The Activision-Blizzard Harassment Suit in California

So, uh…this one is tough to write. Before I get started on it, I need to say a word of caution – this post deals with some pretty fucked-up subject matter, including suicide and sexual harassment. If you don’t want to read that specifically, I don’t blame you.

In the last 24 hours, a pretty large lawsuit was announced by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Activision-Blizzard. The lawsuit, filed on July 20th 2021 and first reported by Bloomberg is the result of a two-year investigation into the company by the same government entity bringing the suit. It makes a large swath of allegations against the company, including a “frat boy” workplace culture that was left unchecked and led to a lot of harassment and abuse against the women in the workplace there. There are some shocking stories that end up being tame by the end of the full suit, which you can read here, including:

-“Cube crawls” where male employees got drunk and engaged in inappropriate behavior
-Female employees subjected to unwanted sexual comments, advances, and groping – including by “high-ranking” executives and creators without repercussions
-A female employee committing suicide while on a business trip with a male supervisor who had brought butt plugs and lubricant on the trip

This lawsuit is full of incredibly awful stories found over the course of two years of investigation, and the details of it are sickening. The full text of the suit has a lot of focus, as one would expect, on issues of pay and work equality by gender and race, detailing how Activision-Blizzard and Blizzard specifically employ a small percentage of women, especially in top leadership, which is often both white and male, offers women lower pay across all types of compensation compared to male peers, and workplace delegation often shuffles tasks from male employees to lower-paid female employees, creating a clear gendered divide. Things turn to a focus on the HR department, stating that among employees, “HR not held in high regard” and noting that complaints about unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation were reported to numerous people in high posts, including J Allen Brack himself, with those executives and leaders failing to take “effective remedial measures” in response.

There’s a lot to summarize, so I won’t touch on it all, but there are pages of gathered details of harassment, unequal treatment of employees at the same level along gender lines, refusal of promotion for fear that a woman might get pregnant, mistreatment of employees along racial lines, and most employees subject to this kind of treatment often opting to leave, or if not, being terminated at a faster rate than their male counterparts.

The last pages prior to the remedies being sought by the state contain two very troubling revelations – the first being that Alex Afrasiabi, the former Senior Creative Director on WoW, engaged in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions, with his office suite being named the “Cosby Suite” after Bill Cosby because of how frequent it was. It was also noted that during Blizzcon, he would be particularly aggressive, telling female employees he wanted to marry them, trying to kiss them, and putting his arms around them. The suit notes that male employees often had to physically intervene and pull him off of female employees. This was not a secret and was taken to Brack, who only gave Afrasiabi a “slap on the wrist” and he was allowed to continue working, even as such incidents continued to occur. On a totally unrelated note, Alex Afrasiabi left Blizzard very quietly last June, with no company announcement, blog post, or farewell note.

The final story that is presented against the company is a tough one to read. A female employee committed suicide while on a work trip with her male supervisor, who brought lubricant and a butt plug on this trip. The relationship between the two was known, and it is alleged that at a holiday party prior to her death, make co-workers were sharing a photo of her private parts to each other.

Blizzard’s Response

Boy, I wish I had a good way to put this, but Blizzard’s response to this issue fucking sucks so bad.

Firstly, back in January 2021, Activision-Blizzard was asked by the AFL-CIO as shareholders to implement a “Rooney Rule” which they declined. The claim was that the company already had such a rule for director and CEO nominees, but that extending that down the chain of roles would be an “unworkable encroachment” on their ability to run their business. That was, perhaps, in retrospect, a giant signal flare of what was to come, but the incident came and went.

In response to the CFEH lawsuit, however, Activision-Blizzard’s response was far more aggressive. It reads (bold for emphasis mine):

We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone. 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 DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past. We have been extremely cooperative with the DFEH throughout their investigation, including providing them with extensive data and ample documentation, but they refused to inform us what issues they perceived. They were required by law to adequately investigate and to have good faith discussions 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. 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. While we find this behavior to be disgraceful and unprofessional, it is unfortunately an example of how they have conducted themselves throughout the course of their investigation. It is this type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.

The picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today. Over the past several years and continuing since the initial investigation started, we’ve made significant changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams. We’ve updated our Code of Conduct to emphasize a strict non-retaliation focus, amplified internal programs and channels for employees to report violations, including the “ASK List” with a confidential integrity hotline, and introduced an Employee Relations team dedicated to investigating employee concerns. We have strengthened our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and combined our Employee Networks at a global level, to provide additional support. Employees must also undergo regular anti-harassment training and have done so for many years.

We put tremendous effort in creating fair and rewarding compensation packages and policies that reflect our culture and business, and we strive to pay all employees fairly for equal or substantially similar work. We take a variety of proactive steps to ensure that pay is driven by non-discriminatory factors. For example, we reward and compensate employees based on their performance, and we conduct extensive anti-discrimination trainings including for those who are part of the compensation process.

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.

So I have beef with this statement, and the incredible tone-deafness on display with it. Firstly, as someone who has worked in a massive global software corporation, the idea that anti-harassment training is a cure-all is laughable, as are “confidential” hotlines and the like, because HR’s key interest is always, without fail, protecting the company. They only care about employees to the extent it also benefits the company to do so, and so pointing at them as any example of prevention is a joke.

Secondly, though, the bolded. I try to not let my politics leak onto this blog, but can I just say how much I hate this type of bullshit? Whenever someone is complaining about “unaccountable bureaucrats” as their line of defense, it’s a giant klaxon that that person has fucked up. To start with, the DFEH is accountable to the state as a whole and to the court. A legal proceeding is them literally saying they want to be accountable for acting on their findings by giving the venue for a response from the accused. It is ATVI’s job, then, to respond with evidence that justifies their position. If you believe that you have a suitably documented case in defense, then you should be thrilled to go to court, to have the opportunity to prove so publicly. The statement wedges so much in about asking the state to “engage with us” on the issues – meaning, privately.

I find it very flimsy, especially because…

There’s A Lot of Easy to Find Stories About Women Being Pushed Out of Blizzard

I follow a lot of the WoW team, assorted game developers, and people I know who discuss WoW, whether through blogs, YouTube or Twitch, or participate in things like cosplay about the game. The stories of sexual harassment fit like a glove to the stories I’ve heard over the years. If you look at the Twitter trends for Activision-Blizzard right now, you can see literally dozens of women speaking up about their stories, having heard stories from others, and many of them have left the company or left years ago. Many left recently and have publicly disputed that the “Blizzard workplace of today” is accurately described in the state’s lawsuit.

Video games as an industry have high turnover, it’s true, but look at the number of departures from Blizzard in just the last 2 years. At all levels, employees are turning away – and while a lot of people speculate about what happened to push out a Jeff Kaplan or the like, far fewer wonder about why the visible women who do get in at Blizzard so often turn around and leave.

My Take On The Whole Situation

This one is both easier and kind of hard to put words to.

Beforehand: obviously, at the moment, these are all allegations. Nothing has been proven decisively in a court of law, which is what the trial is intended for. However, I believe victims and I think there’s an awful, awful lot of smoke here for no fire to be present.

Obviously, a big, hearty “fuck Blizzard” is the first thing I’d like to say aside from disclaimers. It is clear from the suit that this is systemic, enforced by leadership, and a big Blizzard problem, as the incidents named nearly all center on Blizzard – not ATVI as a whole, not an Activision business unit, but Blizzard. I’ve seen a lot of people on social media try to write it off as just a “Activision” thing or claim that Activision influence somehow led down this path, which is….incredibly stupid for two reasons. Firstly, Alex Afrasiabi (the biggest name named in the suit) was at Blizzard for nearly two decades, including pre-Activision, and that sort of reputation is not forged in a single bad night. Secondly, even if Bobby Kotick poked every executive with a hot pitchfork from his home of Hell until they sexually harassed or underpaid a female employee, it was still a choice made by employees within Blizzard to enable, shelter, and protect those doing the harassment.

