We here at Big Daddy Gaming always mention that it is important to remember the past events within the games industry. Not only do we usually bring up past industry scandals within our own work, calling out games that launched knowing they weren’t finished, such at CD Projekt Red with Cyberpunk 2077, but we also make constant reference to them throughout our own podcast, which you can check out here.
So this week, I decided to do a timeline of the current multi-month scandal that is the Activision Blizzard lawsuit and claims of sexism and their “frat boy” office culture. Not only do I think this will help those unfamiliar with the whole situation to get caught up with some extra insight from those actively tracking the event as it breaks. But also because this incident is not isolated within the industry. Not only have other major publishers engaged in this same sort of behaviour, looking at you Ubisoft, but also smaller indie publishers have been exposed as engaging in this behaviour.
So what gives? Why does this keep happening throughout the industry? Well perhaps by examining this mess that Activision Blizzard has gotten itself into we can find some insight into that. So join me as well jump back in time to the start of this scandal all the way back to the 20th of July 2021.
California Sues Activision Blizzard
On the 20th of July 2021, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Activistion Blizzard. Within the lawsuit, they alleged discrimination and sexual harassment against women in the workplace. The lawsuit describes some pretty heinous practices such as “cube crawls,” where male employees would get drunk at the office and make unwanted sexual advances against the female employees. There are also allegations about the lack of women in leadership positions; unequal pay for women; and a serious lack of response from HR surrounding many complaints of this sort of behaviour. As well as more specific allegations, such as how World of Warcraft senior creative director Alex Afrasiabi was allegedly permitted to engage in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions.
The 21st of July 2021 comes around and news breaks that the lawsuit has been filed. A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard speaks out regarding the claims within the lawsuit. Stating that the lawsuit includes “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.” Also that the DFEH was “required by law to adequately investigate and to have good faith discussion with us to better understand and to resolve any claims or concerns before going to litigation, but they failed to do so. Instead, they rushed to file an inaccurate complaint as we will demonstrate in court.”
One horrific story that was filed within the lawsuit that needs called out specifically. A female employee died by suicide during a company trip. The lawsuit alleges that this suicide was “due to a sexual relationship she had been having with her male supervisor,” who was found by police to have brought sex toys on the trip. It was also noted that this female employee faced severe sexual harassment at work, including having a photo of her genitals passed around by male employees at a holiday party. This story is just so disgusting to me. Also, I want to state before we move on that if your work environment brings someone to commit suicide, than you have seriously messed up.
I want to stress before we continue that the DFEH did not rush to this litigation. In an article published during the start of this news breaking, it was stated that the DFEH has in fact investigated for around three years. I would certainly say that this wasn’t rushed. How about we take a look at how Activision Blizzard reacted to this initial news story, shall we?
Activision Blizzard Tries to Save Face in Light of the Allegations
So, of course, any company within this position is going to try to save its face with the public. They know that if they do nothing they will just lose a lot of business as equal opportunity and sexual harassment have been a rather hot button issue, especially within the United States where the lawsuit was filed. So, how did they respond exactly?
Firstly, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack sent an email to all staff stating that the behaviour detailed within the lawsuit is “completely unacceptable.” Activision president Rob Kostich emails all staff as well, calling the allegation “deeply disturbing” and claims that “we, as a company, take every allegation seriously.” Then, we have Activision Blizzard’s chief compliance officer Fran Townsend sending a much different message to staff in her own statement. Essentially stating that the lawsuit presents a “distorted and untrue” picture of Activision Blizzard. Basically stating that she was sure that she joined a leadership in which women would be afforded the same opportunities as men within the company.
Though at least they got some support from Blizzard co-founder and former president Mike Morhaime who stated “I wanted to acknowledge the women who had awful experiences. I hear you, I believe you, and I am so sorry to have let you down.” Additionally, former Blizzard senior vice president Chris Metzen tweeted “We failed, and I’m sorry.,” in response to the lawsuit.
Though while the leadership at Activision Blizzard is trying to save face with the public. An old video from Blizzcon 2010 crops up on the internet, showcasing a woman asking for less sexualized content within World of Warcraft essentially being laughed at for simply asking the question. Now those involved in the panel has come forward basically stating that they meant nothing by the laughter and that it had been a stressful day and that you can’t actually see the person speaking. You got ears and can hear them though, right? I’m not sure I accept this reason as anything other than an excuse, and a poor one at that.
Though enough about Activision Blizzard current leadership trying to save face. How did the normal staff react to this lawsuit? The cat is finally out of the bag, so what exactly did they do next?
Employees Strike Back
Well, to start with management tries to save face and quell the disaster that was the saving face communication. On the 26th of July 2021, Activision holds an “all-hands” meeting for up to 500 staff, far less than all-hands mind you. Basically the meeting is an attempt to address the lawsuit, reinforcing the idea that there is zero tolerance for the behaviour that was described in the lawsuit. Also to downplay Fran Townsend’s supposed disregard and in fact denial of any of that sort of behaviour at the company, basically stating that is “wasn’t the right communication,” in regards to the lawsuit.
