Feature

Confessions of a GameStop Worker

We talked to over a dozen GameStop workers about the absolutely filthy habits of gamers, evidenced in the stained, cockroach-infested returns.

GameStop feature art
Lais Borges/Inverse; PS5

If you talk to a GameStop employee long enough, at some point they’ll likely reveal that they know exactly what cockroaches smell like. As one former employee tells Inverse, it’s like “a musky attic full of body odor, with a bit of burned meat.” It gets worse: “Sometimes the roaches would melt inside if a console overheated,” the former worker explains. Hence, the notes of roast. If you’re squeamish about bugs, bodily fluids, and bad smells, buckle up. We talked to over a dozen current and former employees and learned that this secret work of GameStop employees is full of all of the above — and so much more.

GameStop is a video game retail chain most recently gaining acclaim for a movie-worthy run on the stock market (played by Paul Dano, natch) but more often known by gamers as a store that accepts used merchandise as trade-ins for in-store credit or cash. The company encourages stores to take products that are in good condition and has an official guide that outlines what is and isn’t acceptable to take as a trade-in. But individual stores have different attitudes and approaches to what they’ll accept. A trade-in that’s in poor condition might still be accepted if the defect can be repaired by experts at GameStop’s refurbishment center in Texas. One GameStop employee shared a picture with Inverse of a PlayStation controller that was falling apart, yet still accepted as a trade-in from a customer that admitted they had thrown it. Though it seemed unusable in that state, presumably parts within the busted controller could still be salvaged.

The returns may be gross but GameStop, as gamers know, the company cleans and guarantees a functioning reburbished console.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Stores should, in theory, be careful about determining what material qualifies for the refurbishing process. Sending something off costs money – and a store’s profitability can impact management’s bonus. It doesn’t always work that way, in part because GameStop employees have to make a subjective judgment call, often while dealing with irate customers who expect the store to take whatever they brought in. Most of the time, customers bring in games and hardware that are fine, at most needing a small clean-up that could be performed by in-store employees. But with all too much frequency, many GameStop employees have to deal with trade-ins that sound like they came out of a horror movie.

In talking with the employees, Inverse learned of stories involving every bodily fluid possible – some of which didn’t belong to humans. Due to the nature of these stories, many workers only spoke to Inverse under the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation or the possibility of that speaking frankly about their experiences could impact future job prospects. “There were condoms in game cases, discs coated in mystery stains, controller cracks full of what we called ‘human peanut butter,’” says the employee who worked his way up to corporate. The latter refers to the stuff you might see within the grooves of a video game controller, where things like “sweat and dead skin cells” get trapped. While unpleasant, controller gunk is both manageable and familiar to employees.

“No one expects their copy of Kane & Lynch is going to have a dime bag in it.”

The phenomenon of gross video game hardware is hardly a new one. GameStop horror stories have been serialized in Kotaku columns, and the GameStop subreddit surfaces new anecdotes on a weekly basis. One commenter on a recent thread offered a nice summation: “Every single time you clock in, you think to yourself what crazy bullshit is about to happen today.” But the persistence of the issue only becomes more notable over time, as video games as a whole shift toward a digital-only future that has increasingly threatened GameStop’s entire business model. And the workers who deal with these unfortunate situations are doing so amid increasing quotas that are so intense that some workers have shut down stores by quitting en-masse. All the while, those who stay are often facing slashed hours while getting paid less than what someone at McDonalds might make, even after raises.

Most GameStop workers who spoke to Inverse had a cockroach story to tell, which may explain why many of them are familiar with what the pesky bugs smell like.

“The worst was getting trade-in consoles with bugs living inside,” says one former worker. “Actually, that happened with some games, too — we'd open up the case and find a bunch of roaches or dead bugs.” Some employees mentioned finding things like spiders and other insects hiding within trade-ins, or worse, both: cockroaches trapped in spider-webs. Infestations are so pervasive that at least one worker told Inverse that they developed a strategy for finding and dealing with them. One quick way of identifying a roach problem was to place a console vent side down on a piece of paper and tap it. “If black flecks came out, we would decline the entire trade, including any games or controllers they would have,” he says.