In particular, Alex Afrasiabi seems fairly obviously guilty in hindsight. The quiet departure, his general attitude, the women written under his watch being particularly stereotypical or just bad, and the way he would respond to women asking for better representation in media he wrote:

The stories themselves are pretty horrifying, in particular the suicide. The details around that story are rough, made worse by the fact that the incident was investigated by police at the time due to the nature of it, so this is not just a “he said, she said.” The corporate culture and underpay of women and minorities is sadly expected, especially given the stink ATVI made about implementing a Rooney Rule top-to-bottom, but that doesn’t make it less angering. It seems like hell for those who suffered – being underpaid firstly because you work at Blizzard, the place so many dream of (all kinds of prior stories about Blizzard underpaying relative to the industry have been pushed the last few years), but then being underpaid even further in one of the most expensive housing markets in the US because you’re a woman or minority, and then having dudes come in hungover, play games for their shifts, while you have to work and deal with several of them getting drunk at work and coming to your desk to hassle you. Even if it doesn’t turn sexual, that’s not something I’d ever wish on anyone – and it sounds like it got much, much worse. That cannot be good on one’s mental health, especially piling on with the fact that video game studios often engage in crunch culture, making employees spend long hours and elongated weeks in the office to deliver a game, stuck in with the same men who ogle, harass, and demean you. I cannot imagine it, and I know that is a privilege I get through only the virtue of how I was born and how I present.

For me personally, this is such a hard line to draw, because such stories always dictate some measure of consumer response, giving you some sort of power to affect change through consumer action, theoretically, at least. However, I think that such action is personal and so I don’t think joining in any call to unsubscribe, cancel, or boycott is something I would do. There are a lot of good people who work on those projects too, and they are often lower down the chain and more likely to be negatively impacted by such actions and the business decisions they force. On the other hand, I don’t think such a call should not be made, and I support any and all who decide that cancelling their WoW subscription, refusing to play any of their Blizzard titles, or refusing to work with/engage with Blizzard. When I read that Alex Afrasiabi was particularly bad at Blizzcon, it makes me wonder just what happens at such an event that we’d be horrified to discover, and I question if ever going back to Blizzcon makes sense.

However, I also have a small measure of solidarity with those cancelling subscriptions – because I have cancelled my WoW subscription as well. I did it yesterday prior to any of this, as my decision to no longer raid, my move, my desire to work on projects, leaving my guild and everything that has followed that, and just a general apathy to most of the content in the game all pushed me in that direction. I’ll be writing more about that on the 31st, as I planned to discuss it in the past-tense, but I will note that I made that decision already – and not with this suit as the reason! – and so whether intentionally or not, I am in the ranks of the unsubs. However, I do also question if I would come back, at this rate – is there anything I get out of WoW in 2021 that I cannot get elsewhere?

My opinion is that the allegations are horrific, but there is a body of evidence, both in the case and from having been a Blizzard fan since my teen years, that suggests that this is what Blizzard has always been, more or less. It casts a pallor on much of what I thought I loved about Blizzard over the years, and makes me question just how good people like Mike Morhaime ever were if this is a culture that persisted for years and with employees who came in under his watch. It makes me ask an unfortunate question in my head – how many of the departures over the last several years we have heard about were due to this very issue? My head dances around how close of friends Jeff Kaplan was with Alex Afrasiabi (Tigole’s Furor was Alex, after all) and I cannot deny that the thought of it suggests a pretty dark trajectory, with no evidence currently supporting it.

WoW has a gigantic pile of tributes to Alex Afrasiabi – bosses, items, flavor text – no fewer than 22 references to this man who made several of his coworker’s lives a living hell. I would suggest that within the week, those should be hotfixed out. The man’s creative process and worldview have shaped WoW lore, story, and how it deals with women in a way that cannot be denied with this understanding. What Sylvanas story or stories could we have gotten with someone else at the helm? How much better could those stories have been? While he acted alone, it is obvious from the details of the complaint that Afrasiabi was enabled and sheltered by much-higher ranking employees, including current Blizzard president J Allen Brack. One bad apple spoils the bunch, but it seems like Blizzard picked a pretty rotten basket and the good apples keep rolling out.