Not sure if this is obvious to you as the reader yet or not, but clearly this didn’t exactly quell employees like management probably hoped it would. To start, more than 1,000 (and growing) current and former Activision Blizzard employees signed an open letter to management calling Townsend’s statement “abhorrent and insulting to all that we believe our company should stand for.” The letter goes on to say “Our values as employees are not accurately reflected in the words and actions of our leadership…Categorizing the claims that have been made as ‘distorted, and in many cases false’ creates a company atmosphere that disbelieves victims…Immediate corrections are needed from the highest level of our organization.” The letter ends with a statement that the employees “stand with all our friends, teammates, and colleagues, as well as the members of our dedicated community, who have experienced mistreatment or harassment of any kind.”
Oh man, if you think the employees stopped at simply a letter than you would be underestimating their outrage at this whole lawsuit and the behaviour of management. The proceeded to organize a company wide walkout, which they did do, with four demands;
- An end to mandatory arbitration in employee contracts
- More diverse recruiting and hiring practices
- Publication of compensation data, promotion rates, and salary ranges
- A company-wide Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion task force empowered to hire a third party company to audit Activision-Blizzard
The day before the walkout, Millionaire, and listed as one of the most overpaid CEOs, Bobby Kotick wrote a public note to all employees. He called the company’s initial response “tone deaf,” and said “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.” He also announced immediate steps to investigate claims, hold listening sessions, make personnel changes, enforce diverse hiring practices, and change inappropriate in-game content. He also promised to terminate anyone who attempted to hinder the processing of complaints.
Not only did the employees hold a walkout at Blizzard HQ on the 28th of July 2021, both physically and remotely, they saw massive support from across the games industry as numerous game developers took to Twitter to tweet their support for the employees fighting for better conditions at Activision-Blizzard. The employees took the time to respond to Kotick’s note from the previous day, expressing pleasure in seeing a change in the tone from leadership, but also stating that Kotick “failed to address critical elements at the heart of employee concerns.” They proceeded to reiterate their four demands stated in their previous letter. Claiming “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.”
Now with the demands stated and the company essentially being told they need to do a hell of a lot better. Things can’t really go downhill from here right? Well, we wouldn’t be here if the story ended here, folks. So buckle up because this is about to go downhill for Activision Blizzard faster than a runaway train.
The “Cosby Suite” and So Many More Problems
Let’s keep with tradition and keep this in timeline order. On the same day as the walkout, Kotaku published an article on Blizzard’s “Cosby Suite.”, which was described as a recurring convention party room that Afrasiabi and other employees texted about bringing “hot chixx” to. Now a former World of Warcraft lead systems designer and current vice president of MMO R&D at Riot, Greg Street, who can be seen in the above photo, claims that the hotel room was just “a green room at Blizzcon that many of us at the time used to take a break and relax during the convention” and that the aforementioned text was simply a joke. Though this did very little at the time to help Blizzard’s image regarding the lawsuit it is facing. Thankfully Alex Afrasiabi was terminated in 2020 “for his misconduct in his treatment of other employees.”, though I highly doubt that was due to sexual harassment treatment.
On the 29th of July 2021, The New York Times posted an investigation they did with the newly public accounts of sexual harassment and discrimination from Activision Blizzard. In the article an employee who worked at the company from 2014 to 2017 stated that she was paid less than her boyfriend who started at the company at the same time she did and they both did the same work. She was also harassed by her manager on Facebook, who messaged her asking her what type of porn she watched.
Another woman, who joined Activision in 2011 as a vice president, also stated a case of sexual harassment. She said that an executive “pressured her to have sex with him because she ‘deserved to have some fun’ after her boyfriend had died weeks earlier.” Just going to take a pause here to let that sort of callous comment sink in a bit.
The 30th of July 2021, Vice published an article about Blizzard recruiters in 2015 as a hacker conference. A female security researcher inquired about a penetration testing (cyber-security auditing) position, and in classic demeaning fashion, one of the recruiters asked her “when was the last time I was personally penetrated, if I liked being penetrated, and how often I got penetrated.” On the same day Waypoint wrote about an Activision Blizzard IT worker who invaded the privacy of many by installing spy cameras within a unisex bathroom. He did however plead guilty to “interference with privacy” in 2018, but this simply shouldn’t have been done to begin with. And I know this latter example is not necessarily indicative of the culture at Activision Blizzard, but as I stated earlier none of this helps Activision Blizzard in the public eye. Especially since stories like this were buried until the scandal broke and people started speaking out.
There is one more giant piece of news to discuss before we get into the impact that this has had on Activision Blizzard, and that has to deal with the law firm that Activision Blizzard decided to hire to perform an audit of their policies. The law firm in question is WilmerHale, and if that law firm isn’t familiar to you than you are about to get to know them.
Activision Blizzard Brings in WilmerHale
Now, before we dive into this section, I wanted to point out that it would make sense for Activision Blizzard to already use a law firm they have used in the past in regards to legal needs. That being said employees were certainly not happy about this choice on law firm. There are various reasons for this displeasure, so let’s take a look at what those might be.
