The Industry

The Pixelated Ceiling

Activision Blizzard, one of the biggest video game companies in the world, is being sued for its allegedly sexist workplace. It’s blowing up the industry.

A woman holding a video game controller.
Activison Blizzard is facing allegations of fostering a deeply sexist workplace culture. Iuliia Zavalishina/Getty Images Plus

The company behind some of the biggest video games in the world is facing intense scrutiny after California regulators filed a lawsuit on July 20 alleging that it has fostered an intensely sexist workplace culture. The state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing is suing Activision Blizzard, the publisher of Call of Duty and Warcraft, following a two-year investigation in which it allegedly discovered evidence that women at the company perpetually face professional and personal discrimination. The disturbing examples span everything from pay imbalances and a glass ceiling to a drunken office culture wherein rape jokes and unwanted advances go unpunished.

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The company quickly denied the allegations in the lawsuit, but the scandal is snowballing. Both current and former executives have reacted with horror at the investigation, and a growing number of Activision Blizzard employees have shared their own troubling experiences working at the publisher—experiences that echo similar stories of discrimination at other major video game companies. It’s unclear if this will lead to a wider reckoning in the gaming industry, but there’s clearly a lot to reckon with. Here’s what you should know.

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Remind me: What is Activision Blizzard, and why is this company such a big deal?

Activision Blizzard is a giant in the video game industry. It employs 9,500 people, is a member of the Fortune 500 and S&P 500, and has the largest game network in the world in terms of user base. The company was formed in 2008 through the merger of two video game giants: Activision Inc. and Blizzard Entertainment. Beyond Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, it’s also known for titles like Diablo, Starcraft, and Candy Crush. Activision Blizzard had a net revenue of $8.1 billion in 2020. We’re talking about the gaming world’s equivalent of Facebook or Google.

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What, exactly, are the accusations against Activision Blizzard?

The allegations laid out in the lawsuit fall into two related yet distinct categories: discriminatory practices that seriously diminish female employees’ pay and career advancement prospects, and a “frat boy” office environment that, according to investigators, encourages pervasive sexual harassment. When it comes to the professional inequities, the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing found that these Activision Blizzard employees suffer disadvantages on a number of levels: About 20 percent of the company’s workforce is female, yet, as the suit asserts, only white men hold top leadership roles. Regulators also charge that women consistently receive lower starting salaries, earn less for doing “substantially similar work” as their male peers at every level of the company, and occupy more junior positions with fewer professional opportunities.

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Women at Activision Blizzard also are allegedly often passed up for promotions, which instead go to men with less experience and time working at the company. The suit describes a number of specific incidents where this supposedly happened. In one case, a female employee was reportedly running twice as many marketing campaigns and was raking in far more revenue than her male counterpart. Yet only he got to attend regular one-on-one meetings with a high-ranking executive and eventually beat her out for a promotion. In another case, a woman had assumed some managerial responsibilities and asked for a proportionate promotion and raise, yet her supervisor allegedly told her that he was worried she’d get pregnant and like being a mom too much to honor these demands. “Defendants promote women more slowly and terminate them more quickly than their male counterparts,” the suit reads. “Faced with such adverse terms and conditions of employment, many women have been forced to leave the company.”

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It somehow gets even worse in the other half of the suit, which concerns allegations about a workplace culture in which men regularly sexually harass and demean their female colleagues. Regulators claim that male Activison Blizzard employees will often participate in “cube crawls” in which they drink excessively and visit various cubicles in the office, groping and making sexual comments about women in the office along the way. These employees also reportedly regularly joke about rape and their sex lives, make inappropriate sexual advances, delegate work to their female subordinates while they play video games, kick women out of the lactation rooms to hold meetings, and criticize mothers for leaving work to pick up kids from day care. Women who bring up these issues with human resources, the suit claims, see their concerns waved away and often face retaliation in the form of layoffs and involuntary transfers. The suit further maintains that women of color are particularly vulnerable to this discrimination, recounting the experience of a Black employee whose supervisor criticized her body language and scolded her for asking for help while treating her male colleagues with less scrutiny.

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The most disturbing incident described in the suit has to do with an employee’s suicide. Regulators write:

In a tragic example of the harassment that Defendants allowed to fester in their offices, a female employee committed suicide while on a company trip due to a sexual relationship that she had been having with her male supervisor. The male supervisor was found by police to have brought a butt plug and lubricant on this business trip. Another employee confirmed that the deceased female employee may have been suffering from other sexual harassment at work prior to her death. Specifically, at a holiday party before her death, male co-workers were alleged to be passing around a picture of the deceased’s vagina.

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The California agency is seeking an injunction that would force Activision Blizzard to give unpaid wages, back pay, pay adjustments, and lost wages to women at the company. It would also enjoin the company to provide workplace protections mandated by law.

How has Activision Blizzard responded?

The company released a blustery statement on Wednesday describing the agency’s allegations as both inaccurate and more representative of the company’s past. “The DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past,” the statement reads. “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.” The company claims that the suit exemplifies the “irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats” that is supposedly making businesses leave California. Activision Blizzard also took offense to the inclusion of its former employee’s suicide in the lawsuit. “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,” it said in the statement. The company asserted that it does not tolerate discrimination or harassment, and that it investigates employee complaints seriously.

