Gaming collaborative titan Activision Blizzard is under fire and facing a lawsuit. The company is one of the biggest in the gaming world, which makes the allegations from employees all the more egregious. Allegations include a workplace culture of sexual harassment, “frat boy,” in nature, as well as accusations that women employees are not paid equally for the same work. It’s another sign that the gaming world continues to hold women to the fringe of an industry they are heavily involved in. Employees of Activision Blizzard have organized to protest the discriminations and harassment, and after a suicide related to this toxic environment, the company is being forced to reckon with its darker demons.
Lawsuit v Activision Blizzard
All of this uproar is a result of a lawsuit, filed July 20th. Per New York Times, “The upheaval stems from an explosive lawsuit that California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed on July 20, accusing the $65 billion company of fostering a ‘frat boy workplace culture’ in which men joked about rape and women were routinely harassed and paid less than their male colleagues.”
The lawsuit called the company “a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women” and described egregious harassing behavior. Including so-called “cube crawls,” a twist on the traditional “pub crawl,” where male employees got drunk and went from cubicle to cubicle, harassment and sometimes fondling female employees. One woman who worked for the company committed suicide after being involved in a relationship with a higher-up in the company. Before she killed herself while on a business trip, both the man she was in a sexual relationship with and colleagues shared explicit images of her.
An Atmosphere of Harassment and Discrimination
Employees directly involved in the lawsuit often said that they felt like they were the only ones experiencing this. So pervasive was the harassment and discrimination that female employees were made to feel odd for not participating willingly. The New York Times shares this information about details from the lawsuit: “Ms. Stein, 28, who worked at Activision from 2014 to 2017 in a customer service role, helping gamers with problems and glitches, said she had consistently been paid less than her ex-boyfriend, who joined the company at the same time she did and performed the same work.
Ms. Stein said she had once declined drugs that her manager offered at a holiday party in 2014 or 2015, which soured their relationship and hampered her career. In 2016, a manager messaged her on Facebook, suggesting she must be into ‘some freaky stuff’ and asking what type of pornography she watched. She said she had also overheard male colleagues joking that some women had their jobs only because they performed sexual favors for male superiors.
‘It was really hurtful,’ Ms. Stein said, adding that she felt like she had to ‘endure it.’
Ms. Welch, who joined Activision in 2011 as vice president of consumer strategy and insights, said she had known that the company was reputed to have a combative culture but had been intrigued by the prominent role.
Then at a hotel on a work trip that year, Ms. Welch said, an executive pressured her to have sex with him because she ‘deserved to have some fun’ after her boyfriend had died weeks earlier. She said she had turned him down.”
When the lawsuit was first filed, Activision Blizzard did respond, and it was horrifying.
The Company’s Response
CNet reports, “After DFEH filed its suit, Activision Blizzard responded with a lengthy statement that said the department had filed a rushed, inaccurate report with ‘distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of [Activision Blizzard’s] past.’ In an email sent to staff, published by Bloomberg‘s Jason Schreier, vice president of corporate affairs Frances Townsend said the site presented ‘a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories — some from more than a month ago.'”
Obviously, this response went over like a lead balloon with employees who responded with an open letter and a plan to walk out on Wednesday. Over 2,000 current and former employees signed the letter. CNet reports, “‘To put it clearly and unequivocally, our values as employees are not accurately reflected in the words and actions of our leadership,’ the open letter reads, according to Bloomberg. ‘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 added three demands:
- That the company would issue a statement acknowledging the severity of the allegations.
- The resignation of Frances Townsend from her role as executive sponsor of the ABK Employee Women’s Network.
- Executive leadership collaborate with employees to create a workplace environment moving forward that would be both safe and equitable.
This was perhaps the jolt that the company needed, and their next response was more measured and thoughtful. Per CNet, “On Tuesday the company’s CEO, Bobby Kotick, issued a letter addressing the suit, and the concerns of employees.
‘Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf,’ it reads. ‘We are taking swift action to be the compassionate, caring company you came to work for and to ensure a safe environment. There is no place anywhere at our Company for discrimination, harassment, or unequal treatment of any kind.’
Kotick announced that a law firm, WilmerHale, will be hired to evaluate the company’s ‘policies and procedures.'”
Kotick added that leadership would be reevaluated and policies changed where needed, and that they would be removing problematic in-game content for some of its most popular games like World of Warcraft, Overwatch and others.
Also in an attempt to appear respectful of their employees’ disappointment in the company, they offered paid leave to any employees who participated in the walkout. Around 350 employees did, and they held signs that read “every voice matters,” “fight bad guys in game. fight bad guys irl,” and “nerf male privilege.” While they acknowledged Kotick’s olive branch, they asked for greater pay transparency and employee involvement in hiring and promotion decisions.
The whole messy incident is proof that the gaming industry is having to reckon with itself over a long-seated history of sexual discriminations. Any woman gamer will tell you that they’ve faced their fair share of verbal abuse and mocking for simply participating in the game of their choice. It’s a pervasive culture that reaches from the bottom with casual players right on up to the top with CEOs and founders. And it’s worse for employees in the industry who are seen as interlopers or tokens. This isn’t the first time women in the gaming industry have had to fight to be heard, and it won’t be the last; but maybe it’s the start of change.