Activision-Blizzard faces legal action for workplace harassment

Video game giant Activision-Blizzard has been sued by the state of California for fostering a “frat boy” culture that led to years of sexual harassment of its female employees.

The lawsuit was filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and accuses the “Call of Duty” publisher of widespread discrimination against women at the company in terms of promotions, compensations, assignments and terminations. Women received unequal pay and were the target of retaliation, should anyone speak out against these practices. The result of a two-year investigation, the lawsuit alleges company leadership “consistently failed” to take steps to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

Female employees make up only about 20 percent of the Activision workforce, but were constantly the targets of a culture drenched in toxic masculinity that created irreparable harm. The filing includes descriptions of various acts perpetrated against women, including “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.”

Men often spend much of the day in the office playing video games while delegating much of the work to women. The investigation found men often joked about rape, commented on women’s bodies, groped them and engaged in additional “blatant” sexual harassment without any reprisal or punishment.

Female employees were often held back from promotions because of the possibility they might become pregnant or would leave to pick up their children from daycare. Additional reports stated that women were kicked out of lactation rooms so male colleagues could use the room for meetings.

One alleged victim killed herself on a business trip with a supervisor with whom she was involved in a sexual relationship. She was the subject of constant harassment by men in the company, including at a holiday party before her death when male colleagues allegedly passed around a photo of her reproductive area.

The complaint goes on to list many more instances of abuse and harassment, including multiple accounts of racism experienced by employees — especially women — of color. The publisher’s leadership is composed entirely of white men.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would force compliance with workplace protections, in addition to pay adjustments, unpaid wages, back pay, lost wages and benefits for women in the company to bring it within “compliance with California’s broad workplace protections.”

It doesn’t look like Activision-Blizzard will comply easily. Instead of simply accepting the results of the investigation and vowing to do better, the publisher has chosen to fight the findings.

“We have been extremely cooperative with the DFEH through their investigation, including providing them with extensive data and ample documentation, but they refused to inform us what issues they perceived,” a publisher’s statement read. “They were required by law to adequately investigate and to have good faith discussions with us to better understand and to resolve any complaints or concerns before going to litigation, but they failed to do so.”

The publisher also took offense to the inclusion of the employee’s suicide in the complaint, saying it was “sickened.”

“It is the type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable state bureaucrats that are driving many of the estate’s best businesses out of California,” Activision-Blizzard stated.

It’s nice to know Activision-Blizzard wants to simply turn this into a game of political sportsmanship with passive aggressive taunts, rather than examining the obviously toxic culture that it has allowed to permeate throughout its operations. Activison-Blizzard executive Fran Townsend said the accusations were “factually incorrect, old and out of context” in an e-mail to company employees. He claimed the lawsuit created a “distorted and untrue” vision of the company, going on to say that there’s simply no way the allegations hold any merit.

“Rest assured that leadership is committed to continuing to maintain a safe, fair and inclusive workplace,” Townsend said. “We cannot let egregious actions of others, and a truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit, damage our culture of respect and equal opportunity for all employees.”

Blizzard president J. Allen Brack offered his own view of the lawsuit in an e-mail to employees, in which he stated these findings were “unacceptable” and “extremely troubling.” He promised to work with employees and listen to their complaints to help move the company forward. Though many former employees who left Blizzard due to working conditions commented on Twitter about how they came to him with complaints and were either ignored or were silenced.

A group of nearly 1,000 current and former employees drafted a letter in response to Activision-Blizzard’s response, saying the publisher’s reaction was “abhorrent and insulting.”

“Our company executives have claimed that actions will be taken to protect us, but in the face of legal action — and the troubling official responses that followed — we no longer trust that our leaders will place employee safety above their own interests,” the letter says. “To claim this is a ‘truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit,’ while seeing so many current and former employees speak out about their own experiences regarding harassment and abuse, is simply unacceptable.”

It’s unclear where the lawsuit goes from here, but its findings are extremely troubling — if not unsurprising. The video game industry has been a “boy’s club” for far too long, and allegations like these are not uncommon. French publisher Ubisoft, known for the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, faced widespread sexual harassment allegations in 2018, and yet little has been done to hold its leadership accountable. The company now faces a legal complaint in France. Hopefully, Activision-Blizzard will be held accountable for its mistreatment of women.

Josh Rouse writes a weekly gaming column for The Lawton Constitution.