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Comments from current and former Activision Blizzard executives have been a bit more mixed. J. Allen Brack, president of the Activision Blizzard subsidiary Blizzard Entertainment, wrote an email to employees calling the allegations “extremely troubling” and said he felt “angry, sad, and a host of other emotions.” The suit accused Brack of meting out light punishments to offenders, despite full awareness of the allegations. Meanwhile, at least two executives who previously worked at Activision Blizzard have issued apologies for failing to address the toxic workplace culture. Mike Morhaime, a co-founder of Blizzard Entertainment, tweeted out a statement early Saturday morning expressing his shame and regrets. “I realize that these are just words, but I wanted to acknowledge the women who had awful experiences,” he wrote. “I hear you, I believe you, and I am so sorry to have let you down.”

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Then on Sunday, the co-creator of the Diablo franchise, Chris Metzen, put out a statement on Twitter, writing that  “the yawning disconnect between my perception from the top and the crushing reality many of you experienced fills me with profound shame.” In follow-up tweets, he also addressed allegations against former World of Warcraft senior creative director Alex Afrasiabi, whom the lawsuit accuses of having a history of attempting to kiss and hit on female employees at events. (In fact, regulators claim that Afrasiabi’s hotel room at the company’s annual BlizzCon convention was known as the “Cosby Suite” among employees.) Afrasiabi was Metzen’s successor at Activision Blizzard, and Twitter users have questioned whether Metzen was actually unaware of the alleged conduct, as he suggests. “I never heard a peep about him other than that he could be tough on his team or an asshole from time to time,” Metzen claimed. “So learning all this the past week has been just utterly shocking. Just reprehensible shit.”

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On Monday, an open letter signed by more than 2,000 current and former employees was sent to management. The letter denounces the company’s official statements outright denying the allegations in the suit. “Our company executives have claimed that actions will be taken to protect us, but in the face of legal action — and the troubling official responses that followed — we no longer trust that our leaders will place employee safety above their own interests,” it reads. Developers have reportedly stopped working on World of Warcraft due to the company’s response. Dozens of employees have also come forward on social media to recount their own experiences with bias at Activision Blizzard.

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How has the video game community reacted to these revelations?

Video game commentators and players of World of Warcraft in particular are clearly outraged. Polygon reported on Thursday that hundreds of World of Warcraft players participated in a virtual sit-in to protest the “unethical treatment of employees” and fundraise for Black Girls Code, a nonprofit that teaches girls ages 7 to 17 about programming. And, as Kotaku reported, many prominent Twitch streamers who play Blizzard games have also spoken out against the company. Towelliee, one of the most-watched people on the site, said he won’t stream World of Warcraft until “there is some sort of statement with a plan of action and explanation.” Naguura, another popular World of Warcraft streamer, tweeted, “Just absolutely disgusting behavior and seemingly so many higher ups just ‘let it happen.’ ” There has also been a campaign in some World of Warcraft forums to get two nonplayer characters named after Afrasiabi removed from the game. Publications like the Gamer and YouTube channels like GameXplain that cover and review video games have said that they will be indefinitely halting coverage of the company’s games in protest. More broadly, developers have been speaking out about similar experiences at other big video game companies and pushing the industry as a whole to pursue reforms for gender equality.

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So Activision isn’t just one bad apple in the gaming industry?

There’s been increased attention paid to the sexism that underlies the culture and managerial practices of a number of major video game companies in recent years, an outgrowth of the #MeToo movement. The allegations in the Activision Blizzard suit are eerily similar to what Kotaku reported about Riot Games, developer of the popular title League of Legends, in an extensive investigation in 2018. Riot Games’ process for hiring people in leadership positions was reportedly rigged in favor of male employees, and women would often do jobs above their paygrade only to have men brought in to replace them. There was also a rampant “bro culture,” in which employees would send around pictures of genitalia and senior leaders would pass around lists of female subordinates they’d like to sleep with. Following these allegations going public, Riot Games eventually paid a $10 million settlement in a 2019 gender discrimination suit and promised to improve the company’s culture.

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Ubisoft, another giant video game developer responsible for series like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, saw several executives resign and other employees go on leave after Kotaku documented numerous incidents of harassment at parties and the office last July. In one case, co-founder Maxime Béland reportedly put his hands around the neck of a female employee at a party to demonstrate “what she likes”; he later resigned. And just last week, Kotaku reported on another troubling pattern of sexual harassment at Ubisoft’s Singapore office, with allegations of unsolicited shoulder rubs and aggressive sexual advances from leaders toward subordinates.

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Regulators in the Activision Blizzard lawsuit argue that gender discrimination has been widespread in the industry, which would be unacceptable in and of itself, but also flies in the face of the real demographics of the video game-playing public. “Sexism has plagued the male-dominated gaming industry for decades, and increasingly so in recent years,” the suit reads. “Women and girls now make up almost half of gamers in America, but the gaming industry continues to cater to men.”

So what happens next? Will any reforms happen at Activision? Is there going to be a trial?

After the initial statements in which the company rebuked the lawsuit’s findings and essentially dared California to a court battle, Activision Blizzard hasn’t really said too much publicly, so it’s unclear if it will actually heed the calls of regulators and its own staff. The DFEH is also requesting that the court hold a jury trial to determine the damages and compensation for women who were allegedly mistreated at the company.

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