Activision: World Of Warcraft Workplace Conjures A Blizzard Of Woe

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Activision Blizzard, maker of hit video games World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, is accused of fostering a “pervasive frat boy workplace culture,” that subjects women to harassment, abuse and lower pay, a lawsuit filed by the state of California in June 2021.

The corporate cultures of video game makers have had a bad reputation for a number of years, with Blizzard’s scandal just the most recent.

In the immediate aftermath of the widespread media coverage of the lawsuit, Activision Blizzard proceeded to make things worse for itself.

Activision Blizzard logo

One executive fired off an email to staff describing the suit as “distorted,” “untrue,” “meritless,” and “out of date.”

Ooops. The troops threatened a walkout, more negative publicity ensued. Six days later Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick sent a lengthy letter to pissed off employees, listing steps the company will take to address widespread allegations of sexual harassment, sexist and discriminatory conduct at the video game company.

Despite the CEO’s mea culpa, the employees walked out anyway. Clearly there’s a lot of trust there.

The lawsuit has become a debated matter and not just in the video game and software industry. It touches on the Me Too movement and lack of unionization for video game developers to protect them from such mistreatment.

Axios has one of its nice summaries of the circus here.

So why does some jerkish behavior at video game company matter? First, the behavior goes beyond simple harassment and, second, Activsion Blizzard isn’t just ANY video game company.

Headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., Activision Blizzard, Inc. is a holding company formed in July 2008 by the merger of Activision, Inc. (the publicly traded parent company of Activision Publishing) and Vivendi Games.

Did we mention it’s a publicly traded company? The company is traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange under the ticker symbol ATVI. Since 2015 Activision Blizzard has been one of the stocks that make up the S&P 500. In June 2017, Activision Blizzard made the Fortune 500. It was the third video gaming company in history to make the list after Atari and Electronic Arts.

Activision Blizzard HQ, Santa Monica, Calif.

Activision Blizzard’s titles have broken numerous sales records. By March 2018, a decade after the company was formed, it was the largest video game company in the Americas and Europe in both revenue and market capitalization.

Activision Blizzard had 9,500 employees as of 2020, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. It currently operates five business units: Activision Publishing, Blizzard Entertainment, King, Major League Gaming, and Activision Blizzard Studios.

The company owns and operates additional studios under an independent studios model as Activision Publishing, including Treyarch, Infinity Ward, High Moon Studios, and Toys for Bob.

Among major intellectual properties produced by Activision Blizzard are Call of Duty, Crash Bandicoot, Guitar Hero, Tony Hawk’s, Spyro/Skylanders, World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, and Candy Crush Saga.

The bottom line is Activision Blizzard is a large and culturally significant company with fiduciary responsibilities to share holders, which include the Saudi royal family, and maybe ignoring this kind of behavior should be cause for concern.

What kind of behavior are we talking about?

In the office, women are subjected to “cube crawls” 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 toward female employees. Male employees proudly come into work hungover, play video games for long periods of time during work while delegating their responsibilities to female employees, engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies and joke about rape.

It gets worse.

According to a story published on the video gaming site

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.

Needless to say Activision Blizzard’s female employees have taken to social media to share their harrowing stories of harassment and discrimination.

Sadly this is not the first time that female video game professionals have been blatantly harassed.

Remember Gamergate?

Gamergate was an online harassment campaign, initially conducted through the use of the hashtag #GamerGate, that centered around sexism and anti-progressivism in video game culture.

Six years ago in August 2014, a harassment campaign targeted several women in the video game industry. Game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, as well as feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian were specifically targeted.

In what sounds like high school-level high drama, Eron Gjoni, Quinn’s former boyfriend, wrote a disparaging blog post about Quinn, according to Wikipedia. #GamerGate hashtag users falsely accused Quinn of an unethical relationship with journalist Nathan Grayson. Or something. Harassment campaigns against Quinn and others included doxing, threats of rape, and death threats.

Essentially a product of right-wing male resentment, Gamergate has been described as a manifestation of a culture war about diversification, artistic recognition, social criticism in video games, and the social identity of video gamers.

