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

    
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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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MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Was only a matter of time…

Reader
draugris

There is a really interesting Reddit thread where they compiled a list of people (verified ex Blizzard employees) who have come forward and shared their experiences. The vast majority of them stayed really long with Blizzard, the longest more than 13 years. I am not American so I have no clue about the job market there but what I found really mind-boggling is, if my employer is in any way abusing me or the culture at my workplace is like it is described in the lawsuit, why not quitting and looking for a better opportunity. Is there non in the US or is Blizzard just such a big name that it is so difficult to give up?

What I also don´t understand is why high management just did nothing and let it happen. Not even from a point of ethics ( i mean that is out of the question anyway) but from a business point of view. How can people working in such conditions be productive employees? How can people who are allowed to drink excessively during work fulfill their duties from their employment contracts? It makes absolutely no sense to me.

Reader
taugrim

I am not American so I have no clue about the job market there but what I found really mind-boggling is, if my employer is in any way abusing me or the culture at my workplace is like it is described in the lawsuit, why not quitting and looking for a better opportunity. Is there non in the US or is Blizzard just such a big name that it is so difficult to give up?

What are you supposed to do when you are working for the widely-regarded industry leader?

What are you supposed to do when your job is your dream job, but the company culture / environment is toxic?

What are you supposed to do when you moved / relocated to work for this specific company?

What are you supposed to do if you suspect this is an industry-wide problem?

Just a handful of fairly obvious questions.

Job mobility is not high within an industry when it’s specialized.

Reader
draugris

“What are you supposed to do when you are working for the widely-regarded industry leader?”

Ask yourself the question “Is it worth it”? Never put a companies name or reputation above your well-being.

“What are you supposed to do when your job is your dream job, but the company culture / environment is toxic?”

Difficult I think. The first question that comes into my mind is, how can a job where I am treated in this kind of way could be my dream job? A dream job, at least how I consider it is a mixture of what I do and in what environment I do it.

For the people working as game masters or cm´s or anything game-related, I don´t know how many options are there. I think Amazon Game Studios is also in Irvine but I guess there are not many studios. For System Engineers or Developers it might be easier.

“What are you supposed to do when you moved / relocated to work for this specific company?”

That´s why I asked about the job situation. I mean if you relocated for your job and that job turns out to be a living hell, that´s horrible. But if there are other opportunities in the area you are at least not forced to stay there.

“What are you supposed to do if you suspect this is an industry-wide problem?”

What do you mean by “the industry”? the game industry? or do you mean the tech industry? For the latter it is not normal for that to happen, it may be a US-related problem.

No job is worth undergoing that kind of treatment, I mean we are not talking about a colleague who thinks he is super seducer. We are talking about a company that not only let things happen that are flat out criminal they even encouraged them.

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Unnar Thor Thorisson

So on the one hand, there’s one positive point in all this: It isn’t a single prosecutor, the state of California is throwing its weight behind this, and they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t have a whole magazine full of silver bullets. That indicates that they’ve got a lot of evidence and a very solid case.

Other hand, though: This will probably end in a settlement. Decent odds they’ll get SOMETHING out of it, but it’s hard to say just what. Some kind of legally binding promise to do better? A tired payout with the full knowledge that they’ll be doing this again in a few years? Maybe one or two executives get gently ushered out the door with bags full of cash as compensation?

To remedy this needs REAL action. A total purge of the higher executives is just the start. Culture change doesn’t happen quickly, and the forces that create and sustain these cultures will be constantly trying to prevent any kind of improvement, so the push has to be utterly relentless. Of course the real power and the real problem is the shareholders, but they have enough distance from the actual operations that they can’t be held liable for anything that happens unless it specifically and personally implicates them, so sadly they remain out of reach.

Reader
Narficus

I stopped playing any Acti-Blizz games when it became obvious which market they have been kowtowing to, and that market unfortunately tries to moot this story by merit of this workplace misconduct being absolutely commonplace, and even more unfortunate is that workplace misconduct would be the least of the problems for the people there.

Reader
Gamewench

I’ve played off and on since beta. Having at least 4 characters at max level for every expansion.
I will not return to the game at all since this has been exposed.
There is enough abuse going on world wide where people justify it.
I refuse to fund this game any longer.

Reader
styopa

All I can say is that I’ve found in GW2 that taking the $12-15/mo I was subbing monthly to Blizzard means I can save HALF of it and use the rest to get some nice stuff regularly from their gem shop – very much a win/win for me, not so much for Blizzard.

MurderHobo
Reader
MurderHobo

Don’t they have an earnings call in two weeks?

For once I may have to tune in just to see if the investors make them squirm.

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Loyal Patron
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Alberto

Well Glad I Cancelled my WOW Classic Sub for FF 14 even more now. Literally,
“You either Die a Hero or live long enough to become the Villain ” YIKES

Reader
Armsman

Boy that Bobby Kotick is sure earning his money these days.

What’s next, A statement from a developer to women employees:

“What? Don’t you use birth control?”

I guess kowtowing to Chinese government interests WASN’T as low as blizzard/Activision can go.

That’s sad I’m sure they’re hoping that the majority of their teenage male customers are is screwed up as they are; and will somehow rally to their defense.

I hope these clowns go down in flames.

Alyn
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Alyn

Good bye, Acti-Blizz, let’s just call it quits.

Keldyn
Reader
Keldyn

Its truly disgusting that Acti-Blizz are doubling down on this. I’m sorry, but no amount of PR spin will ever frame this debacle in a positive light. Do the right thing and OWN your shit! There is a culture of systemic harassment and bullying in your company!

Heads should be rolling right now. I want to see a company wide purge at the executive level, but I won’t hold my breath. Blizz has a long and storied history of escaping accountability.
While many seem to believe their shiny, gilded veneer began to wear around the time of the Blitzchung incident, it is clear now that the rot goes much deeper.

It’s sad to think that none of this surprises me either. The gaming industry appears to be a haven for this particular brand of wretchedness. The system is well and truly broken folks. :(