Ultimately, the whole story is disgusting and also sadly predictable given how game development is. In recent years, multiple game studios have had broad allegations of toxic workplaces, most famously Ubisoft, and in that light, it casts a shadow that many of us feel in gaming communities. I know that I’ve seen far too many people in gaming spaces be comfortable with throwing out racial slurs, acting incredibly sexist or misogynistic, and just generally being incredibly awful douchebags. Toxicity in gaming is something I think everyone has seen, to the point that games with limited comms often end up being wildly successful with that as a “feature.” We often think of toxicity as a bottom-up problem, but what I see is that few studios often act to root out toxicity because they often have the same culture and don’t disagree with it. A lot of the difference in the WoW and FFXIV communities I’ve seen comes down to a single word – enforcement.

There are a lot of good things in gaming that are coming from the modern atmosphere. Inclusivity is growing, indie developers and even some larger studios are making interesting products with better representation and more well-rounded stories told from perspectives we don’t often get in media, and a lot of gaming communities are starting to decide to work to root out or at least challenge toxicity and bigoted behavior. The foundation of gaming, however, is built on a bro-culture that makes the whole house crooked. I think there is a lot of benefit to calling out these things, to working with victims to create a better world and to ensure that no one else goes through unnecessary harassment, pay gaps, or ever being made to feel less-than just because of how they were born or present.

There’s already enough suffering in the world without having to visit this sort of bullshit onto employees for things they cannot control, and ATVI’s response speaks volumes to how fucked the company would seem to be. Their day in court will come and I hope that every individual responsible is held to account for the things they’ve done, through a fair and equitable legal process, even though such people do not seem to care for “fair and equitable.”

12 thoughts on “The Activision-Blizzard Harassment Suit in California

  1. While this is all horrible to read, because of the lives affected by the shit done to them, I am not at all surprised by anything in there. Blizzard has always given off the impression of a boys club run amuck and untouched because of financial success. When Blizzard suddenly ‘got’ diversity, even using Overwatch as their poster child, it always felt hollow. Until we see visible signs of change, especially in their upper management, I am not going to want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    While I have bitched about Blizzard being resistant to player feedback, I would forever give up on them listening to players if the company listens *and* learns, improves, fixes everything this suit is talking about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. I wish I could be more surprised, but it doesn’t seem out of character in the slightest. The funny thing about the diversity they touted is that their writing of diverse stories feels pretty bad too. I think Overwatch is fine mostly, but like, the current slate of female main characters in WoW feel very stereotypical in a bad way, almost like a serial sexual harasser with problematic views of women wrote big chunks of their current narrative arc!

      On the last point, I agree wholeheartedly. I think if Blizzard was focused on creating a fair, equitable environment where employees can bring their full creative minds to bear, that it would not just be the right thing to do (because that is obviously true) but it would also be good for the resulting products for them to be made by a well-treated, well-compensated group of employees with multiple differing perspectives of the world and what is enjoyable about games.

      Like

      1. Katherine, Ashvane, Taelia, Lucille Waycrest, the gay zandalari duo in Vol’dun, Azshara – all of them were so different, so powerful and so well written

        Like

      2. Well, if you want female characters in BfA then you need to talk about Sylvanas. That definitely was not good writing as it managed to make most people angry for how poorly she was handled. ^_^ I don’t like the character, but man, oh man, they screwed the pooch on everything that involved her.

        I wrote a bunch more about my view on the characters other mentioned. I deleted because it is just me trying to argue with opinions — and that’s a waste of everyone’s time. As usual, the Blizzard pendulum swing wildly to the side so that they can now claim they are diverse. Only time will show if their is real change or if this is just a PR stunt.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, sorry to see you go, it’s been a slice.

