Jeff Strain, a former employee of Blizzard, former co-founder of ArenaNet, and current founder of Undead Labs, is joining the cavalcade of voices condemning Activision-Blizzard’s culture. In a letter sent to his employees that he invited them to publish to the public, Strain is calling on the video game industry to unionize and inviting his studio to join a union with his full endorsement.
“If this week does not show us that our industry colleagues — even the most entry-level QA tester — need true support and baseline protection, I can’t imagine how much worse it will have to get,” he writes in the letter. “We need unionization.”
Strain’s tenure at Blizzard saw him join the company in 1996, working as a programmer for some of the studio’s biggest titles including StarCraft and Diablo, and as a lead programmer and team lead on World of Warcraft. According to his letter, he elected to leave Blizzard in 1998 after a “cataclysmic meeting with one of the founders” about issues with a dismembered female body in the beta version of Diablo — a meeting that ultimately saw him leave the studio and found ArenaNet as well as an event that left a mark on his career as an entrepreneur in the games industry going forward.
“My time at Blizzard left an indelible mark on my life and career that continues to this day. Most importantly, it showed me how abusive cultures can propagate and self-amplify over time; how ‘hardcore gamers only’ is a smokescreen for ‘bro culture’; how fostering a sense of exceptionalism inhibits people from speaking up because they should just deal with it if they love the company and its games; and how passive leadership that turns a blind eye can ultimately be the most abusive thing of all.”
Strain further writes that his 25 years in the games industry has been littered with “hundreds of profoundly disturbing stories [from devs] about their industry experiences,” which ultimately is leading him to join the call for developer representation via unions. “I’m an entrepreneur, and a veteran of three successful independent studio start ups. I’m highly familiar with the financial, legal, contractual, and organizational aspects of game development. I also know that I have nothing to fear from unionization,” he writes. “The giants of this industry have shown us this week that we cannot trust them to moderate and manage the wealth and power that players and fans have given them.”
Strain’s call to action is the latest development after the state of California filed a massive sexual discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit against ActiBlizz following a two year-long investigation. Since then, numerous victims and former Blizzard devs have stepped forward with horror stories of their own, and revelations of events within the company, from a literal Cosby Suite to an employee’s arrest for peeping in a bathroom, have spilled out in the days after the story broke. The entire matter has since led to an employee walkout but otherwise there have been no major attempts at change within the studio beyond empty platitudes from CEO Bobby Kotick.