Rundown Of Blizzard's Legal Problems: The Bad, The Worse, And The Ugly

Featuring "cube crawls," butt plugs, and other stuff that has no place in the office.
Rundown Of Blizzard's Legal Problems: The Bad, The Worse, And The Ugly

On July 20, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard Inc., one of the biggest video game studios around. The lawsuit alleges that the company fostered a culture that encouraged sexual harassment, discrimination, and unequal pay for women. With a constant tempest of trash continuing to build, here's what you need to know about the lead-up to the lawsuit, what it alleges, and how the company has reacted publicly since the lawsuit was filed …

Activision Blizzard, And Sexism In Gaming

If you think you don't know who Activision Blizzard is, you're probably wrong. Activision Blizzard has been in operation since the 1970s, creating hits that define several genres. From Starcraft to Call of Duty and, of course, World of Warcraft, Activision Blizzard has made their games household names for decades. They're also the company who, when asked to try adding some less hypersexualized women in their games, found the question laughable:

Sexism in games and gaming culture has a long history. For the majority of gaming's history, sexism was publicly accepted as the norm by large companies and privately celebrated by many fans and developers alike. From the early '90s, discussions of women's bodies in games were focused almost exclusively on the sexualization of women to appeal to a straight male fantasy. This attitude was so pervasive that it launched many a franchise, from Dead or Alive to Tomb Raider to Bayonetta

The high watermark for this open hostility towards women appears to have been the 2014 controversy Gamergate. Gamergate was an extended harassment campaign against notable women in gaming overwhelmingly perpetrated by male fans hiding behind anonymity and flimsy excuses that aren't even worth dredging back up. Although the controversy revealed the depth of the vitriol against women in gaming, it also signaled a change in how major companies talk about diversity, inclusion, and sexualization in video games. Large gaming companies went on to talk the talk of gender equality—with mixed results.

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Blizzard's Sex Discrimination

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) suit categorizes its allegations into three broad categories: Sex Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, and "Retaliation and Failure to Prevent Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation." Sex Discrimination covers cases in which an employee or applicant is treated unfairly due to their sex, whereas Sexual Harassment involves inappropriate sexual remarks or advances. 

DFEH lays out a handful of allegations regarding how women are treated in the workplace at Activision Blizzard, painting a painful picture of frustrated ambition and of overwork and underpay that they claim begins immediately at hire. In the lawsuit, DFEH claims that women hired are "offered lower compensation and less lucrative job assignments and opportunities than their male counterparts." The lawsuit alleges that women are offered lower salaries and less equity at every level. In one example of the difference in pay between men and women, DFEH shows a table of male and female executives and their salaries over a several-year period. The female executive is always making less by several hundred thousand dollars. The lawsuit claims that this pattern of discrimination is continuing to this day.

In addition to starting at a massive disadvantage, DFEH offers over half a dozen examples in which women are passed over for promotion despite being more qualified than their male peers. One example cited in the suit is a woman who has taken on the duties of a manager, "but when she asked her male supervisor about being fairly paid for the work she was actually doing and promoted into that position, the manager commented that they could not risk promoting her as she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much." It goes on to discuss women being reprimanded for picking up children even though their male peers were playing video games during the same period. Women of color, DFEH alleges, were "particularly vulnerable targets."

The Sexual Harassment

Throughout the lawsuit, DFEH makes reference to Activision Blizzard's "frat boy culture," a fairly mild way of putting it, given the allegations. Warning: References to sexual assault and suicide incoming.

One particularly evocative allegation describes an office practice of "cube crawls." Cube crawls, the lawsuit tells us, are events "in which male employees drink copious amounts of alcohol as they 'crawl' their way through various cubicles in the office and often engage in inappropriate behavior towards female employees." The lawsuit goes on to describe that "male employees would play video games at work, engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies, and make numerous jokes about rape."

Xbox controller

Diego Marín/Unsplash

Okay, "play video games at work" doesn't sound so bad, but the rest is inappropriate. 

