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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Activision Blizzard Harassment Suit Feels Painfully Familiar

Activision Blizzard is the latest video game company to face scrutiny for allegedly fostering a culture of sexism. A California Department of Fair Employment and Housing suit filed Wednesday alleges rampant sexual harassment and discrimination against Activision Blizzard’s female employees. The structures and systems spotlighted in the suit are painfully similar to those exposed by lawsuits and exposés concerning Riot Games and Ubisoft in the past several years.

The games industry’s reckoning with workplace inequality has been underway for years. Leading companies have been slow, even reticent, to answer for their reportedly discriminatory cultures, in some cases architecting fortresses of asylum around their more problematic employees and systems. Activision Blizzard has the opportunity to set a different tone. As of now, it seems unlikely to.

The games industry is notoriously male-dominated, and it has long had a reputation for hostility to women. The 29-page DFEH complaint follows a two-year investigation into Activision Blizzard—the publisher of high-profile titles like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Overwatch—and it contains hair-raising allegations of misconduct, from harassment by top executives to so-called “cube crawls,” in which male employees would reportedly “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.” It describes a culture in which double standards prevented women from advancing and even remaining at the company; across the board, it says, women receive less pay than men for “substantially similar work.” The agency alleges that female employees receive a lower starting pay than men and are promoted more slowly. Only 24 percent of Activision Blizzard’s nearly 10,000 employees are women, and top leadership is almost entirely white and male.

In this “frat boy” culture, the complaint reads, men “proudly” came to work hungover, delegated responsibilities to women while they played games like Call of Duty, openly discussed sexual encounters, and even joked about rape. The complaint also alleges that employees and even executives sexually harassed female employees without repercussions. It states that a female employee who may have experienced sexual harassment at work—including an instance when coworkers at a party allegedly shared an intimate photo of her—later committed suicide. (In a statement, Activision Blizzard says, “We are sickened by the reprehensible conduct of the DFEH to drag into the complaint the tragic suicide of an employee whose passing has no bearing whatsoever on this case and with no regard for her grieving family.”)

“We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said in a statement. “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.” The company says it has made an effort over the past several years to bolster diversity, including helping employees report violations, adding a confidential hotline, and instituting a team to investigate workers’ concerns. Activision Blizzard claims that the DFEH complaint includes “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.”

The DFEH is asking for relief for compensatory and punitive damages, unpaid wages, and attorneys fees. Citing the ongoing investigation, the department declined to respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

The Activision Blizzard revelations echo those at Riot Games in 2018 and Ubisoft in 2020. Just as gaming culture at large has been slow to embrace women and minorities, gaming companies previously accused of fostering cultures of sexism have been slow to evolve.

It takes active, serious, and concerted effort to reset cultural standards defined by male gamers, and to neutralize off-putting or damaging behavior to women and minorities. Missing checks and balances have made that tough at these large, sometimes cultish game companies. Across a steady stream of journalistic exposés and lawsuits, current and former employees at Ubisoft, Riot Games, and Activision Blizzard have all shared how executives and HR representatives discouraged them from raising alarm bells or flat-out ignored them. The Activision Blizzard complaint alleges that when people did confide in human resources, they were sometimes retaliated against—deprived of work on projects, unwillingly transferred to different units, or selected for layoffs. (In an email yesterday obtained by Polygon, in response to the DFEH complaint, Activision Publishing president Rob Kostich told employees today to talk to their HR partner or manager if they needed help.)

According to a 2018 civil complaint, some Riot Games employees claimed they, too, suffered retaliation from managers they complained about in HR sessions they believed were private. At Ubisoft, an executive who allegedly choked a female subordinate was married to the interim head of HR at the time. According to a Bloomberg report, other women who reported problems to that HR head were “labeled as troublemakers.” One Ubisoft worker interviewed by Kotaku said: “The way the studio—HR and management—disregards complaints just enables this behavior from men.”

“It’s absolutely typical when there are systemic problems of sexual harassment or discrimination in companies that HR is not actually serving the productive function it can,” says Genie Harrison, an attorney for defendants suing Riot Games for alleged gender discrimination. “Instead when women complain and report that they feel they’re being targeted because of their gender, as they’re usually required to do by company policy, complaints are whitewashed, not adequately investigated, or not remedied.” Today, Riot Games reportedly involves the law firm Seyfarth Shaw, which specializes in class-action suits, in some employees’ complaints to human resources. Riot did not answer WIRED’s question about Seyfarth Shaw’s role in its HR processes, but did comment, writing, “Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) is something our company will prioritize on an ongoing basis—there’s no ‘done’ in this work.”

Accountability that could come from executive leadership has also not materialized. Two and a half years after a Kotaku report on widespread sexism at Riot Games—including sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination in hiring and promotion—CEO Nicolo Laurent, who himself was accused of misconduct, which he denies, continued to employ several executives accused of sexism and harassment, claiming that an internal investigation had cleared them. One later left. And in July 2021, one year after dozens of current or former Ubisoft employees told Bloomberg about alleged sexual harassment or misconduct they had seen or experienced, the company still allegedly employs multiple managers accused of “harassment or toxic behavior.” Kotaku reported just this week that, after multiple complaints, one allegedly problematic executive was recently moved from Ubisoft Singapore to Ubisoft Paris instead of being fired. (Ubisoft previously told Bloomberg that “employees who have been under investigation would not remain at Ubisoft if results of investigations warranted termination.”)

It is unclear how effectively Activision Blizzard has cleaned ranks. The DFEH suit alleges that one employee, World of Warcraft’s creative director, hit on multiple female employees at the company’s BlizzCon conference—at one point maintaining a suite that employees called the “Crosby Suite,” apparently a misspelled reference to Bill Cosby. Although Activision Blizzard president J. Allen Brack was allegedly aware of the behavior, according to the suit, the employee was not thoroughly disciplined and “continued to make unwanted advances” toward female colleagues before quietly leaving Blizzard in 2020. Activision Blizzard has not publicly detailed any specific disciplinary actions taken in response to the behavior detailed in the DFEH report.

A pattern has emerged. Riot, Ubisoft, and now Activision Blizzard all reportedly suffered from squeaky-wheel human resources processes and a propensity to protect high-level problem employees from accountability. In response to allegations going public, Activision Blizzard is now following a playbook similar to that of its counterparts, offering something between ham-fisted denial and embarrassment, with just the tiniest whiff of contrition.

Back in 2018, Riot Games first maintained that the allegations of sexism detailed by Kotaku were “explicitly opposite” to its culture. The apology came three weeks later, in a corporate blog post: “We’re sorry. We’re sorry that Riot hasn’t always been—or wasn’t—the place we promised you. And we’re sorry it took so long for us to hear you.”

Riot would go on to fire some problem employees. It promoted more women. It brought on culture consultants, strengthened D&I. And it’s in the process of settling with the DFEH, reportedly for hundreds of millions of dollars in backpay and legal fees. Several top executives at Ubisoft left following allegations of misconduct, including its head of HR. Ubisoft, which initially expressed slightly more remorse, tells WIRED that it has instituted employee trainings, rethought HR, and strengthened its diversity and inclusion programs. At the same time, Bloomberg reports that Ubisoft has undergone some attrition, in part because of its continued uneven, sometimes dismissive response to allegations of sexism.

Nobody is going to fully fess up to illegal workplace practices in the face of a lawsuit. That said, Riot's and Ubisoft’s recent past may serve as prologue for Activision Blizzard. Fran Townsend, George W. Bush’s homeland security adviser, is Activision Blizzard’s chief compliance officer. In an email sent to staff today, first published by Axios, Townsend said she was “proud to be part of a company that takes a hard-line approach to inappropriate or hostile work environments and sexual harassment issues.” She added that the lawsuit is “truly meritless and irresponsible.” The email echoes Activision Blizzard’s initial statement, which noted that the DFEH’s methodology contained “irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.”

All eyes are on Activision Blizzard. So far it seems to be following the same pattern as Riot and Ubisoft before it: responding to allegations of systemic sexism as morale issues internally, and as publicity issues externally. Both center the productivity and success of the company rather than employee harm—which is in part how these issues can fester internally to begin with.

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