A plaque in front of the orc statue at the Irvine campus for Blizzard Entertainment Inc. reads “every voice matters,” but according to allegations that message does not ring true for the female and PoC employees at the world famous video game studio as well as its parent company Activision Blizzard Inc.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard Inc. alleging that the company fostered a culture where female employees are subjected to constant sexual harassment, unequal pay, and retaliation after a state agency investigated the company for two years.
Activision Blizzard is home to household names in the gaming community and beyond as Call of Duty, Candy Crush, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Hearthstone, Guitar Hero and Overwatch. Now after being listed on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for four consecutive years, the company is facing pressure both internally and externally to make drastic changes to the corporate culture that has oppressed female and marginalized employees for years.
Here’s everything you need to know:
1. Female Employees Face a “Frat Boy” Culture at Activision Blizzard, A Female Employee Allegedly Committed Suicide After Facing Intense Harassment
20 percent of Activision employees are female, according to the court documents. The alleged harassment and misconduct they face range from sexist language to the denial of job promotions and intense sexual harassment.
The agency investigating the company alleged that the male employees in the company openly engage in sexual banter and joke about sexual assault. Male employees in the World of Warcraft team in particular reportedly hit on female employees often.
The suit claims that one female employee committed suicide while on a company trip with a male supervisor. The suicide occurred after coworkers passed around nude photos of her at a company holiday party.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
The suit writes that female employees are subjected to “cube crawls” in which male employees “drink copious amounts of alcohol as they crawl their way through various cubicles in the office and often engage in inappropriate behavior toward female employees.”
The agency claims that female employees are denied promotions because of the possibility of them becoming pregnant. This comes after news coverage in 2019 about how Activision Blizzard pays employees extra money to send them data about their health through various apps and accessories, including Ovia’s suite of pregnancy tracking applications.
Meanwhile, male employees would play video games during the day and delegate their responsibilities to female employees.
Female employees are also criticized for leaving the office to pick up their children from daycare and are kicked out of lactation rooms so male employees can use them for meetings, according to the complaint.
Following news of the lawsuit, many former female employees of Activision Blizzard described their experiences online and corroborated accusations such as the “cube crawl.” Alex Ackerman, the senior social media manager at Respawn Entertainment (Titanfall, Apex Legends), said she left Blizzard after her boss gaslit her so badly that her “hair started falling out.” When she called HR, they suggested she was “underperforming.”
The suit alleges that predators are protected from punishment because of their seniority or position within the company. For example, former World of Warcraft Senior Creative Director Alex Afrasiabi repeatedly hit on and groped female employees during company events like BlizzCon. He did this in plain view of male employees who had to pull him off the female employees. He also made derogatory comments toward female employees.
His suite at the hotel was nicknamed the “Crosby Suite” after previously convicted rapist Bill Cosby. According to a report from Kotaku, photos from Afrasiabi’s Facebook supplied by former developers show Afrasiabi posing with other men with a portrait of Cosby in the booze-filled room.
Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack allegedly had multiple conversations with Afrasiabi about his behavior but only gave him verbal counseling. Afrasiabi would continue his behavior after these meetings.
An attendee of BlizzCon 2010 asked a panel including J. Allen Brack and Afrasiabi if they could tone down the sexualization of female characters in World of Warcraft. The whole panel along with many in the audience immediately laughed away the question. You can see a recording of the incident below:
One of the developers in the panel, Greg Street, recently apologized to the player asking the question and everyone else disappointed with the response.
While women and marginalized groups appear to be the primary targets of the alleged predators, male employees have also spoken up about the sexual harassment they received including unwanted shoulder rubs, propositions for sex, conversations about sex acts out loud and even genital groping according to Kotaku.
“In [Activision Blizzard’s] response, they said ‘this does not represent who Blizzard is,” former Personnel Manager Kevin Meier said in a TikTok video. “Yes it does, and it has for a long time. Since my first day back in 2012, I was sexually harassed, and women have it way worse.”
Former employees have accused Meier of engaging in toxic behavior himself, but the nature of the allegations are unclear according to Kotaku.
2. Blizzard Is Also Accused of Racial Discrimination
The lawsuit also alleges that it was more difficult for black women to move up in Activision Blizzard. One black woman alleged that she had to watch male colleagues receive permanent employment for two years before she got permanent employment.
Managers at the company reportedly micromanaged black women. It’s more difficult for black women to request time off. In fact, one black female employee had to write a one page essay about how she would spend her time off.
In 2019, former Blizzard employee Julian Murillo-Cuellar detailed his experience with the bullying, racism and discrimination he faced at the studio which culminated in nervous breakdowns, major depression and suicidal thoughts before he resigned in early 2018. One female employee joked that he was “naturally inclined to be sexist” due to his Mexican heritage. He would often be left out of the loop when it came to important matters within the company and was ignored as others praised the team during meetings. He said that his wife and other current and former developers faced similar treatment.
