Video Game Maker Activision Blizzard initially put out a belligerent response to a suit by the state of California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging pervasive harassment and discrimination of employees, a “frat boy” culture so outrageous that one longtime developer’s suite at a regular company event was referred to as “The Cosby Suite.”
Employees walked out today in protest of the culture and the company’s response.
While the Company tried to walk back its initial statement in favor of a more standard PR crisis templated one, the employees won support of peers at competitive major studios and World of Warcraft players organized an in-game protest in solidarity.
For those who would rather avoid reading the details of sexual harassment or suicide, this post does include some of both.
A Catalog of Offensive, Illegal incidents
The lawsuit filed against Activision Blizzard last week came after a two-year investigation by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The suit lays out an extensive list of violations made by the company, ranging from vast discrepancies in pay, promotions and termination rates along gender and racial lines.
The California DFEH filing also described Activision Blizzard as a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.” The suit highlights a practice called “cube crawls” where male employees drank “copious [amounts] of alcohol” while moving among office cubicles and engaging in “inappropriate behavior toward female employees.”
“Female employees are subjected to constant sexual harassment, including having to continually fend off unwanted sexual comments and advances by their male co-workers and supervisors and being groped at the “cube crawls” and other company events,” reads the filing. “High-ranking executives and creators engaged in blatant sexual harassment without repercussions.”
— Jon peltz (@JonnyPeltz) July 28, 2021
(Above: employees walk out)
According to the suit, one female employee committed suicide during a business trip with a male supervisor who “brought butt plugs and lubricant with him on the trip.”
Further reporting from Kotaku highlighted that male employees weren’t exempt from the pervasive sexual harassment either. Speaking with Kotaku, a male former Blizzard employee revealed that he experienced unwanted advances from other male employees, including “unwanted should rubbing, sex proposals, and conversations about sex acts in front of colleagues who stayed silent.”
Former Blizzard personnel manager Kevin Meier, who allegedly engaged in the “Overwatch” developer’s toxic culture, corroborated the employee’s statement. In a TikTok video, Meier said, “In [Activision Blizzard’s] response, they said ‘this doesn’t represent who Blizzard is’ … Yes it does, and it had for a long time. Since my first day back in 2012, I was sexually harassed, and women have it way worse.”
Former Blizzard employee Cher Scarlett affirmed this as well, telling Kotaku that senior managers at the “Call of Duty” developer and publisher played a “game” called “gay chicken” where “the first man to grab the others’ junk won. According to Scarlett, at least three men reported Blizzard to the California DFEH.
The filing also claims that former “World of Warcraft” developer Alex Afrasiabi and other Blizzard employees referred to his BlizzCon 2013 suite, an informal networking location during Blizzard’s annual fan conference, as the “Cosby Suite.”
Afrasiabi was so known to engage in harassment of females that his suite was nicknamed the “Cosby Suite” after alleged rapist Bill Cosby. Afrasiabi would also call females derogatory names at company events. Afrasiabi’s conduct was known to Blizzard Entertainment’s executives, who took no effective remedial measures.
State of California Lawsuit against Activision Blizzard
A Kotaku investigation unearthed photos of the “Cosby Suite,” including an image where “One of the women appears to have a hand on another’s breast, which is cheered on by the men in the comments”
Activision Blizzard Responds. Then Responds To Their Response
Wednesday’s walkout, in which both in-person and virtual workers participated, came after Activision Blizzard responded to the suit’s filing by describing it as “irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats.”
“The DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past,” read the company’s statement. “We are confident in our ability to demonstrate our practices as an equal opportunity employer that fosters a supportive, diverse, and inclusive workplace for our people, and we are committed to continuing this effort in the years to come. It is a shame that the DFEH did not want to engage with us on what they thought they were seeing in their investigation.”
Activision Blizzard’s full statement can be read here.
Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick called the company’s initial response “tone deaf” in a statement Tuesday. “We will do everything possible to make sure that together, we improve and build the kind of inclusive workplace that is essential to foster creativity and inspiration.”
An Activision Blizzard spokesman sent me a lengthy statement calling the allegations “distorted, and in many cases false” and referring to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing as “unaccountable State bureaucrats.” pic.twitter.com/L9RINw0uZ9
— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) July 22, 2021
According to UppercutCrit, Activision executive Joshua Taub led an “all-hands meeting” on Monday where he pushed Activision Blizzard employees to keep all harassment claims internal. “We don’t publicize all of these claims, we work with the employee and the person who is accused and try to work on a resolution,” Taub said according to an anonymous Activision Blizzard employee.
(Above: World of Warcraft players organized an in-game protest in solidarity)
Taub also reportedly stated in the meeting that he and Kotick “have never seen this” but that “does not mean this behavior does not happen.” Activision Blizzard deemed attempts to diversify its workplace “unworkable” in January 2020.
Employees Walkout. Demand Contract Changes.
In response to the company’s statement and an internal memo from Frances Townsend, Activison Blizzard executive vice president and former homeland security advisor under President George W. Bush, that described the lawsuit as “truly meritless and irresponsible,” over 2000 current and former Activision Blizzard employees signed an open letter decrying the statements as creating “a company atmosphere that disbelieves victims.”
“These statements make it clear that our leadership is not putting our values first. Immediate corrections are needed from the highest level of our organization,” reads the letter. “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.”
— rhammpy (@Velma1932) July 28, 2021
“To claim this is a ‘truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit,’ while seeing so many current and former employees speak out about their own experiences regarding harassment and abuse, is simply unacceptable,” the letter continues.
In the walkout’s announcement, current and former Activision Blizzard employees issued four demands of the company “to improve conditions for employees at the company, especially women, and in particular women of color and transgender women, nonbinary people and other marginalized groups.”
- An end to mandatory arbitration clauses in all employee contracts, current and future
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Activision Blizzard responded to the walkout by offering employees that do walkout paid time off, though it is unknown if the offer is separate from employees’ regularly allotted PTO. #ActiBlizzWalkout trended on Twitter Wednesday, and fellow game developers and Twitch streamers have offered support by making charitable donations to organizations tied to the walkout, including Black Girls Code and RAINN, and boycotting the purchase and streaming of Activision Blizzard games.
Industry Context: Similar Allegations
The Activision Blizzard allegations are the latest in a trend of similar allegations emerging from other major game studios, including “League of Legends” developer Riot Games and “Assassin’s Creed” developer Ubisoft. An open letter from nearly 500 Ubisoft employees expressed solidarity with Activision Blizzard employees that walked out Wednesday, casting an eye on similar allegations against their own employer.
“It is clear, from the frequency of these reports, that there is a widespread and deeply ingrained culture of abusive behaviour within the industry. It should no longer be a surprise to anyone: employees, executives, journalists, or fans that these heinous acts are going on,” read the Ubisoft employees’ letter. “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.”
Some games news sites have also paused their coverage and streaming of Activision Blizzard titles as well.
Activision Blizzard: Previously on Towleroad
Photo courtesy of Dinosaur918/Creative Commons