California sues Activision-Blizzard over discrimination and sexist, toxic work culture

Oh gosh why.

Activision-Blizzard has had an abysmal couple of years, and it’s about to get much worse, as the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has filed a civil rights and equal pay lawsuit against Activision and Blizzard on behalf of their victimized employees.

As first reported by Bloomberg Law, the DFEH alleges that its multi-year investigation determined that Activision-Blizzard has discriminated against women when it comes to everything from salary and incentives to promotions and executive representation. Pregnant and potentially pregnant women were reportedly subject to specific discrimination, as were female employees of color.

It only gets worse from there; the California agency says Activision-Blizzard fosters a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ workplace culture,” with rape jokes, “cube crawls,” sexual harassment, groping, and so forth. The suit cites “numerous” complaints about this harassment made to no less than J. Allen Brack and suggests victims were “discouraged” from complaining. Former World of Warcraft developer Alex “Furor” Afrasiabi is specifically identified as a serial harasser; Afrasiabi worked for the company between 2004 and 2020, so this is clearly an issue that spans many years of company history.

The most horrifying example is buried on page 15 of the complaint; the DFEH refers to the suicide of a female employee who’d been having a relationship with her male supervisor and suffered harassment at the hands of staffers who were allegedly passing around photos of her genitalia.

The suit demands compensatory and punitive damages, unpaid wages, relief, and attorneys’ fees for the California DFEH. If that department sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same state agency suing Riot Games over similar harassment and discrimination claims and a refusal to fully cooperate with the state’s investigation.

Activision-Blizzard has issued a statement, and instead of politely declining to comment on pending litigation, it essentially denied most of the complaint, claims it’s improved its work culture in the two years since the investigation began, and then directly and repeatedly attacked the DFEH itself.

“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.”

Click to show Blizzard's entire press statement

“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.”

However, support for the studio’s workers has begun trickling in already. Former Blizzard producer Stephanie Krutsick identified herself as a victim in one of the Alex Afrasiabi incidents and called out the “lack of accountability” at the studio. Former Blizzard staffer Alex Ackerman said she left her role at the company after being gaslit by her boss and having her compensation cut, saying the company “employ[s] predators in every sense.” Former World of Warcraft staffer Jennifer Klasing, who notes she is not included or referenced in the lawsuit, says that the complaint “tracks with what [she’s] seen and heard.” “There are absolutely amazing, supportive, and equitable people at Blizzard,” she tweeted. “That is not in dispute. I’m friends with many of them still. But there were others who were not. And they were allowed to thrive.”

Readers will recall that Activision-Blizzard’s modern story has been punctuated by mass layoffs, the enormously unpopular Blitzchung incident and ensuing boycott, more layoffs, dodgy stock deals, an exodus of veteran developers (“our mentors are leaving in droves“), even more layoffs, a labor uprising and bizarre compensation system, still more layoffs, the WoW esports prizepool trainwreck, a scandal over Bobby Kotick’s exorbitant pay, collapsing playerbases, another labor uprising, the collapse of HOTS, the don’t-you-guys-have-phones fiasco, shareholder vote shenanigans, refusing to cooperate with diversity measures, and most recently concerns over World of Warcraft’s health as players flee for other games following a poorly received retail update and an ever-lengthening drought of new blockbusters.

In just the last few years, Blizzard has lost a large number of high-profile developers, including Mike Morhaime, Chris Metzen, Jeff Kaplan, Ben Brode, Dustin Browder, Omar Gonzalez, Dave Kosak, Kevin Dong, Michael Chu, David Kim, Eric Braddock, Glenn Rane, Brandy Camel, Tim Morten, Ray Gresko, Frank Pearce, Chris Sigaty, and the aforementioned Alex Afrasiabi.

Perhaps most relevantly, in 2019, WAPO published a disturbing report on Blizzard pressuring female employees with gift cards to use an app that tracked their reproductive activity, from when they had sex to “the appearance of their cervical fluid.” A Blizzard VP said at the time that these invasive measures would help women have a healthy baby and focus more on work “because it’s great for [Blizzard’s] business experience.” Which is to say, none of this is a surprise at all.

Further reading:

Source: Bloomberg Law, lawsuit. With thanks to Aldristavan, GreaterDivinity, Bruno, Keldyn, and Newsie.
Update 7/22
Bungie, which split from Activision in 2019, issued a statement in support of the victims.

“Bungie is built on empowering our people no matter who they are, where they are from, or how they identify. We 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. It’s our responsibility to ensure this type of behavior is not tolerated at Bungie at any level, and that we never excuse it or sweep it under the rug. While the accounts in this week’s news are difficult to read, we hope they will lead to justice, awareness, and accountability. We have a zero-tolerance policy at Bungie for environments that support this toxic culture, and we are committed to rooting them out to defend those who are at risk. Women, POC, and underrepresented communities have nothing to gain by reliving their trauma. We believe them when they come forward with reports of abuse or harassment. We don’t pretend that Bungie is perfect and that no one has experienced harassment while working here, but we will not tolerate it and will confront it head on. And we will continue to do the work every day to be better. Our goal is to continue to improve the experience for everyone working at Bungie and do our part to make the gaming industry as a whole to be more welcoming and inclusive.”

Update 7/22
Players have waged at least one sit-in/protest in the game in support of affected workers. The Blizzard gaming subs (all 11 of them) issued a joint statement in support of victims, condemning Blizzard fully and demanding justice. The WoW sub has compiled a complete list of all the Blizzard developers who’ve come forward with their stories about abuse (it’s 28 people so far). More here.
Update 7/23
A memo from Blizzard’s J. Allen Brack has now been leaked; it addresses Blizzard staffers in the wake of the allegations. More here.
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