Activision Blizzard Sued by California Over Toxic Workplace Conditions

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At this point, it’s clear that there is something very wrong at Activision Blizzard. The company remains one of the most powerful firms in the video-game industry, but I honestly can’t remember the last time it had a good headline. On the software side, Activision Blizzard has consistently bungled some of its highest-profile properties — just today, scoopman Jason Schreier published a damning story about how thoroughly 2020’s Warcraft III: Reforged was mismanaged. On the personnel side, Activision Blizzard has engineered some cold-blooded mass-layoffs, pink-slipping more than 800 people in the last two years despite raking in huge profits and paying out massive CEO bonuses. (Precipitously, many of Blizzard’s founding fathers, like Jeff Kaplan, Mike Morhaime, and Ben Brode, have recently departed the company.) But none of those indiscretions compare to the news that Bloomberg broke last night. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is suing Activision Blizzard for what it alleges is systematic sexual harassment, unequal pay, and favoritism shown to the campus’s male employees. As you might expect, the details are harrowing.

The suit claims that men in the Activision Blizzard office would engage in “cube crawls,” where they’d get blind drunk and wander around the production floor, often engaging in “inappropriate behavior towards female employees.” One woman cited in the suit says that she frequently scored excellent performance reviews and significantly more revenue than a male counterpart in her marketing campaigns, but was still passed up for a promotion that he received. (Meanwhile, that colleague enjoyed private, one-on-one meetings with the company’s vice-president.) One of the most insulting details in the complaint states that the men in the office frequently spent their days gaming, delegating all of the real work to the women on staff. I’m not sure if any lawsuit has better confirmed some of the worst stereotypes you or I may have about what the vibes are like in a gigantic, decades-old gaming studio.

The suit goes on from there, suggesting that Activision Blizzard fused a pervasive frat-house culture to the mechanical hierarchy of the company. The publisher’s headcount consists of only 20 percent women, and the complaint says they frequently endured rape jokes, lascivious comments, and general boorishness. The darkest incident in the complaint centers around a female employee who tragically died by suicide while on a business trip with a male superior who allegedly brought “butt plugs and lubricant with him.” It’s all really, really bad, made worse by this gross, defensive statement released by the corporation. Here’s part of it, emphasis mine.

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.

I am not a PR expert, but the idea of responding to systemic harassment allegations — filed by a Fair Employment Department, no less — with a threat to leave the state seems like an extremely shitty call. Everything reported in the suit is eminently believable. In fact, not only is it believable, there’s very recent precedent! Riot Games, the publisher of League of Legends, just went through a similar round of allegations two years ago. Activision Blizzard already has a spotty history, and now the company expects us to trust that it’s somehow immune to the chauvinist rot that has afflicted the video-game industry from its earliest days? CEO Bobby Kotick has donated oodles of cash to Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham over the years. I think I know who he’s taking notes from.

As someone who covers video games, I’ve felt like we’ve been on our way to a reckoning with Activision Blizzard for quite some time. The layoffs were gross, the bad games were frustrating, and the exodus of talent was disconcerting, but a total breakdown in everything the corporation claims to stand for should be the final straw. Blizzard’s headquarters in Irvine has an orc statue in the center plaza. Engraved around its feet are the words “Every Voice Matters.” Never has that slogan sounded so hollow.

Activision Blizzard Sued by California Over Toxic Workplace