited with working on iconic Nintendo titles like Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, Donkey Kong Country, and Metroid Prime. Forrest makes the schedules for Aerotek associates, deciding who returns after a project ends, so maintaining a good work relationship with him was crucial. This was a problem for female testers who had very uncomfortable experiences with Forrest as a manager.
Several sources tell Kotaku that Forrest made inappropriate advances toward female testers. Among them was Allison, who worked under Forrest as a data entry assistant. “It was pretty common knowledge that he would make comments, hit on people, like to [tell] associates, ‘Oh she’s so beautiful,’” she says. Former contract tester Chris Ollis, who worked at Nintendo until 2014, recalls that “[Forrest] went after all the associate girls” and that associates would even warn each other to stay away from his desk. A former tester said that he would comment on female associates’ weight and appearance. However, many felt like they had no choice but to stay on good terms with Forrest. “If you were friendly with him, you are more likely to be brought back sooner or less likely to be laid off,” said Allison. Kotaku was able to confirm that Forrest worked at Nintendo until at least 2017, though the company did not comment on whether or not he was still employed there. Kotaku also attempted to contact Forrest through different contact methods, but he did not return a message by the time of publication.
In November 2010, Ollis was invited to a Seattle gala for which Nintendo was a sponsor. He told Kotaku that, at the party, his supervisor Eric Bush leaned in and told him to ask a female contractor what color her panties were. Bush was also a highly prolific employee whose name can be found in the credits of some of Nintendo’s most beloved games, such as Golden Sun, multiple Pokémon titles, and Breath of the Wild. One tester corroborated the incident to Kotaku, noting that she heard about the incident through other colleagues before finding out about it from Ollis himself. According to his LinkedIn, Bush is still employed at Nintendo as a product testing assistant manager. A spokesperson for Nintendo acknowledged our comment request, but did not return with a statement. Bush also did not respond to Kotaku’s attempts to contact him.
“[Product testing] really felt like a frat house sometimes,” said one former tester who worked in the department in 2017. She tried to avoid interacting with a man who held so much power within the department, but she still had to deal with male coworkers. They would make jokes about gender stereotypes and female characters who got their skirts flipped. When she complained, men would tell her that she had to be tough enough to work in product testing. After she put on a shield against sexual comments at work, her supervisor commended her for being tougher than the girl who had cried at the office.
Queer women experienced an extra layer of unwelcome behavior and unequal treatment. Hannah is an out lesbian and was open about her sexuality while at Nintendo. She recalled her backup coordinator, a significantly older man who tried to hit on her when she had just started working at the company in 2012. When she revealed her sexuality, he said, “Oh, you’re a lesbian. That’s kind of sad.” It was a poor first impression for Hannah’s lengthy career at Nintendo’s headquarters, but it wouldn’t be the only one.
She struggled with her working relationships with male colleagues who would ignore her when she said things like, “I’m a lesbian…I don’t like you that way.” After she explained why she could not return her male colleagues’ advances, they would ask, “Oh, but are you sure? But you’re flirting with me? You’re just playing hard to get.” The comments made her so uncomfortable that she put her male colleagues “at a distance,” which she believed negatively impacted her career.
Another queer tester who worked on Nintendo games for almost a decade claims she was unfairly targeted by Aerotek for her sexuality. During breaks, she and a fellow female tester she was dating would hold hands. She says an Aerotek supervisor called them into the contracting office and admonished the pair for violating the agency’s ‘no-touching policy,’ which was rarely enforced for straight couples displaying affection in the office. Kotaku reached out to Aerotek and Aston Carter, but they did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.
In fact, it was common for full-time Nintendo employees to date precariously employed contractors. “A lot of the NOA red badges had reputations for using the tester pool of associates as a dating pool,” Allison told Kotaku. If you were approached by a red badge, and they appeared to be making moves on you, [other women said that] you didn’t want to dissuade them too hard.” The upsides of being romantically involved with NOA employees were opportunities and access. The most iconic one was the company Christmas party, which is off-limits to contractors unless they’re accompanied by a “red badge.” To associates who tried to improve their standing, it was worth dealing with the power imbalance if it meant being a part of the prestigious Nintendo brand.
In February, a tester working for Lotcheck, a department that conducts the final checks for how games performed on Nintendo’s consoles, sent a letter on behalf of a dozen testers to Nintendo leadership. In the letter (obtained and reviewed by Kotaku) asking them to improve the testers’ working conditions, it stated that the department was an “unsafe and uncomfortable environment for female testers.”
“[Lotcheck] felt like a deeply uncomfortable place to be as a woman,” wrote one anonymous contributor in the letter. “I felt like I was treated with a sense of ‘otherness.’ I have had people act in a way that made me uncomfortable, then asked me not to go to HR about it because I’d be ‘misinterpreting,’ making me feel guilty about my own discomfort. I never felt as included in things or as respected.” The tester claims that Aston Carter had acknowledged the letter, but did not act due to the anonymity of the employees. Kotaku reached out to Nintendo to ask if it had seen the letter, but the company did not provide a statement by the time of publication.
If you’re a current or former employee at Nintendo of America or its partnered contracting company and you’d like to speak to me about your experiences, then I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Signal is available on request.
Women’s discomfort didn’t stop at distasteful jokes, and they didn’t always feel that they had a safe way to report incidents. One former contractor claimed a more senior tester stalked her between July 2011 and February 2012. He made calls and sent text messages to her phone that one witness felt were “disturbing.” Kotaku corroborated reports of his persistent behavior with three other sources. The stalking victim told Kotaku that she cried at her desk and had panic attacks every day. But because the man was “friends with the right people,” she didn’t feel she could flag the stalking to her contracting company. Three other sources corroborated about how the stalker had free rein to torment his victim.
“He said verbatim that he would get me fired if I reported it,” the woman told Kotaku.
Despite these unwelcome incidents, many women chose to stay at Aerotek for years due to their attachment to the Nintendo brand. Still, sources don’t believe that loyalty was necessarily reciprocated. “You’re just a disposable commodity,” one former Breath of the Wild tester told Kotaku. “And you’re reminded that if you’re not willing to do something…someone else would love to have your spot.”
Nintendo of America has previously acknowledged gender discrimination within the gaming industry. In August 2021, NOA president Bowser wrote an internal statement condemning the sexual harassment reports at Activision Blizzard. As a result of the reckonings at the Call of Duty publisher, Nintendo updated its own Corporate Governance policy with a commitment to “increase the proportion of women in managerial positions’’ at the company. Kotaku reached out to Nintendo about what concrete steps that the company was taking to improve its gender diversity but did not receive a comment by the time of publication.
However, the document does not address the upward mobility of female contract testers who work on its games and consoles. Improvements made within NOA are not guaranteed to trickle down to contract employees at Carter. One current employee said that HR in the building where most of Nintendo’s full-time staff work is actively trying to “spearhead diversity and inclusion” within NOA. However, she also acknowledged that “each of the different buildings associated with Nintendo[’s Redmond campus] all are [a] little microcosm…there aren’t as many chances to meet people from other parts of the company.“
Nintendo’s labor troubles are ongoing. On August 7, a second labor complaint was filed with the NLRB against Nintendo and Carter. It accused the employers of “retaliation, discharge, discipline” of “concerted activities” and “coercive rules.” The status of this case and the first complaint from April are still currently open.
Update 8/24/2022 5:15 P.M. E.T.: An NPR interview with the reporter can be heard here.