    I, too, am especially befuddled at the response from ATVI, that was one of the most tone-deaf, “trumpian” (as one of my twitter friends said) response.

    The truth is that this is happening all across the game, nay, the SOFTWARE industry. If you haven’t heard of it from your favorite company it’s probably because nobody’s looking – look, the same jackasses making trouble @ Blizz came from SOMEWHERE – as well as GOING somewhere as well. So ya have to believe that this problem is ongoing and rampant.

    As has been said time and time again – it isn’t enough to be horrified by this shit. What has to be done – EVERY time – is to call out your co-workers on this shit. Make THEM uncomfortable. Push on this. Being an ally isn’t a passive thing. It can’t be. Not ever.

    I feel my own privilege kicking in when I say I don’t recall seeing much of this at MY workspace – then I recall Allison, who just up and got out of the biz for no good reason, or that poor trans girl that just stopped coming in – and i realize, there are unspoken stories even when you’re WATCHING.

    CEOs gonna CEO but we can hopefully change things from within.

    Sorry … got carried away. Outrage does that to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll probably still be around and writing about the game, even when my sub lapses. In truth, I’ll probably be back playing within a month or two, because I have enjoyed the dungeon push. It is a tough decision to make, which is why I don’t begrudge anyone making the choice to stay or not-stay. It can feel like a cop-out, but I often think of how there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism and most of us choose or choose not to partake of things mostly as a personal statement of little value to those outside of our bubbles and circles.

      Totally agree that the culture in software, gaming, and a lot of other industries is far too skewed and bent towards men and empowering men who can use that power to ends like those described in the story. There’s a pretty big chart of people coming forward with stories on the WoW subreddit and while the scale is pretty bad to reckon with, it also contains a morsel of hope, in that those people have found support circles, have whisper groups and people who stand up for them, and that public critique sharpened with the specifics of the complaint can help from outside for the employees pushing for change from within.

      I saw some people remark that COVID and work from home may have actually helped reveal a lot of this, because it creates such a different environment where employees on the receiving end of harassment are not physically present with their harassers which drives increases in productivity that you could see. It’s tangential, but I found it interesting as a morsel and something I might chase privately just to see what the data suggests. I certainly think that negative office environments being curtailed is a benefit of WFH, but it also shouldn’t take working from home to solve that problem!

      I tend to feel strongly on these issues because a former supervisor of mine transitioned during my time at the nameless software giant I used to work for. He was so brave to do that publicly and it definitely put a lot into perspective about the ways in which people often subconsciously contribute to toxic environments simply by maintaining conservative norms and biases. Luckily, that company does pretty well with inclusion and actual workplace diversity and equality, although it also tends to feel like PR as much as a good stance, but I leaned on my coworkers who were more affected by those programs than I and their perception of them was generally good. Hopefully Blizzard can find their way to a similarly-good space.

      I’m certainly buoyed by optimism that gaming as a space feels like it has finally started turning a corner away from the Gamergate, woman-hating bullshit such that the best defense many of the GG types have to offer is that its Activision’s fault, and they are met with strong pushback on every such mention I’ve seen. I even saw Mark Kern pushing that narrative (which is my most recent reminder that Mark Kern can fuck off now and forever), but there have been far more voices making their disgust known and that is heartening in a way.

      It certainly would have been better for this level of scrutiny to happen before anyone took their own lives over it, and that sort of silent suffering is hopefully something we put behind us culturally in the immediate future. It’ll take some work, but I think a lot more people are there now pushing for action compared to the past, and that’s a heartening sign if nothing else.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The WFH bit is interesting, and I feel you’re onto something there.

        I’m not going to hate on anyone for their choice to stay or go. I only hate on those that hate on them. 😛 Honestly, there is no ‘pure’ game where the environment isn’t in some way rotten like this. So, stay, go, your money’s going to an asshole somewhere.

        Though sending a message by killing your sub is certainly valid, especially after that shitty response.

        Like

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