Apparently supporters of Gamergate oppose what they view as the increasing influence of feminism on video game culture as part of a right-wing backlash against progressivism.

Gamergate 2014

Gamergate allegedly led figures both inside and outside the video game industry to focus on methods of addressing online harassment. Apparently that addressing did not take place within Activision Blizzard.

As awful as all this is, it seems this kinds of behavior actually made it into one of its games. The “vision” of one particular suspect made into the content of the company’s games.

From Axios:

The company also said it would also delete “inappropriate” in-game content in “World of Warcraft.”

  • That could be a reference to characters in the game who are named after a long-time former creative lead on the game who is now accused in the California suit of sexual harassment.

Named in the lawsuit is Alex Afrasiabi, a creative director on World of Warcraft.

During a company event (an annual convention called Blizz Con) Afrasiabi would hit on female employees, telling them he wanted to marry them, attempting to kiss them, and putting his arms around them. This was in plain view of other male employees, including supervisors, who had to intervene and pull him off female employees. Afrasiabi was so known to engage in harassment of females that his suite was nicknamed the “Crosby Suite” after alleged rapist Bill Crosby. Afrasiabi would also call females derogatory names at company events. Afrasiabi’s conduct was known to Blizzard Entertainment’s executives, who took no effective remedial measures. J. Allen Brack, President of Blizzard Entertainment, allegedly had multiple conversations with Afrasiabi about his drinking and that he had been “too friendly” towards female employees at company events but gave Afiasiabi a slap on the wrist (ie. verbal counseling) in response to these incidents.

Except from the lawsuit with Bill Cosby’s name apparently misspelled as Crosby

And reported this:

But Afrasiabi worked for Blizzard as recently as June 2020, when he apparently left the company with seemingly minimal mention, to the confusion of the few fans who noticed his departure. By contrast, when Jeff Kaplan—whose time at Blizzard had a similar length and trajectory as Afrasiabi—left the company, it publicly acknowledged his departure.

And though Afrasiabi is gone, his presence still lingers in World of Warcraft. Kotaku was able to confirm the existence of at least two NPCs that continue to bear his name, in addition to a number of items that directly reference him.

Read the rest of Kotaku story here. It delves further into the fury this has created in the gamer community.

But numerous workers outside Activision Blizzard are caught up the in the abusive workplace cultures that exist in some video game production companies.

Take contract and temporary tech workers for example: Activision Blizzard’s contract workers say they’re ‘crushed’ by toxic culture is the headline on this investigative story from published Aug. 12, 2021.

Activision Blizzard has a problem keeping its quality assurance (QA) testers and customer service representatives around. That’s partly by design; workers are contracted on a temporary basis. But the work that QA and customer service workers at Activision Blizzard do, in offices in California, Texas, and Minnesota, is very demanding, employees said, especially considering the low pay, intense crunch, and mistreatment by customers.

… opening paragraph of the story.

California expanded its anti-discrimination lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, adding temporary workers to the female full-time employees it is suing on behalf of. The state’s Department of Fair Employment & Housing also alleges the video game maker has interfered with its investigation.

It seems Activision Blizzard management is determined to dig a very deep legal hole for themselves. It’s almost as though they get paid EXTRA for doing the WRONG thing.

A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard told Axios that the company has “complied with every proper request in support of its review even as we had been implementing reforms to ensure our workplaces are welcoming and safe for every employee.”

  • “With regards to claims that we have destroyed information by shredding documents, those claims are not true. We took appropriate steps to preserve information relevant to the DFEH investigation,” the spokesperson added.
  • “We have provided the DFEH with clear evidence that we do not have gender pay or promotion disparities. Our senior leadership is increasingly diverse, with a growing number of women in key leadership roles across the company.

The pressure on the tech industry to clean up its act in terms of sexual harassment and discrimination has been brewing for almost as long as there’s been Silicon Valley. Time will tell how long the industry will continue it’s trip upstream on the river denial.

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