The trouble with Roblox, the video game empire built on child labour – The Guardian
Anna* was 10 when she built her first video game on Roblox, a digital platform where young people can make, share and play games together. She used Roblox much like a child from a previous generation might have used cardboard boxes, marker pens and stuffed toys to build a castle or a spaceship and fill it with characters and story. There was one alluring difference: Roblox hosted Anna’s tiny world online, enabling children she had never met and who maybe lived thousands of miles away from her home in Utah to visit and play. Using Roblox’s in-built tools – child-friendly versions of professional software – Anna began to learn the rudiments of music composition, computer programming and 3D modelling. Game-making became an obsession. When she wasn’t at school Anna was rarely off her computer.
As she became more proficient, Anna’s work caught the attention of some experienced users on Roblox, game-makers in their 20s who messaged her with a proposition to collaborate on a more ambitious project. Flattered by their interest, Anna became the fifth member of the nascent team, contributing art, design and programming to the game. She did not sign up to make money, but during a Skype call the game-makers offered the teenager 10% of any profits the game made in the future. It turned out to be a generous offer. Within a few months, the game had become one of the most played on Roblox. For Anna, success had an unfathomable, life-changing impact. At 16 her monthly income somehow exceeded her parents’ combined salaries. She calculated that she was on course to earn $300,000 in a year, a salary equivalent to that of a highly experienced Google programmer. Anna cancelled her plans to go to college.
After it launched in 2006 Roblox was, for a while, a relatively obscure piece of educational software. Co-designed by two engineers, David Baszucki and the late Erik Cassel, who had become millionaires in the 1990s by designing and selling physics-simulation software, Roblox was built as a playful method of teaching children the rudiments of game-making. The roughly hewn, blocky aesthetics and ugly text that typified most user-made games on the platform were offputting to adults. But children loved the fact Roblox offered access to an endless stream of new and free experiences – a kind of YouTube for video games. Best of all, one’s customised avatar could be used in any game on the platform – as if Super Mario could also moonlight as the hero in FIFA Football, Call of Duty or Pac-Man, a feature that made thousands of disparate games feel like part of the same universe.
Initially, there was little incentive or encouragement for children to make money from their games – a feature fraught with potential legal complexities. Then something changed. Roblox began to advertise itself as a way for young game-makers to make money. On its website, it adopted the slogan: “Make Anything. Reach Millions. Earn Serious Cash.” The company encouraged users to create and sell costumes and accessories for Roblox avatars. These items, the digital equivalent of doll’s clothes, could be bought using Robux, the platform’s digital currency, which the company currently sells at a rate of about 80 to the pound (the exchange rate varies depending on the amount bought in a transaction). Roblox took a 30% cut from the sale of each pair of virtual sunglasses or sports car; …….