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Boundless creativity or labor? Critics say Roblox hoards profits and shortchanges kids' safety

The gaming platform Roblox is displayed on a table. (Leon Keith/AP)
The gaming platform Roblox is displayed on a table. (Leon Keith/AP)

More than 200 million people play on Roblox every month, making it the most popular video game platform in the U.S. and Europe.

Roblox allows its users, often children, to create their own avatars and jump into games designed by other players. But critics say the company doesn’t adequately protect kids from harassment and abuse, and that it doesn’t share enough of its income with the young developers who made the platform so successful.

Roblox is a cross between a videogame and a social media platform. Anyone can sign up in a matter of seconds — and two-thirds of American children ages 9 to 12 have accounts, says Quintin Smith, a journalist at the outlet People Make Games who investigated Roblox in a series of YouTube videos.

The company’s vision is to allow kids to play games made by other kids using the platform’s free tools, setting Roblox apart from other similar sites, he says.

“It’s arguably the world’s most successful example of the metaverse,” he says. “And it’s also kind of an interesting case study in why the metaverse might not quite be the sort of glittering dreamland that some tech entrepreneurs make it out to be.”

Kids couldn’t earn money when Roblox launched nearly 20 years ago. But now, tens of thousands of young developers make a profit creating games on the platform, he says.

“Some of the developers I spoke to dropped out of school aged 16 to pursue a career — rightly or wrongly — making games for Roblox,” he says.

Smith interviewed one 11-year-old developer who soured on Roblox after his first game flopped.

“Even though Roblox says to encourage you to actually make games, the likelihood of you making a successful game is basically zero,” the developer said.

A decade ago, individual developers were making successful games that boosted the platform’s popularity, Smith says, but now teams of multiple people make games of a higher standard.

Users can sell games they made or items like clothing on Roblox, but in exchange, they receive the platform’s virtual currency, Robux.

“As you make sales of your game, hopefully, you get more and more and more Robux,” he says. “But it’s only if you hit the minimum withdrawal amount of possessing 100,000 Robux that you’re allowed to withdraw them into your real-life bank account, at which point they get substantially devalued.”

Watch on YouTube.

In the end, Roblox pays young developers a fraction of the industry standard. Video game publishers take between 11% to 30% of a game’s total sales and the developers get the rest, Smith says. But Roblox says it gives 25% of sales to developers and takes the remaining 75%.

However, Smith’s investigation of the company’s financial records found that developers take only 17 cents off Roblox for every $1 that goes into the platform.

If a user makes 100,000 Robux, that translates $350 — and that’s where things get confusing, he says. Roblox buys Robux from users at a lower rate than it sells them: Buying 100,000 Robux costs about $1,000.

This system disincentivizes young entrepreneurs from taking their earnings off the platform, Smith says.

“If you have a huge payday because you made a successful game, you’re a sort of virtual millionaire on Roblox,” he says. “But the moment you choose to take that Robux off the platform, if you choose to withdraw it, only at that point are your assets devalued.”

Beyond money problems, critics say the platform gives space for abuse without any oversight from the company itself. Smith covered one tragic story about a 12-year-old girl who started working for a Roblox fan game creator in his 20s. He’s accused of sending the underage girl sexual messages.

“He was the one who started taking the inappropriate jokes in the DMs first,” the 12-year-old girl said. “He kept encouraging it and saying it was OK to make these jokes. It’s not illegal. It’s not breaking any laws, even though it was literally sexting.”

The controversy sparked a #MeToo moment for Roblox. The girl and her friends spent a year trying to draw Roblox’s attention to evidence that this user was an abuser to no avail, Smith says. The group even tried delivering handwritten notes to Roblox headquarters but couldn’t get a response, he says.

The user was making “Sonic the Hedgehog” games. After Smith’s reporting came out, Sega, the owner of Sonic, asked Roblox to take the games down “because they didn’t like this abuser making Sonic fan games” and Roblox took action, he says.

“But that, to me, shows that Roblox was able to act very, very quickly when a corporation got involved on an issue of copyright,” Smith says, “but was not apparently interested in a year’s worth of desperate messages from young people asking them to take action.”

More from the interview

On kids buying and selling coveted items on Roblox

“I couldn’t believe this when I found out. So there are items that Roblox sells on its marketplace that it only sells a limited number of or sells for a limited time and after, you know, those conditions are over, the only way that Roblox users can get these limited items is by buying them from one another, which means that the price becomes whatever Roblox users are willing to buy and sell them for. And so some of these items, these limited items go for tens of thousands of U.S. dollars, which is an absurd thing for Roblox to be marketing to young people. But it’s also a dangerous precedent because Roblox is not an entirely secure platform. So many of the people we talked to spoke of scammers or crime or exploits that could occur on the platform. And we spoke to one young kid who acquired a few limiteds worth several hundred dollars and immediately had them stolen from himself. We found that it’s quite clearly dangerous for kids to become in possession of these items, even if they happen upon them by chance, because that just makes them the target of criminals.”

On Roblox’s comment on these issues

“Roblox so far has become an outrageously highly valued company. As of last year, it is now a more valuable company than Nintendo, and it’s gotten there partially by not acknowledging these problems at all. We had a phone call with Roblox’s communications, and he had no interest in answering our questions at all. And I think that makes sense because this company has become enormously valuable without acknowledging any of these problems. And it feels like journalists fighting an uphill battle to get this enormous company to acknowledge that it is encountering some really serious difficulties as it scales up.”

On if any regulators are looking into Roblox’s business practices

“I’m not personally connected to any sort of regulatory bodies, but I will say that we’ve been absolutely blown away by the response to our reporting. We’ve had tons and tons of Roblox users trying to contact us saying that, you know, the problems that we’ve encountered are absolutely real, but also that we just touched the tip of the iceberg and we have had our reporting picked up by websites like The Guardian and now massively NPR. So it really does feel like we’ve revealed a problem that a lot of people are now very energetic about trying to solve.”

A statement from Roblox:


James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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