The suit alleges that women were groped, had their breasts commented on at work, and their male supervisors would hit on them. The suit also outlines how little was done about this by executives despite their witnessing such events. One former creative director was so widely known as a harasser, the lawsuit alleges, that his suite at a company event was known as "The Cosby Suite," in reference to Bill Cosby.

By far, one of the saddest and most upsetting parts of the lawsuit is in this section. The lawsuit explains, "In a particularly tragic example, a female employee committed suicide during a business trip with a male supervisor who had brought butt plugs and lubricant with him on the trip." 

Women who worked against the frat boy culture, the lawsuit goes on, were often retaliated against with involuntary transfers, denials for projects, and being selected for layoffs. Employees also had their private complaints leaked, claims the suit. The suit points out that even when Blizzard Activision did their own internal investigation, they found their employees didn't trust their HR department or hold it in high regard.

After The Filing

Once the lawsuit was filed, the PR war began in earnest. Activision Blizzard saw the lawsuit and seemingly rushed to put their foot in their mouth before anyone else beat them to it. They emailed the staff to say that the DFEH's suit showed "a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories—some from more than a decade ago." Several internal emails from different executives struck wildly different tones, but the accusations that the suit had distorted the truth began to circulate internally and externally.

Once Blizzard's "distortion" accusations made headlines, Activision Blizzard employees circulated and signed an open letter to their company's leadership expressing their disappointment in no uncertain terms. The letter, signed by over 2,000 employees, called the response "abhorrent and insulting." It also demanded the company make official statements recognizing the severity of the accusations and asked the executive who made the distortions statement to step down.

Bobby Kotick, Activision Blizzard's CEO, published an open letter back to the employees (with a fresh new attitude. "Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf," wrote Kotick. In addition to changing their tone to match what their employees demanded, Activision Blizzard also hired an external law firm, WilmerHale, to review their policies and procedures to make sure that they "maintain best practices to promote a respectful and inclusive workplace."

Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard

Steven Simko

He posted this very sincere letter on the press release section of their website for investors. 

By the time this shift in tone had occurred, an employee walkout had already been organized. 350 Activision Blizzard employees walked out last Wednesday, and in keeping with its new supportive stance, the company gave them all paid time to attend the event. The walkout caught the internet's attention and had a fresh list of demands, including an end to arbitration clauses in employee contracts. The hope is that without forced arbitration for sexual discrimination and harassment, these issues would be resolved in public court and not behind closed doors.

On Tuesday, J. Allen Brack, the President of Blizzard named explicitly throughout the lawsuit, stepped down from his position. Although Activision Blizzard didn't comment on whether his stepping down was related to the lawsuit, the connection is not impossible to draw after Bobby Kotick said, "people will be held accountable for their actions," and Blizzard will "terminate any manager or leader found to have impeded the integrity of our processes for evaluating claims and imposing appropriate consequences." 

Also stepping down is Blizzard's Head of HR, Jesse Meschuk, who has also deleted his Twitter ... Again, Blizzard didn't connect the dots to the lawsuit explicitly.

What’s Next

In light of these allegations, other prominent gaming companies have taken a moment to pat themselves on the back for not being sued by a state yet. Take-Two Interactive, the creators of Red Dead Redemption, said they "will not tolerate harassment or discrimination or bad behavior of any kind." Bungie, creators of the Destiny and Halo franchises, said they "have a responsibility to acknowledge, reflect, and do what we can to push back on a persistent culture of harassment, abuse, and inequality that exists in our industry."

Will these wind up being empty promises which ultimately do nothing to change the gaming industry into a more fair and equitable place? Or will the threat of state suits be enough to convince gaming companies to finally treat women as people? The lawsuit offers this grim perspective: "Women and girls now make up almost half of gamers in America, but the gaming industry continues to cater to men, even in California. Activision Blizzard's double-digit percentage growth, ten figure annual revenues, and recent diversity marketing campaigns have unfortunately changed little."

Top image: Dinosaur918/Wiki Commons

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