Firstly, WilmerHale “has a history of discouraging workers’ rights and collective action,” stated a letter written by the ABK Workers Alliance, a new workers alliance that has formed as a result of the lawsuit to protect workers’ interests. It was also sited that because WilmerHale had a prior involvement with Activision Blizzard that it would be a conflict of interest to turn around and review the company’s policies and procedures. It has also been noted that among the services that WilmerHale lists on their website, they include “union awareness and avoidance.”, which just comes off as a slap in the face to the workers trying to effectively rally together to improve their working conditions within the company.
Lastly, the WilmerHale executive leading the investigation is former director of the Securities and exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement, Stephanie Avakian. She has been criticized for being a defender of corporate interests rather than workers’ rights. It doesn’t help that when she left her stint with the SEC to come to WilmerHale she was quoted as saying that she will “lead one of the nation’s premier groups lawyers in counseling and defending financial institutions, public and private companies, hedge funds, accounting firms, investment advisers, boards, corporate executives, and individuals facing regulatory and criminal investigations and litigation with the government.” If that doesn’t just scream “I am for the corporations” than I don’t know what will.
An additional employee response to this announcement was to decry upper management, stating that no response had been given regarding any of their demands. Also, they publically stated three new employee initiatives that they have in the works:
- Worker-to-Worker Mentorship: A mentor-ship program where workers can seek career advice, support, and sponsorship from a network of colleagues in a safe external channel outside company communication networks.
- Open Listening Sessions: Hosting listening sessions that will be recorded and disseminated across the organization to facilitate ongoing conversation, education, and emotional support for employees.
- Community Meetings: Facilitate monthly employee meetings, in a secure external channel, to discuss concerns, desires, and progress toward achieving goals. All current ABK employees are welcome to participate in these conversations.
Before we move on, I want to comment on something that stuck out to me about these initiatives. The fact that the majority of them need to happen outside of company communication channels is astounding to me. I imagine this is because of fear of retaliation as well as to help provide a safe space in which to list concerns openly, but the fact that this cannot be achieved within the company says a lot more than any of these news stories about what goes on there and about how employees feel regarding their workplace.
So by now it can certainly be said that some of those in higher ranking positions, and potentially abusers in their own right, are starting to feel the fire that has been lit under Activision Blizzard. Not only that but an exodus of a different kind is also going to hit Activision Blizzard as a result of the lawsuit and handling of it.
An Exodus of Two Kinds
As with any instance of scandal of this degree you will see people leave the company in question, or cut times with them. This could be for any number of reasons, such as being listed in the allegations or just to protect their career. So here is a list of everyone notable who have left Activision Blizzard from when the scandal broke to the time of writing:
- Blizzard’s head of HR, Jesse Meschuk
- Blizzard president J. Allen Brack leaves his position, being replaced by a co-leader duo of Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra
- Diablo 4 game director, Louis Barriga
- Lead level designer, Jesse McCree
- World of Warcraft designer, Jonathan LeCraft
- Chief legal officer at Blizzard Entertainment, Claire Hart
- Overwatch 2 executive producer, Chacko Sonny
This is just who has left at the time of writing. I am sure that by the time everything falls through this list will grow. Though as I mentioned prior to, a bunch of employees are not the only ones cutting ties with Activision Blizzard.
Sponsors Pull From Competitive Leagues
Activision Blizzard is in charge of a handful of competitive gaming leagues, including those for Overwatch and the Call of Duty series. What we have seen is a similar exodus of sponsors pulling support of reassessing their support.
- Kellog’s (Cheez-its and Pringles)
- State Farm
Branding removed without comment:
“Re-assessing” with ads pulled:
As with the previous section, this is just at the time of writing. As legal action against Activision Blizzard is still pending, and growing, we can almost be certain that more sponsors will be added to list this list time. There is two big pieces of legal action that need to be brought to light to bring you fully up to speed.
Expanding Legal Action against Activision Blizzard
On the 14th of September 2021, Activision Blizzard employees and an organization called the Communication Workers of America file an unfair labor practice lawsuit with the National Labor Relations Board. The lawsuit alleges that Blizzard employees cannot talk about “wages, hours, and working conditions” or related investigations, and also “threatened or disciplined employees on account of protected concerted activity.” This lawsuit does not come as a surprise considering the initial allegations against Activision Blizzard.
Activision Blizzard is also seeing an investigation from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. News of this broke on the 20th of September 2021. Essentially this is an investigation in regards to how Activision-Blizzard handled employee complaints of sexual misconduct and discrimination. The SEC has subpoenaed executives, including CEO Bobby Kotick. Also, it should be noted that DFEH updated their lawsuit, and there is a claim that Activision HR shredded documents related to “investigations and complaints” that they were required to hand over as part of the legal investigation. As well as claims that documentation regarding complaints of this nature were not kept properly to start with.
That is really all we have right now. Throughout the month of September, various statements of the same “We don’t tolerate this kind of behavior,” have come from levels up upper management, all the while that same upper management has still failed to respond to any of the demands listed in the letters put out. Where do we go from here? We watch as more news breaks and hope to maintain a record, because the last thing we need is to have this story get buried and forgotten just like the claims against Ubisoft.