If you’re someone who only plays games casually or even not at all, you might be confused why “Activision Blizzard” has been in the news over the past week.
Unfortunately, it’s not over something as simple as the announcement of a new Call of Duty or World of Warcraft game — it’s much darker.
What it’s all about
On July 20th, 2021, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against the Santa Monica, California-based games publisher alleging a “frat boy” work culture in which female employees regularly faced sexual harassment, unequal pay, retaliation and more.
The lawsuit, which is based on a two-year investigation, can be read in its entirety here, but it should be noted that many of the accusations found within are disturbing.
In particular, male developers and executives were said to have frequently hit on, attempted to kiss, groped and/or made other unwanted advances on their female colleagues. Per the lawsuit, longtime World of Warcraft developer Alex Afrasiabi was actually “so known to engage in harassment of females that his suite was nicknamed the ‘Crosby Suite’ [sic] after alleged rapist Bill Crosby [sic]” and even contained a picture of the disgraced actor. Kotaku has an in-depth follow-up report on Afrasiabi’s actions.
— Kotaku (@Kotaku) July 28, 2021
The lawsuit states that male developers would regularly come into work hungover and play video games while delegating their responsibilities to their female coworkers, all while demeaning them with sexual comments and jokes about rape. One female employee even reportedly committed suicide following a work trip in which an unnamed male supervisor had brought lubricant and butt plugs with them.
Meanwhile, women at Activision Blizzard report a “lack of trust” in human resources and executives like Blizzard president J. Allen Brack, who they say would dismiss their stories while failing to keep them confidential. The lawsuit also alleges that women at Activision Blizzard were routinely paid and promoted less than their male counterparts.
While many current, former and non-Activision Blizzard employees came forward to share their own experiences of sexism and abuse, the publisher initially downplayed the reports.
In a lengthy July 21st statement provided to Bloomberg investigative reporter Jason Schreier, an Activision spokesperson called the lawsuit’s allegations “distorted, and in many cases false” while referring to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing as “unaccountable State bureaucrats.” In a follow-up tweet, Schreier noted that he’s heard “several stories about sexism and sexual misconduct at Blizzard over the past few years” and promised to report more on the matter.
Activision chief compliance officer Frances Townsend also claimed that the lawsuit painted “a distorted and untrue picture of [Activision Blizzard], including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories, some from more than a decade ago.” All the while, Activision’s social media accounts did not address the allegations and largely went quiet altogether.
Activision Blizzard say allegations are "distorted and false" then say they've "updated their code of conduct" and made progress.
So what is it then?
You can't say you didn't have a toxic culture and in the same statement say you worked hard to correct your toxic culture. https://t.co/ilA2Q2xaaW
— Merry Kish (@MerryKish) July 22, 2021
Understandably, many female developers blasted the company for denying their claims. Thousands of current and former employees even signing a letter to express their discontent, calling the response “abhorrent and insulting.”
It was only on July 27th, after the publication of this letter, that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, gaming’s most overpaid CEO, finally issued his own statement. In a letter to employees, he apologized for the company’s “tone-deaf” initial response while outlining a number of steps that it would take to address the allegations, including allocating additional resources for “employee support,” creating third-party-led “safe spaces” for “listening sessions” to air grievances and diversifying hiring practices.
This statement came on the eve of a planned July 28th walkout from Activision Blizzard employees to protest the company’s alleged toxic workplace culture.
Women in gaming respond
In their own letter, organizers of the strike said that while they were “pleased to see” their collective voices had “convinced leadership to change the tone of their communications,” Kotick’s response still “fails to address critical elements at the heart of employee concerns.”
The #ActiBlizzWalkout 💙 is happening today because a woman was literally sexually harassed to death. Because discrimination and mistreatment against the marginalized is pervasive and the company continues to deny it. Workers have no other choice. And they have four demands. pic.twitter.com/jrAxwHN31K
— The Strix (@the_strix) July 28, 2021
Per the letter, Activision “did not address” the following issues:
- The end of forced arbitration for all employees
- Worker participation in the oversight of hiring and promotion policies
- The need for greater pay transparency to ensure equality
- Employee selection of a third party to audit HR and other company processes
The letter concluded with the following statement:
Today’s walkout will demonstrate that this is not a one-time event that our leaders can ignore. We will not return to silence; we will not be placated by the same processes that led us to this point. This is the beginning of an enduring movement in favor of better labor conditions for all employees, especially women, in particular women of color and transgender women, nonbinary people, and other marginalized groups.
We expect a prompt response and a commitment to action from leadership on the points enumerated above, and look forward to maintaining a constructive dialogue on how to build a better Activision Blizzard for all employees.
Today, we stand up for change. Tomorrow and beyond, we will be the change.
Many developers and other members of the gaming community have also been tweeting their support of the protest using the hashtag “#ActiBlizzWalkout.”
Additionally, around 500 current and former Ubisoft employees have issued their own letter (via Axios) to express their support for the Activision Blizzard walkout. At the same time, these employees have criticized Ubisoft for its own response to allegations of misconduct towards female workers. Last year, male developers at several Ubisoft studios, including those in Montreal and Toronto, were accused of abusing women and having unsupportive and dysfunctional HR departments.
While Ubisoft has said it’s made “considerable progress” in addressing these issues (including introducing new policies, training programs and support groups), a recent Bloomberg report noted that little has actually changed at the company, with many of these alleged abusers remaining at the company.
