The Ongoing Activision-Blizzard Lawsuit

It’s been a while since I sat down and wrote a post that was solely about the ongoing ATVI lawsuit from the state of California. Until such a point as resolution is reached, I think there’s value to keeping it fresh in our minds, regardless of whether you or I decide to play or not play Blizzard games, Activision games, or engage with their brands in any way.

So last time I wrote solely on this topic, it was walkout day. Since then, both a lot has changed, but precious little has changed. Blizzard in particular has been on a bit of a firing spree, taking out J Allen Brack, Luis Barriga, Jonathan LeCraft, Jesse McCree, and had confirmed that Cory Stockton, seen in the now-infamous Cosby Suite photo and chat, was put on leave. References to Alex Afrasiabi have been hotfixed out of World of Warcraft, and as the rot is exposed as widespread, more references will be removed in the upcoming patch 9.1.5. Those changes are not yet detailed, but there are several NPC references to Jonathan LeCraft, one to Luis Barriga, and the zone name Mac’Aree in Argus, named for Jesse McCree, whose namesake character in Overwatch is also in the process of being renamed. Speaking of Overwatch, the Overwatch League lost the vast majority of its sponsors, with only Xfinity, Coca-Cola, and Teamspeak remaining. Xfinity remaining is almost comically in-line with expectations, while Coca-Cola has expressed publicly that they are reconsidering (but also Coca-Cola famously assisted paramilitaries in order to union bust in Colombia by funding death squads, so…not gonna hold my breath there!), and Teamspeak, the very name of which made me say out loud “they still exist?”

Articles from Vice and Bloomberg detailed harassment in the IT department, including naming the nameless CTO from the lawsuit as Ben Kilgore, who was fired. Blizzard’s former head of Global Human Resources, Jesse Meschuk, is also out, and that will become significant for at least the department in a moment! Senior evnironment/prop artist Ashleigh Warner left the company for a new opportunity, indicating that she had some bad experiences via her goodbye tweet – Warner most recently worked on the cosmetic glasses transmog in patch 9.1. An outlet called Upcomer had an article up detailing how broken things were within Blizzard, including the protection of Tespa founder Tyler Rosen, with sources detailing that his biggest supporters were, sadly, the Morhaimes. Rosen was let go quietly but suddenly in 2018 with a going-away party, just one of a number of signifiers of cultural rot within the organization. Mike Morhaime was also criticized by employees whom, in 2011, went to him asking for Blizzard to take part in the “it gets better” campaign that was going on in response to increased LGBTQ youth suicides. Morhaime declined Blizzard’s participation, claiming that “we don’t make political statements,” which is…mind-numbingly idiotic but sadly on-par. The article also points out that the company allowed George Fisher, the lead singer of Cannibal Corpse, to perform at Blizzcon 2011, who dropped a lot of homophobic slurs and told Alliance players to die. He also has a reference NPC in World of Warcraft, still, to this day.

California’s DFEH has expanded their lawsuit against the company recently as well, citing that HR was interfering with the case and investigation. One of the primary changes was to expand the scope to temporary contract workers in addition to full-time employees, but the biggest headline of the expansion of the suit was that the company’s HR team was allegedly shredding documents it had a legal obligation to retain while using NDAs with employees to force employees to speak with the company first, before the DFEH. Fran Townsend, the infamously awful woman whose tone-deaf statement really set the stage on this issue, finally did step down from her role as the executive sponsor of the company’s Women’s Network, and also deleted her Twitter profile (my favorite bit of this – she was easily able to defend the Bush Administration’s use of torture for over a decade without facing as much heat as she did for saying dumb shit to gamers, and it was the latter that got her off social media!).

The response from ATVI to the DFEH’s allegation was that their claims were false. However, the claim from the state was that Blizzard was shredding documents 30 days after involved parties had departed the company, which is far less than the 3 year requirement of California Labor Code, while ATVI’s response is that they’ve preserved documents relevant to the investigation, which feels like an attempt at legal judo. The rest of ATVI’s response is that they’ve made lots of changes, some of the claims of which do not wash with employee accounts of the goings-on from within, but that’s all basically innuendo until they get their day in court.

Lastly, with J Allen Brack out, ATVI installed two new “co-leaders” over Blizzard – Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra. Oneal is a relatively new employee to the enterprise, who joined Blizzard in January of this year as executive vice president of development, working with the Diablo and Overwatch teams. She was previously the head of Vicarious Visions, a longtime Activision studio that was shuffled under Blizzard with their assignment to the Diablo II Resurrected project. Ybarra was an Xbox employee who joined Blizzard in 2019 as the EVP and GM of platform and technology, which basically amounts to infrastructure work on Battle.net and development services.

This change was met with skepticism. On a representational front, the co-leadership is a nice touch, even as it remains to be seen what it will functionally mean for a new Blizzard going forward. The role title of “co-leader” was an interesting choice, with Bloomberg’s Jason Schrier stating that it did mean less autonomy. Some misguided souls thought that Ybarra being an active WoW player who does +20 keys in the modern game would mean anything or fix anything, which…I mean, is probably the wrong priority to have, yeah, given the scope of the issue actually facing the company. Both seem perfectly nice and have been responsible for some great projects, so there’s not a lot of reason to object from that angle – but if they can lead the company out of the inequality and harassment that rots it to the core is a larger question and one people are rightly skeptical of, myself included.