After attempting multiple times to report the discrimination he faced through supervisors and HR, Murillo-Cuellar then received negative performance reviews from the company that suggested he was “difficult to work with” and “not a team player” despite being a highly reviewed employee through the five years he worked there.
Murillo-Cuellar was driven to share his experience after Blizzard announced that the Overwatch character Soldier 76 is gay.
“The idea of inclusion, of representation, and ‘every voice matters’ and ‘think globally’ never meant that for me and other people of color I have spoken to,” Murillo-Cuellar said, referring to the values posted in plaques outside the Orc statue in front of Blizzard’s office. “Because up until recently — in the last 2 years — has the community had some representation and initiatives. But are we really represented?”
In 2019, Rep. Lou Correa called out the existence of fringe Neo-nazi guilds in World of Warcraft and urged Blizzard to do something about it. He shared a screenshot of a player wearing a white robe evocative of the Ku Klux Klan flanked by to characters which appear to represent enslaved people.
In the wake of the wave of civil unrest after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, Brack announced that Blizzard has banned over 30,000 player accounts across their games for toxicity and hate speech and that over the past two years they’ve seen a 43% reduction in poor behavior reports and a 59% reduction in the re-offense rate.
3. Activision Blizzard Denied the Allegations, Then Promised to Do Better
In a statement to Bloomberg Law, a spokesperson for Activision Blizzard said that the lawsuit includes “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past” and that “the picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today.”
“We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone,” the spokesperson said. “There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind. We take every allegation seriously and investigate all claims. In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue. We have been extremely cooperative with the DFEH throughout their investigation, including providing them with extensive data and ample documentation, but they refused to inform us what issues they perceived.”
In an email sent to staff, Brack said that he found the allegations “extremely troubling” and that he wanted to meet with employees to discuss how to move forward.
“I distain ‘bro culture,’ and have spent my career fighting against it,” Brack said.
Activision Blizzard Chief Compliance Officer Fran Townsend wrote an email to employees reiterating that the lawsuit “presented a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including incorrect, old, and out of context stories – some from more than a decade ago.” She also said that she is “proud to be a part of a company that takes a hard-line approach to inappropriate or hostile work environments and sexual harassment issues.” According to Bloomberg Reporter Jason Schreier, Townsend was the Homeland Security advisor to George W. Bush from 2004 to 2007.
Following thousands of employees signing an open letter calling for Activision Blizzard to take the allegations seriously, CEO Robert “Bobby” Kotick sent a letter to all employees tanking those who have come forward with accusations.
“Every voice matters – and we will do a better job of listening now, and in the future,” Kotick said.
“Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf,” Kotick continued, referring to how the company immediately denied the accusations when the news broke.
Kotick hired a third party law firm to review their policies and procedures. In addition, he promised to investigate every claim, create safe listening sessions, make sure hiring managers are adhering to diversity policies, remove inappropriate content from games, and evaluate managers across the company and promising to fire them immediately if inappropriate behavior is found.
The removal of inappropriate content from games is speculated to take the form of removing in-game references to Afrasiabi in World of Warcraft, according to Kotaku.
Activision Blizzard is known for laying off employees in the hundreds at the end of fiscal years to boost numbers and impress shareholders even if they make record sales.
The average employee makes one third of one percent of what Kotick makes ($40 million in 2019), according to a shareholder group. Many employees reported making so little at the company that they had to choose between food and rent.
In 2009, Kotick said that his goal was to “take all the fun out of making video games.”
4. Employees and Fans Are Fighting Back
Over 2,600 current and former Activision Blizzard employees signed an open letter condemning the company for labeling the DFEH lawsuit as distorted and false and calling for them to recognize the seriousness of the allegations and display compassion for the victims of harassment and assault, according to Polygon. They also called for Townsend to step down as Executive Sponsor of the ABK Employee Women’s Network.
“We believe these statements have damaged our ongoing quest for equality inside and outside of our industry,” the letter reads. “Categorizing the claims that have been made as ‘distorted, and in many cases false’ creates a company atmosphere that disbelieves victims. It also casts doubt on our organizations’ ability to hold abusers accountable for their actions and foster a safe environment for victims to come forward in the future. These statements make it clear that our leadership is not putting our values first… Our company executives have claimed that actions will be taken to protect us, but in the face of legal action — and the troubling official responses that followed — we no longer trust that our leaders will place employee safety above their own interests.”
