And so we bid a fond farewell to the former Boy Wonder of Vermont politics, T.J. Donovan. He announced, on Friday afternoon (nothing suspicious there), that he would resign effective June 20 — ten days from now — to take an executive position with online gaming platform Roblox. His new job as director of public policy and U.S. state strategies, he said, “will allow me to continue to advance consumer protections.”
When I read that, my Weaselometer shrieked, its red lights flashed furiously, and a wisp of smoke wafted from the back of the machine. And that was before I read of the controversy surrounding Roblox. But I knewthat no one on God’s green earth has ever gone from public service to corporate executive “to advance consumer protections.”
Especially not if the new job appears to be Top In-House Lobbyist for Roblox, a publicly-traded corporation worth billions upon billions. I bet Donovan’s salary will let him afford the top-line custom-tailored suits you see in the Statehouse whenever a bigtime corporate lobbyist parachutes in to try to defeat a, ahem, “consumer protection measure.”
Now, I don’t begrudge Donovan cashing in on his legal expertise. He’s been living on public sector salaries for 16 years, and that’s a big sacrifice for a skilled attorney. But I am ticked off that he wants to have it both ways: rake in the big bucks and try to bullshit us about his reasons.
And that’s not the end of the bullshit, either.
As you may recall, it was a little over a month ago that Donovan announced, rather vaguely, that he wouldn’t seek re-election and, in fact, might not serve out the remainder of his term. And now he’s leaving almost immediately for a high-level gig at a Silicon Valley powerhouse.
The timeline strongly indicates that this job was already in early May, when Donovan announced he wouldn’t seek another term. I mean, it’s possible that somebody at Roblox saw the news and immediately thought, “We’ve gotta get this guy!” But usually, such arrangements take months to negotiate. This isn’t exactly auditioning for Junior Grade Fry Cook at a burger joint. And if he was already in touch with Roblox in early May, then that announcement was pure bullshit too.
In his latest announcement, Donovan also said that he would “continue to advocate for kids, teens, and their families while learning about and building safeguards into emerging trends and technologies.”
Yeah, about that.
Got a little piece from The Guardian here. It’s called “The Trouble With Roblox, the Video Game Empire Built on Child Labor.”
As with many other Silicon Valley giants, Roblox stated out with a positive, sunny vision. At its launch in 2006, says the story, Roblox “was built as a playful method of teaching children the rudiments of game-making.” It was an open platform for gaming and gaming design.
Most kids use Roblox for gaming only. It hosts an incredible array of games. And it’s incredibly popular; The Verge says more than half of all American children have a Roblox account. Close to 50 million kids log on to Roblox on any given day. According to The Guardian, “Roblox has now surpassed industry titans such as Activision Blizzard and Nintendo to become the most valuable video game company in the world.”
But when tech outfits get big and go public, there’s pressure to perpetually increase revenue. What Roblox has done in response is to effectively create digital sweatshops where kids do the designing and the company skims off the profit. In the early years it presented itself as a place for kids to learn. Eventually, though, Roblox adopted the slogan “Make Anything. Reach Millions. Earn Serious Cash.”
The most successful developers do earn tremendous incomes, but they only earn a fraction of the money their creations generate.
What’s more, these child developers are vulnerable to exploitation. They don’t have employment contracts, so the company can change the terms of employment at any time. And it has, repeatedly, in ways that capture more of the money for itself at the expense of its developers. The kids also face increasing productivity demands. “It began to have a negative effect on my mental health,” said one former Roblox creator, “the pressure caused me to break.” Some female developers have been sexually harassed by their Roblox overlords.
Amidst all of this, there is basically no internal support structure to assist creators with issues they encounter — technical, financial, or personal.
The problems are far from universal. Some creators have had positive experiences, and the platform does provide entertainment and skill development for millions upon millions of kids.
But if Donovan is going to Roblox to “continue to advance consumer protections,” well, he’s got his work cut out. And I’m not sure his bosses share that vision. Big Tech talks a good game on ethics and doing good, but when push comes to shove, the ceaseless drive for profit overrules all other considerations.
That’s T.J. Donovan’s new workplace.