Game maker Activision Blizzard faces #MeToo reckoning, thousands of workers protest

Activision Blizzard employees hold a walkout and protest rally in Los Angeles on July 28, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG) - More than 1,500 workers for video game maker Activision Blizzard walked out from their jobs this week. Thousands signed a letter rebuking their employer. And even as the chief executive officer apologised, current and former employees said they would not stop raising a ruckus.

Ms Shay Stein, who used to work at Activision, said it was "heartbreaking". Ms Lisa Welch, a former vice president, said she felt "profound disappointment". Others took to Twitter or waved signs outside one of the company's offices Wednesday to share their anger.

Elsewhere online, fans sought to organise a boycott of Activision games in solidarity with employees.

"You can support #ActiBlizzWalkout by not playing their titles," Twitter user Shannon wrote. The post garnered more than 2,300 retweets and over 5,000 likes. In the comments, other users suggested not logging into games or uninstalling them.

Activision, known for its hugely popular Call Of Duty, World Of Warcraft and StarCraft gaming franchises, has been thrown into an uproar over workplace behaviour issues.

The upheaval stems from an explosive lawsuit that California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed on July 20, accusing the US$65 billion (S$88 billion) company of fostering a "frat boy workplace culture" in which men joked about rape and women were routinely harassed and paid less than their male colleagues.

Activision publicly criticised the agency's two-year investigation and allegations as "irresponsible behaviour from unaccountable state bureaucrats". But its dismissive tone angered employees, who called out the company for trying to sweep away what they said were heinous problems that had been ignored for too long.

The intense reaction was unusual. Of all the industries that have faced sexism charges in recent years - including Hollywood, restaurants and the media - the male-dominated video game sector has long stood out for its openly toxic behaviour and lack of change.

In 2014, feminist critics of the industry faced death threats in what became known as Gamergate. Executives at gaming companies Riot Games and Ubisoft have also been accused of misconduct.

Now, the actions at Activision may signal a new phase, where a critical mass of the industry's own workers are indicating they will no longer tolerate such behaviour.

"This could mean some real accountability for companies that aren't taking care of their workers and are creating inequitable work environments where women and gender minorities are kept at the margins and abused," said Associate Professor Carly Kocurek at the Illinois Institute of Technology who studies gender in gaming.

She said California's lawsuit and the fallout at Activision were a "big deal" for an industry that had traditionally shrugged off claims of sexism and harassment. Other gaming companies are most likely watching the situation, she added, and considering whether they need to address their own cultures.

Mr Bobby Kotick, Activision's CEO, apologised to employees Tuesday, saying that the responses to the lawsuit were "tone deaf" and that a law firm would investigate the company's policies.

Activision, based in Santa Monica, California, said in a statement for this article that it was committed "to long-lasting change, listening and continuing the important work to create a safe and inclusive workplace that we can all be proud of".

In interviews, seven current and former Activision employees said egregious behaviour had taken place at the company, up and down the hierarchy, for years. Three current employees declined to be named out of fear of retaliation. Their accounts of what happened at work largely align with what is laid out in the state lawsuit.

Activision CEO Bobby Kotick apologised to employees, saying that the responses to the lawsuit were "tone deaf". PHOTO: REUTERS

Ms Stein, 28, who worked at Activision from 2014 to 2017 in a customer service role, helping gamers with problems and glitches, said she had consistently been paid less than her ex-boyfriend, who joined the company at the same time she did and performed the same work.

Ms Stein said she had once declined drugs that her manager offered at a holiday party in 2014 or 2015, which soured their relationship and hampered her career.

In 2016, a manager messaged her on Facebook, suggesting she must be into "some freaky stuff" and asking what type of pornography she watched. She said she had also overheard male colleagues joking that some women had their jobs only because they performed sexual favours for male superiors.

"It was really hurtful," Ms Stein said, adding that she felt like she had to "endure it".

Ms Welch, who joined Activision in 2011 as vice president of consumer strategy and insights, said she had known that the company was reputed to have a combative culture but had been intrigued by the prominent role.