On Wednesday, July 28, 2021, employees at Activision Blizzard held a walkout. They pledged not to work from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. PDT, meeting outside the main gate at the Blizzard campus or using the #ActiBlizzWalkout hashtag to participate virtually according to Polygon.
Organizers made the following demands to improve the conditions of employees, especially female, people of color, transgender and nonbinary employees (via Polygon):
1. An end to mandatory arbitration clauses in all employee contracts, current and future. Arbitration clauses protect abusers and limit the ability of victims to seek restitution.
2. The adoption of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and promotion policies designed to improve representation among employees at all levels, agreed upon by employees in a company-wide Diversity, Equity & Inclusion organization. Current practices have led to women, in particular women of color and transgender women, nonbinary people, and other marginalized groups that are vulnerable to gender discrimination not being hired fairly for new roles when compared to men.
3. Publication of data on relative compensation (including equity grants and profit sharing), promotion rates, and salary ranges for employees of all genders and ethnicities at the company. Current practices have led to aforementioned groups not being paid or promoted fairly.
4. Empower a company-wide Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion task force to hire a third party to audit ABK’s reporting structure, HR department, and executive staff. It is imperative to identify how current systems have failed to prevent employee harassment, and to propose new solutions to address these issues.
People encouraged fans to not log into and play any of Activision Blizzard’s games or services that day and donate to a number of charities that support equality in the gaming and tech industry.
The organizers of the walkout responded to Kotick’s open letter saying that while they are happy that their efforts changed the tone of Activision Blizzard’s communications, they did not address a number of concerns. You can see thier full response below (via Kotaku):
On the evening before our employee walkout, Activision Blizzard leadership released a statement apologizing for their harmful responses to last week’s DFEH lawsuit. While we are pleased to see that our collective voices—including an open letter with thousands of signatures from current employees—have convinced leadership to change the tone of their communications, this response fails to address critical elements at the heart of employee concerns.
Activision Blizzard’s response did not address the following:
The end of forced arbitration for all employees.
Worker participation in 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.
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.
A number of World of Warcraft players held an in-game sit-in on July 22, 2021 to protest the treatment of employees and to demand changes to the company culture and IPs.
Many streamers have called out the culture at Activision Blizzard, as Buzzfeed reported. Popular World of Warcraft streamer Asmongold, who has 2.3 million subscribers on Twitch, condemned Activision Blizzard’s statement about the lawsuit in a stream and urged viewers not to take the side of the company.
“Just try to keep that in mind. These people are not on your side,” Asmongold said. “These people going down, these people going to jail, these people being fired, these people being excommunicated from the gaming, and hopefully the professional space at large, this is not a loss for you.”
A number of games media publications have pledged to cease coverage of Activision Blizzard games, including Prima Games, The Gamer and GameXplain.
5. The Culture of Sexism and Abuse Is Rife Throughout the Games Industry
This behavior is not uncommon in the games industry, a fact that has come to light over the past two years. Chances are your favorite game was made with a human cost.
Last year, Ubisoft was accused of mishandling dozens of employee complaints ranging from casual sexism to sexual assault. It’s an eerily similar situation to the Activision Blizzard scandal, in that the abuse at Ubisoft was allegedly the result of an HR department more concerned with covering up bad behavior and making the company look good to the public than actually helping people and that abusers were protected thanks to their deep ties with the company’s executives.
Recently, nearly 500 current and former employees of Ubisoft offices around the world signed a letter condemning the company’s handling of sexual misconduct and standing in solidarity with Activision Blizzard employees, according to Axios.
“It should no longer be a surprise to anyone: employees, executives, journalists, or fans that these heinous acts are going on,” the letter reads. “It is time to stop being shocked. We must demand real steps be taken to prevent them. Those responsible must be held accountable for their actions.”
Ubisoft recently announced that the leaders for the new Assassin’s Creed project, Assassin’s Creed Infinity, include Marc-Alexis Côté and Jonathan Dumont. Those two men were named as responsible for abuse in a report by Gamasutra.
“We have stood by and watched as you fired only the most public offenders,” the letter reads. “You let the rest either resign or worse, promoted them, moved them from studio to studio, team to team, giving them second chance after second chance with no repercussions. This cycle needs to stop.”
Other companies accused of fostering a culture of sexism and abuse include Riot Games (League of Legends, Valorant), Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption) and Insomniac Games (Marvel’s Spider-Man, Ratchet and Clank, Spyro the Dragon).
Dozens of individuals within the games industry and community have also been accused of sexual misconduct, including prominent role-playing game writer Chris Avellone, Skyrim composer Jeremy Soule, the late Night in the Woods creator Alec Holowka, YouTuber ProJared and YouTuber RelaxAlax along with many within the Twitch streaming community and Super Smash Bros. community.