A recent run on GameStop in the market lost short sellers nearly $1 billion.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

At first, seeing a roach fluttering out of a PS5 might make someone jump — but such an outsized reaction could lead to an uncomfortable exchange with a customer. Better to keep your cool, the worker says. “I mean, it’s embarrassing for them. I don’t want to call them out in front of other customers. That wouldn’t stop them from yelling or complaining — I wanted to treat my customers with respect; I didn’t want to make it seem like I was calling them dirty or poor or anything.”

Workers don’t always catch everything. Sometimes a console would get accepted and cleaned, only for a worker to later see cockroaches coming out of it. That’s when it would become someone else’s problem entirely.

“We had to mark it as defective,” one worker says, then “seal the box and send it off to the warehouse to deal with it.”

Working at GameStop isn’t necessarily a non-stop parade of cockroaches, of course. Sometimes, employees couldn’t even tell what they were dealing with, they just knew that the game or hardware was mysteriously sticky. At least two employees mentioned encountering the distinctive smell of cat pee, which customers might hand over without explanation or word of caution. Once, a worker recalls, they had to deal with a yellow Xbox. It wasn’t a funky color released by Microsoft, but rather a specific tint gained by a white Xbox. “The thing reeked of urine and God-only-knows what else,” the worker says, noting that he went on to refuse the trade-in.

The horror stories GameStop workers have to share don’t always involve a substance, a living creature, or a dead one.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The horror stories GameStop workers have to share don’t always involve a substance, a living creature, or a dead one. The ridiculous things customers bring into GameStop are so varied, a handful of employees claim that they found illicit substances inside trade-ins.

“My assumption [is that it] was an easy place for kids and young adults to hide their stashes,” one worker mused. “No one expects their copy of Kane & Lynch is going to have a dime bag in it or in a port where a hard drive would fit.”

Another common type of trade-in would often involve pornography. One employee shared a picture with Inverse of an Xbox controller that got traded in despite being plastered with a decal of a woman’s butt. More often than not, it was someone forgetting an explicit disc inside their console or game case. One employee told Inverse that they often saw “consoles with cheap Amazon skins of scantily clad generic anime chicks,” including a Nintendo Switch plastered with ahegao. While it was accepted as a trade-in, the GameStop employee had to remove the skin before they could sell the Switch.

Perhaps this is why in 2024, one Redditor reached their breaking point and posted a thread in all caps where they begged people to stop trading in “crusty” controllers. “I’m TIRED OF IT,” the thread reads before going on to chastise customers. “How are you not embarrassed by the foul amount of gamer crud seeped into every crevice of your controllers?” Most of the comments are other workers commiserating in this highly specific type of retail misery.

One former employee speculates that, based on their experience, it seems most people don’t even consider prepping their trade-ins. “They have no shame and generally don’t clean anything before bringing it on.” Some, undoubtedly, treat their hardware and video games as disposable because they know that if they put up enough of a fuss, their trade-ins will be accepted regardless of condition. Multiple employees told me it was common for people to shop around and try many GameStops until they could find one that would do what they wanted.

As one worker told Inverse, it’s just how people are. “Human nature in general is just to run things into the ground,” he says.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

That, and, as one worker told Inverse, it’s just how people are. “Human nature in general is just to run things into the ground,” he says, adding that most people don’t seem to take preventative measures for any product they own, period. There’s little incentive to do so, after all, when most things we own are built to be disposable. The standard console cycle sees a new version of the same product get released every few years before it’s replaced outright by the next version — nevermind all the yearly releases met by some of the biggest gaming franchises in the world.

“I do my best to not judge people since we all come from different walks of life and different things going on,” says one employee. “I would consider myself a sympathetic person. But good lord...some of the things I have seen done to consoles and controllers are abhorrent.”

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