What you can do
It remains to be seen what Activision Blizzard will do following the walkout. For now, the company has only said that it will offer paid time off to the employees participating in the walkout.
Of course, as a consumer, you might be thinking that there’s nothing you can do. However, organizers have been sharing ways that everyone can show their support.
Today I’m standing in virtual solidarity with the #ActiBlizzWalkout. Women in Gaming deserve better, and the toxic, abusive culture at Activision/Blizzard has been an open secret for years.
Time’s up, frat boys. pic.twitter.com/XUaFyaH7Xz
— Chaka Explains It All (@princessology) July 28, 2021
For one, some have encouraged people to simply not purchase or even play an Activision Blizzard game — today at the very least, if not for longer periods until change is enacted. As Virtual EconCast host Mike Futter notes, companies are “deeply invested in engagement.” If Activision Blizzard suddenly sees a precipitous drop in players of Call of Duty, Warcraft, Starcraft and the like, that will send the message that gamers don’t condone the company’s work culture.
Further, organizers have been sharing several relevant organizations that you can support through donations or even just spreading the word. These are all focused on helping women in gaming and other technological fields, including Black Girls Code, Futures Without Violence, Girls Who Code and Women in Games International.
Update 1: 03/08/2021 at 11:59am ET — Activision Blizzard has confirmed that J. Allen Brack is stepping down from the role of Blizzard Entertainment president. Former Xbox executive Mike Ybarra and former Vicarious Visions head Jen Oneal will co-lead Blizzard moving forward.
Brack had been president since 2018 and previously oversaw the World of Warcraft franchise. Brack was one of only two people explicitly named in California’s lawsuit for allegedly enabling Activision Blizzard’s sexist work culture. A recently surfaced video from BlizzCon 2010 also shows several Blizzard employees, including Brack, mockingly dismiss a woman’s honest question about the over-sexualization of Warcraft characters.
It remains to be seen what change, if any, will come out of Brack’s departure. For now, several other controversial executives are still at the company, including Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick and Fran Townsend, vice president for corporate affairs, corporate secretary, and chief compliance officer.
The latter came under fire over the weekend for sharing a story from The Atlantic on “the problem with whistleblowing,” which many perceived as a not-so-subtle criticism from Townsend on the ongoing lawsuit. Those who replied to Townsend’s tweet — including actual Activision Blizzard employees — were subsequently blocked by the executive. Townsend, a former George W. Bush-era counterterrorism appointee, has also been blasted for defending that administration’s use of torture techniques like waterboarding.
Thousands have since called for Townsend to resign, but Activision says she remains at the company for now, per Axios reporter Stephen Totillo.
Update 4: 03/08/2021 at 4:26pm ET: Blizzard HR head Jesse Meschuk is no longer with the company, Bloomberg reports. This news comes shortly after Axios published a report detailing how Activision Blizzard employees say HR failed them at the company.
Update 3: 03/08/2021 at 4:11pm ET: A coalition of Activision Blizzard employees has sent a letter to company CEO Bobby Kotick to criticize the company’s response to their concerns.
Calling itself the ABK Workers Alliance, the group consists of employees across Activision Blizzard’s various divisions, including Activision, Blizzard, Infinity Ward, King, Raven Software and Quebec City-based Beenox.
In the letter, ABK said Kotick has not “meaningfully address[ed]” workers’ demands. So far, Kotick has only hired the law firm WilmerHale to serve as a third-party auditor to review the company. However, ABK says it “rejects” WilmerHale for a variety of reasons, including its pre-existing relationship with Activision Blizzard and “history of discouraging workers’ rights and collective action.”
Instead, ABK is calling for an audit to be performed by a neutral third party, as well as an end to forced arbitration, an adoption of inclusive hiring and recruiting practices and increased pay transparency. In the meantime, the group says it’s “already taking steps to improve our workplace through a number of employee-driven initiatives.”
These include worker-to-worker mentorship to provide employees with a “safe external channel outside company communication networks,” open listening sessions to provide support and monthly community meetings to “discuss our concerns, desires and progress toward achieving our goals.”
Update 2: 03/08/2021 at 1:04pm ET: An Activision Blizzard shareholder has filed his own lawsuit against the games publisher. The lawsuit alleges that Activision Blizzard leadership’s negligence has led to the company’s share price to lose significant value. Specifically, Activision Blizzard is accused of having made “false and/or misleading statements and/or failed to disclose that:
“Activision Blizzard discriminated against women and minority employees; (2) Activision Blizzard fostered a pervasive “frat boy” workplace culture that continues to thrive; (3) numerous complaints about unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation were made to human resources personnel and executives which went unaddressed; (4) the pervasive culture of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation would result in serious impairments to Activision Blizzard’s operations; (5) as a result as a result of the foregoing, the Company was at greater risk of regulatory and legal scrutiny and enforcement, including that which would have a material adverse effect; (6) Activision Blizzard failed to inform shareholders that the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) had been investigating Activision Blizzard for harassment and discrimination; and (7) as a result, Defendants’ statements about Activision Blizzard’s business, operations, and prospects, were materially false and misleading and/or lacked a reasonable basis at all relevant times. When the true details entered the market, the lawsuit claims that investors suffered damages.”
The plaintiff in the shareholder lawsuit is Gary Cheng, who purchased Activision Blizzard stock in the past five years. He’s being represented by The Rosen Law Firm of Los Angeles.
Activision Blizzard has not yet commented on the lawsuit.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons