Activision Blizzard is under fire as hundreds of workers at the company walked off their jobs last week, calling for Activision leadership to make workplace improvements for women, women of colour, transgender women, nonbinary people and other marginalised groups.
This protest followed the lawsuit from California regulators that alleged that the company's male employees had mistreated their female colleagues for years while leadership turned a blind eye.
The court documents claim to reveal that sexism exists in nearly every aspect of Activision Blizzard, as its female employees only make up around 20% of the 9,500 employees. This lawsuit by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) results from a two-year investigation. Women across the whole company have filed reports of harassment from comments on their appearance to their male supervisors’ unwarranted romantic pursuits.
According to California regulators, Activision Blizzard has encouraged a “toxic work environment” that reflects a “frat-boy workplace culture”, where men make sexual and lewd comments about women.
Male employees are allowed to play video games during the workday, delegating responsibilities to female employees, encourage inappropriate sexual banter and openly joke about rape.
From “Cube Crawls” to sexual harassment resulting in suicide
The court documents show that male employees would hold ”‘Cube Crawls’, where they would drink copious amounts of alcohol and grope their female colleagues”. And “Californian officials say that the women were paid less and denied promotions over their male counterparts”.
In recent news, an update regarding the case involves Activision employee Tony Nixon installing cameras in the company bathroom to spy on employees. Back in 2018, Nixon worked in the IT department of Activision’s Minnesota office had placed the cameras to face the toilets - and when confronted, admitted to capturing the footage for three weeks before deleting it all.
Nixon was given a suspended prison sentence as a result of pleading guilty to the charges with privacy.
The most extreme and disturbing case of alleged employee abuse follows a female employee who killed herself “due to a sexual relationship with her male supervisor", an allegation which Activision vehemently denies.
This was not the first company trip the female employee had experienced harassment; according to the DFEH, “male colleagues had shared an explicit photo of the woman, before her death”.
Miss Shay Stein, a former customer employee from 2014 -2017, also alleged that she was consistently paid less than her ex-boyfriend regardless of doing the same work for the same time period of time.
She also declined drugs from her manager at a holiday party in 2014/15, which soured their relationship and damaged her career trajectory.
In 2016, another manager messaged Stein over Facebook, alluding that she must be into “some freaky stuff” and asking what type of pornography she watched.
It appears that this sexual harassment is also experienced by the few women who did manage to get higher up the chain. Former vice-president Lisa Welch shared her experience of how an executive suggested they have sex “because she ‘deserved’ to have some fun after her boyfriend had died weeks earlier.” And that others commented on her appearance and suggested on multiple occasions that they should “Hook-up”.
It was also uncovered that women were less likely to be promoted and more likely to be terminated. One female employee reported that when she asked for a pay increase and promotion (after taking on managerial responsibilities), her manager "commented that they could not risk promoting her, as she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much".
Furthermore, female employees were allegedly criticised by male employees for leaving to pick up their children from daycare and are kicked out of the lactation rooms (which had no locks) so that male colleagues can use the rooms to hold meetings.
The lawsuit also finds that women of colour and other marginalised groups were particularly vulnerable to discrimination at Activision Blizzard. For example, two black female employees reported being micro-managed about their time, with one woman claiming her manager made her write a one-page summary of how she would use the time off. Such treatment ensued their resignation from the company.
The Californian lawsuit also claims that female employees' concerns were not supported by HR. In addition, their complaints were not kept confidential, leading to several victims of workplace harassment facing retaliation such as; unwillingly unit transfers, cut out of work projects and being laid off.
The DFEH seeks an injunction forcing compliance with workplace protections and wants Activision to address unpaid wages, pay adjustments, back pay, lost wages and benefits for female employees.
Some male employees were also victims of sexual harassment
According to Blizzard developers, it has since come to light that some men have also been sexually harassed. Reports include male employees being propositioned for sex, sexually harassed on their first day and even groped in sexual office “games”.
@NotEngxge shared in a TikTok video (shared on Twitter) that he was sexually harassed on his first day back in 2012 - and that his female colleagues had it “way worse”.
Blizzard developer Cher Scarlett told Kotaku about a game called “Gay chicken” where “the first man to grab the others’ junk won” and knew of at least three men who reported Blizzard to the DFEH regarding sexual assault and harassment.
Activision Blizzard response to California lawsuit
Activision Blizzard vigorously denied the claims made by the DFEH lawsuit and employees. A spokesperson for Activision responded to the accusations in a statement sent to PC Gamer labelling them "distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard's past."
The statement also addressed the sexual harassment resulting in a suicide of a former female employee.
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.
An internal memo sent by Frances Townsend, Activision’s Chief Compliance Officer, labelled the lawsuit “truly meritless and irresponsible” - this memo was posted onto Twitter, sparked outrage among employees.
Activision Blizzard's overpaid CEO, Bobby Kotick, issued a public statement addressing all employees, admitting that the company's initial statements in response to the lawsuit were “tone deaf”.
Kotick also announced that Activision Blizzard is committed to effective, long-lasting change and will be carrying out the following actions; Employee support, listening sessions; personnel changes, hiring practices and in-game changes.
However, employees responded to Kotick’s letter, claiming that it “fails to address critical elements at the heart of employee concerns.”
Blizzard promises that all “inappropriate” content from World of Warcraft will be removed. Former senior creative director, Alex Afrasiabi, was dismissed last year for his treatment towards female employees.
The former WoW director was reportedly known for "[engaging] in harassment of females and that his hotel suite at BlizzCon 2013 was nicknamed the 'Cosby Suite' after alleged rapist Bill Cosby," the document continues.
Employee response to the lawsuit against Activision Blizzard
More than 3,000 employees have signed a letter calling out Activision Blizzard’s official response to the news of the DFEH’s findings of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination - which an Activision Blizzard spokesperson had claimed was “distorted” and “false”.
In the letter to Activision Blizzard, employees wrote that “We no longer trust that our leaders will place employee safety above their own interests,” calling Ms Townsend’s remarks “unacceptable.”
Organisers held a walkout on Blizzard's Irvine campus, which hundreds of employees took part in - demanding greater pay transparency, employee participation in determining hiring and promotion practices, the option to select a third party HR auditor, the ending of forced arbitration, and other changes.
Activision Blizzard former executive responds to the lawsuit
Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime took to Twitter, writing, “To the Blizzard women who experienced any of these things, I am extremely sorry that I failed you,” he wrote. “I hear you, I believe you, and I am so sorry to have let you down.”
Diablo co-creator Chris Metzen also joined Morhaime by issuing an apology, tweeting that “We failed, and I’m sorry. To all of you at Blizzard - those of you I know and those of you whom I’ve never met - I offer you my very deepest apologies for the part I played in a culture that fostered harassment, inequality, and indifference.”
Metzen refers to having the ”privilege of not noticing” as the part he played within the toxic workplace culture within Blizzard.
Amidst the Activision Blizzard walkout, hundreds of current and former Ubisoft staff signed an open letter showing solidarity with the employees of Activision Blizzard. The letter also addresses Ubisoft’s handling of abuse allegations, calling for “real, fundamental changes”.
While the court documents and lawsuit have shed light on the disturbing consequences of rampant sexual harassment and mark a milestone in workplace gender discrimination, the case also mirrors sexual misconduct within the games industry as a whole.
If one of the biggest games companies in the world can be held accountable by such a sizeable public lawsuit, then perhaps employees from other large games companies can step forward to expose workplace abuse and demand protection against gender discrimination.
Aijou will continue to post updates on Activision Blizzard as soon as more information is available.