Video game maker Activision Blizzard sued by California over workplace culture

Video game giant Activision Blizzard produced the blockbuster game Call of Duty. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES, AFP) - A California state agency is suing Activision Blizzard, the video game maker that produces Call of Duty, over claims of sexual harassment and discrimination.

After a two-year investigation, the state's Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) said in a lawsuit filed Tuesday (July 20) in the Los Angeles Superior Court that Activision fostered a " 'frat boy' workplace culture".

Executives sexually harassed women, the agency said, and male employees openly joked about rape and drank alcohol while engaging in "inappropriate behaviour" toward women at their cubicles during events known as "cube crawls".

The lawsuit added that women were routinely paid less than men for similar work and were less likely to be promoted.

Activision's workplace "is a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women", the agency wrote.

"Female employees are subjected to constant sexual harassment, including having to continually fend off unwanted sexual comments and advances by their male co-workers and supervisors and being groped at the 'cube crawls' and other company events."

In one case, the lawsuit said, a female employee died by suicide during a business trip as a result of her sexual relationship with her male supervisor. Before her death, male colleagues allegedly shared explicit photos of the woman, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, which was reported earlier by Bloomberg Law, said the company's executives and human resources department failed to address misconduct when they were informed of it.

In a statement, Activision said the "picture DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today", adding that the company tries to pay employees fairly and has worked to address its culture and improve diversity in recent years.

Activision employees for years have undergone anti-harassment training, the company said, adding that it had created a confidential reporting hotline and team that investigates employee concerns, among other changes.

"There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind," Activision wrote. "In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue."

The company said California had failed to properly discuss the accusations with Activision before suing, and it chided the agency in particular for bringing up the employee suicide.

"It is this type of irresponsible behaviour from unaccountable state bureaucrats that are driving many of the state's best businesses out of California," Activision wrote.

The state employment agency declined to comment. It said in the lawsuit that it wanted Activision to compensate employees for unpaid wages, provide further recompense and pay punitive damages.

Activision, which is based in Santa Monica, California, and is worth about US$70 billion (S$95.3 billion), has nearly 10,000 employees.

The company has faced criticism from its workers over wage disparities, especially as shareholders narrowly approved a US$155 million pay package for CEO Bobby Kotick in June, making him one of the country's highest-paid top executives.

Accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination are far from uncommon in the gaming industry, where game studios' workforces, especially at the executive level, remain predominantly white and male.

Last summer, dozens of women spoke out against such behaviour, accusing people of misconduct at various companies - including at Activision and French publisher Ubisoft - and prompting more calls for reform.

The fair employment agency has also pursued legal action against Riot Games, the League of Legends game maker, accusing it of sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

Ubisoft last year promised a "structural shift" to eliminate toxic behaviour following allegations of sexual assault and harassment by managers at the game publisher whose games portfolio includes Assassin's Creed.

Earlier this year, Riot Games said an independent review found no evidence to support allegations of sexual misconduct by chief executive Nicolo Laurent.

A report prepared by an outside law firm came to the conclusion after "an impartial and comprehensive investigation", the company said following a January lawsuit accusing Mr Laurent of retaliating against his assistant.

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