For women at Activision Blizzard, one of the world’s most famous video game companies, showing up to work meant navigating near daily episodes of humiliation, sexual harassment, and even physical abuse, according to a bombshell lawsuit that has prompted a reckoning within the gaming industry.
The claims paint a disturbing picture of life for female employees: rampant sexual harassment, gender discrimination, retaliation, and a “frat boy” workplace culture where men objectified women’s bodies and openly joked about rape.
Il lawsuit was brought by California’s department of fair employment and accuses the multi-billion dollar company – whose output includes Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush – of violating the state’s civil rights and equal pay laws.
The fallout has been swift and widespread. This week the company’s president and its head of human resources stepped down after hundreds of employees staged a walkout and thousands signed a petition demanding a response to the scandal.
And it’s far from over. Observers say the revelations could be a “watershed moment” for an industry that has long struggled with sexism and a chronic lack of diversity.
“What seems to be different now is the fact that people are recognizing these issues as being systemic and repeated rather than episodic,” said Amanda Cote, a professor at University of Oregon who studies sexism and gender identity in the video game industry. “People seem to be calling for change across the industry, rather than just at one company at a time.”
While the gaming industry is not necessarily known for its inclusive workplaces for women or people of color, the lawsuit’s allegations were particularly harrowing, said Cote.
“This is a particularly egregious lawsuit, but unfortunately I was not really surprised," lei disse. “We have known for quite some time that sexism pervades many areas of gaming.”
The lawsuit alleges female employees were routinely kicked out of lactation rooms so men could hold meetings. They were criticized for leaving the office to pick kids up from daycare while men played video games. One female employee noted that male employees would frequently approach her at the office and comment on her breasts.
The lawsuit contains a harrowing example of the alleged “frat boy” atmosphere – a workplace tradition called the “cube crawl”, in which male employees drink copious amounts of alcohol as they “crawl” their way between office cubicles and engage in inappropriate behavior towards female employees.
In another incident, male co-workers at a holiday party allegedly passed around nude photos of a female colleague who was having an inappropriate relationship with her supervisor.
Such behavior took place with impunity, while serious discipline was rarely enforced, the lawsuit alleges. The case cites Alex Afrasabi, the former creative director for World of Warcraft, who was allegedly known to harass female colleagues and repeatedly bragged about his hotel room, which he called the “Cosby suite”, in reference to Bill Cosby. Afrasabi could not be reached for comment.
Executives made aware of his behavior told Afrasabi to participate in verbal counseling, in what amounted to “a slap on the wrist”, the lawsuit alleges.
Nel frattempo, the employees who spoke out were often targeted in retaliation, including being “deprived of work on projects, unwillingly transferred to different units, and selected for layoffs”, the lawsuit says.
Beyond the crude jokes and offensive comments, women say Activision Blizzard fostered an environment in which their work was less valued and their careers overlooked.
The company’s workforce was just 20% femmina, while all executive level positions are held by white males, the lawsuit alleges – including the CEO and president roles. Women have been systematically paid less than their male counterparts, offered fewer promotions, and overlooked for appointments to leadership roles, the lawsuit alleges.
“Very few women ever reach top roles at the company,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit also contains claims of pregnancy discrimination, saying supervisors ignored medical restrictions given to female employees and gave them negative evaluations while they were out on maternity leave. When employees complained about such treatment, it “fell on deaf ears”, the lawsuit says.
A spokesman from the California department of fair employment and housing told the Guardian the department did not comment on ongoing litigation and that plaintiffs in the case would not comment.
The company initially downplayed the allegations, calling the suit’s claims “inaccurate” and “distorted”. The CEO, Bobby Kotick, later apologized in a letter, acknowledging the response as “tone deaf”.
“We are taking swift action to be the compassionate, caring company you came to work for and to ensure a safe environment," Egli ha detto. “There is no place anywhere at our company for discrimination, molestie, or unequal treatment of any kind.”
He also announced the company had hired a third-party law firm “to conduct a review of our policies and procedures”. Employees wrote a letter to Kotick rejecting the plan to hire the firm, saying it had an anti-union history and an allegiance to the corporation that would impede its ability to conduct an objective investigation.
A spokesman from Activision Blizzard defended the decision to hire the firm, called WilmerHale, in una dichiarazione, saying it had “extensive experience” in improving workplace environments by “making improvements around policies and procedures related to discrimination, molestie, and retaliation issues”.
Experts say the fallout at Activision Blizzard could be a turning point in the gaming industry, as employees and the industry at large demand urgent change.
Nel frattempo, shareholders are now suing l'azienda, claiming they were “economically damaged” as a result of executives allegedly intentionally withholding information on the lawsuit.
The mounting pressure and possible economic losses could prompt other gaming companies to take harassment and workplace discrimination more seriously, said Kellen Voyer, a lawyer specializing in video game corporations.
“Companies that may have in the past let things go are going to be much more aggressive going forward in solving these problems," Egli ha detto. "Certo, this is something they should have been doing from day one, but this will be an impetus for broader change within the industry.”
The video game developer Riot Games settled a suit nel 2019 involving similar allegations and is facing a second suit filed in 2021. The game maker Ubisoft faced harassment allegations in 2020, after which it invested heavily in a global diversity audit – though employees are calling for more intervention.
The repercussions could hold benefits for all workers, regardless of identity, in an industry where stress, long hours, and precarious contract-based employment is the norm.
Uno study in 2019 found permanent game employees work at an average of 2.2 companies every five years while contractors and freelancers can work at as many as 4.1 in the same time period.
“There’s a ton of turnover,” Cote said. “We really need to see an industry-wide change in order for employees to be protected at all stages of their careers.”
For their part, employees at Blizzard are unsatisfied with the company’s response. Following the walkout, organizers released a statement saying they would continue to make specific senza fatti razionali dietro di esso, including the end of forced arbitration for all employees, pay transparency, and greater worker participation in oversight of hiring and promotion policies and other company processes.
“This is the beginning of an enduring movement in favor of better labor conditions for all employees, especially women of color and transgender women, nonbinary people, and all other marginalized groups,” workers at Activision Blizzard said in a statement.
Negli ultimi anni, the gaming industry has made headway in hiring more diverse workers and offering more diverse content, said Renee Gittins, executive director at the International Game Developers Association. But there is “still a lot of work to be done”, lei disse.
Oggi, 71% of workers in the game industry are male, solo 23% are women, and less than 2% identify as Black. The controversy at Activision Blizzard is the latest sign people who have directly experienced harassment and discrimination in the industry feel “more and more empowered to speak about these issues”, Gittins said.
“I see this as one of the steps on the road to improvement and recovery," lei disse. “I don’t think this news is a sign of game development getting worse. We have a long way to go, and I think that this is just one of those steps on that path.”