That’s the major event catchup for now – and as I said the last time I discussed this, before I talk about my perspective on the issue, the victims deserve center-stage and ultimately, I think their voices in this matter more than my own or any other. A lot of them are very publicly fighting to save a company they love, and it still feels a lot like a losing battle. The best thing you can do is follow the hashtag ABetterABK on Twitter and continue to engage with the discussion – don’t lose sight of it and the fight being had to improve the working conditions on the games so many of us enjoy.

So with that, my personal take.

The whole thing is a fucking mess, and while ATVI has obviously been noisily making changes, they’ve done precious little of any meaningful substance. They continue to work with anti-worker law firms whom leadership is cozy with. They continue to stutter-step and take half-measures rather than meaningful change. Most of the Blizzard-specific changes (removing references to abusers) is being undertaken by the individual development teams and not as a company-wide measure.

I’ve returned to playing WoW as of around 10 days ago, which I’ve mentioned in a few previous posts. Ultimately, I made the decision based on what the employees working for positive change said and requested – coupled with the resolution of the other issues that were in the way of me enjoying the game, I’ve been back to raiding and running a few keys a week, albeit with far less engagement than before. I do enjoy the core gameplay of WoW and back with my friends, find a certain peace in it – although the lawsuit does continue to make some of that play feel questionable. especially the pallor it casts on the story of Shadowlands, which continues to give off an extreme “character arcs conceived by a harasser” vibe.

For me, I think I’ve reconciled what I can do in this case to continuing to support the employees – by playing the game they’ve given so much to, to reading their words, hearing their needs, and joining their requests for action both directly and also by keeping visibility on the issue.

Again, I feel like whatever decision anyone makes with playing Blizzard games is valid and I have no interest in telling you that you should or should not play. I myself have struggled with the idea – a lot of what I get from WoW and other Blizzard titles is value from social interactions, those not provided or designed by Blizzard, but at the same time the message is hard to send and have heard, although I do have a bigger platform than many through this site, and I guess that’s why I found it necessary to write this and to keep coming back to it.

A preview of Diablo II Resurrected (well, sort of) from Holly Green at Paste hit on the feeling pretty well, so I’ve linked it here. It came at a great moment, as this last week marked a similar moment for me as someone who writes about WoW. Writing about Blizzard feels weird right now, especially with positive anything to say. In her case, Diablo II Resurrected is a good remaster, which is surprisingly hard to do, and they’ve done it well. In WoW-land, we have a set of changes announced for patch 9.1.5 that are all pretty great. At the same time, heaping praise upon the company for it feels really shitty, because there’s that feeling of implicit endorsement, irrational though it may seem. In the case of the WoW changes, they feel really good to hear about, and I am eager to see the details – and the team deserves the praise these changes earn, but at the same time, it feels really bad to give it. The people on Team 2 at Blizzard deserve the praise – Blizzard as a whole entity does not, and that feels like semantics bullshit, but I think a lot of us are still grappling with how this is supposed to work right now.

But it’s hard to not give in to cynicism, because on the one hand, my logical brain knows that software development and design doesn’t work in the way we as gamers so often try to make it seem. Blizzard didn’t “rush” changes to cover their tracks or offset their bad press, and 9.1.5 isn’t a response to the lawsuit. But there’s a certain satisfaction in the cynical read, that Blizzard is panicking and pulling all the ripcords for players to just please stay with them, I won’t deny that. It implies a response is being made, that reaction is already happening, and that the company is trying to make big changes.

But ultimately, I think that’s why we have to deny that cynical edge a place. Because it does make it seem like Blizzard is making things right, when most signs are that they are not really doing much of anything short of shuffling deck chairs. If those chairs are on solid ground or the Titanic…well, that remains to be seen.

(Also: this is a very serious issue and I don’t want to make light, but I would enjoy if we got a trinket by the end of Shadowlands called the Document Shredder or something more fantasy-infused that has a cheat death effect but then hits you with a DoT for more damage than it healed you for to keep you alive, or something similar.)

3 thoughts on “The Ongoing Activision-Blizzard Lawsuit

  1. I’d guess that the 9.1.5 changes were Blizzard “panicking and pulling all the ripcords for players to just please stay with them” as a result of the mass exodus that began long before the State of California revelations. WoW was in some trouble before any of this or so it seemed.

    One somewhat trivial but still revealing aspect of all this is the way Blizzard has routinely lionized its own employees within the games. It’s not all that unsusual for games to pay tribute to creators (or players) who’ve moved on, whether that be by leaving the company or the industry or sadly by coming to the end of their life, but to name great chunks of content after people who are still with the company and making that content seems bizarre and also crass. I read that the company has said it won’t be using any real-world names for content henceforth. You wouldn’t have thought it would take something like this to make them realize what a tacky idea it was to begin with and how badly it come back to bite them.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Its not like Blizz learned about this lawsuit 2 months ago either…they’ve been under investigation for a while.

      Yes, the cynic sees this as just stopping the bleeding. Its a billion dollar business run by the almighty dollar. Whatever it takes to get people to pay them, on an ongoing basis, they will do it.

      But I suppose there’s a chance Blizz is doing this for altruistic purposes too. Could be.

      Like

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