Then at a hotel on a work trip that year, Ms Welch said, an executive pressured her to have sex with him because she "deserved to have some fun" after her boyfriend had died weeks earlier. She said she had turned him down.

Other co-workers suggested she "hook up" with them, she said, and regularly commented on her appearance over the years. Ms Welch, 52, also said she had been repeatedly passed over for promotions in favour of less qualified men.

She did not report the incidents, she said, partly because she did not want to admit to herself that her gender was a "professional liability" and she loved her work. But by 2016, she said, her doctor had persuaded her to leave because the stress was hurting her health.

Until the lawsuit came out, Ms Welch said, she thought her experience was unique at the company. "To hear that it's at this scale is just profoundly disappointing," she said.

Addressing the former employees' accusations, Activision said that "such conduct is abhorrent" and that it would investigate the claims. The company said it had distanced itself from its past and improved its culture in recent years.

California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which protects people from unlawful discrimination, said it did not comment on open investigations. But its lawsuit against Activision, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, also spared little detail. Many of the misconduct accusations focused on a division called Blizzard, which the company merged with through a deal with Vivendi Games in 2008.

The lawsuit accused Activision of being "a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women". Employees engaged in "cube crawls" in which they got drunk and acted inappropriately toward women at work cubicles, the lawsuit said.

In one case, a female employee died by suicide during a business trip because of the sexual relationship she had been having with her male supervisor, the lawsuit said. Before her death, male colleagues had shared an explicit photo of the woman, according to the lawsuit.

When the lawsuit became public last week, Activision said it had worked to improve its culture but also moved to defend itself. It publicly said that the state agency had "rushed to file an inaccurate complaint" and that it was "sickened by the reprehensible conduct" of bringing up the suicide.

In an internal memo last week, Ms Frances Townsend, Activision's chief compliance officer, also called the suit "truly meritless and irresponsible". Ms Townsend's memo was posted on Twitter.

Employees reacted furiously. An open letter addressed to Activision's leaders calling for them to take the accusations more seriously and "demonstrate compassion" for victims attracted more than 3,000 signatures from current and former employees by Wednesday. The company has nearly 10,000 employees.

"We no longer trust that our leaders will place employee safety above their own interests," the letter said, calling Ms Townsend's remarks "unacceptable".

Organisers of the walkout, which was announced Tuesday, also submitted a list of demands to executives. Those included ending mandatory arbitration clauses in worker contracts, hiring and promoting more diverse candidates, publishing salary data and allowing a third party to audit Activision's reporting and human resources procedures.

On Tuesday, the company's stock plunged. That same day, Activision told employees that they would be paid while attending the walkout. Mr Kotick then apologised.

"I am sorry that we did not provide the right empathy and understanding," he said in a note to employees. "There is no place anywhere at our company for discrimination, harassment or unequal treatment of any kind."

Mr Kotick, who has been under fire for a US$155 million pay package that makes him one of the United States' highest-paid executives, added that the company would beef up the team that investigated reported misconduct, fire managers who were found to have impeded investigations and remove in-game content that had been flagged as inappropriate.

Employees said it was not enough.

"We will not return to silence; we will not be placated by the same processes that led us to this point," organisers of the walkout said in a public statement. They declined to be identified out of fear of reprisal.

A prolonged dispute with employees could result in delays of Activision games, wrote Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Matthew Kanterman.

If managed properly, Activision should be able to minimise damage to its business, said DFC Intelligence analyst David Cole. However, he added that the whole ordeal may end up earning Activision a place on consumer lists of "most hated companies".

Singapore helplines

National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am - 12am)

Mental well-being

Fei Yue's Online Counselling Service: website (Mon to Fri, 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 5pm)
Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours) /1-767 (24 hours)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6386-1928/6509-0271 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (Mon to Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)/ Tinkle Friend website (Mon to Thu, 2.30pm to 7pm and Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)


TOUCHline (Counselling): 1800-377-2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 (Daily, 10am to 10pm)

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.