With the suit against Activision Blizzard, gaming faces another #MeToo moment. Will it finally bring change?


The Activision HQ in Santa Monica, California. The company's staff is speaking up; more than 1,000 current and former Activision Blizzard staffers have signed a letter in support of the lawsuit. — Activision

Last week, a division of the state of California filed suit against Santa Monica-based Activision Blizzard.

The video game giant behind Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Overwatch and more is a company as vital to the Los Angeles entertainment community as Disney, Netflix, Sony and any of the Hollywood players who get far more mainstream media scrutiny.

The case against it is historic, in part because this is the first suit filed under a recently passed senate bill that requires private employers with 100 or more employees to submit a report annually to the state with pay data for specified job categories broken down by race, ethnicity and sex.

But mostly because it lays bare, for the public record, the gross inequalities that have long plagued a male-dominated industry that has yet to properly address its broken, sexist culture.

The suit also makes clear that the video game community can no longer remain under the radar; its boorish, boyish stereotypes, as well as a false reputation as entertainment biz outsiders, are not just outdated but bad for business.

After all, you can't be the cool kid when California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) argues in a 29-page lawsuit that the executives of Activision Blizzard grew a "pervasive frat boy workplace culture" and allegedly perpetrated or ignored inequality and sexual harassment.

But we all know the cliché about the new boss.

And according to California lawyers, the bosses of the company founded as Activision Inc, four decades ago not only allowed but sometimes endorsed "cube crawls." Staffers walked from cubicle to cubicle getting drunk, during which female employees were subjected to unwanted advances, offensive jokes and physical touch.

In a grown-up workplace, merely participating in a "cube crawl" could be grounds for dismissal. But the lawsuit writes that higher-ups cultivated this crude atmosphere, including one male supervisor who asked a "male subordinate to 'buy' a prostitute to cure his bad mood."

And it gets worse.

In the suit, which representatives for Activision Blizzard say is "distorted and in many cases false," harassment from a creative director on the World of Warcraft team is described as so prevalent and well-known within the company that his office was nicknamed the "Cosby suite" after disgraced comedian Bill Cosby. When one female employee had assumed a managerial role and asked to be compensated justly, she was told the company "could not risk promoting her as she might get pregnant and like being a mom."

And in a "tragic example of the harassment that defendants allowed to fester in their offices," one female staffer is written to have taken her own life on a company business trip due to the sexual relationship she was having with a male supervisor. The woman in question had suffered multiple instances of harassment, including having to endure nude pictures of her passed around at a holiday party.

If this lawsuit, filed July 20 in the Superior Court of California County of Los Angeles, had been delivered against any film, television or streaming media company — take your pick — it would be the dominant entertainment story of the year.

Yet outside the gaming media and a handful of news outlets such as Bloomberg, which has broken a number of Activision Blizzard stories, this story is by and large being overlooked, a mistake that again underestimates the most relevant industry in this town.

Every few months, the video game industry gets uprooted by a workplace scandal that inevitably reveals that the male-dominated community continues to have a problem with sexism. Promises are made, some men lose or change jobs, but things gradually quiet down until new allegations of dreadful workplace abuse are made.

Many outlets, including this one, have sporadically reported on a broken workplace culture that remains overwhelmingly male — estimates put it at 75% — with an insular mentality that still too often creates an aura of gatekeeping, putting outsiders in defensive, suspicious positions.

Allegations of a range of aggressions that include sexual, emotional and professional abuse have steadily been streaming out of the gaming arena since 2019. But there has yet to be wide-spread media outrage or hashtag moment, at least one that has extended beyond the developer community and garnered sustained media attention. Until, perhaps, now.

The company's staff is speaking up; more than 1,000 current and former Activision Blizzard staffers have signed a letter in support of the lawsuit.

The letter slams public and inter-office statements from Activision Blizzard leadership as "abhorrent and insulting to all that we believe our company should stand for," which was first reported by Bloomberg and later confirmed by The Times. A walk-out is now planned for Wednesday at Blizzard's Irvine offices.

Activision Blizzard is, according to suit, 80% male. That skewed number has created what the DFEH describes as an environment where male employees "engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies and joke about rape" among its approximately 9,500 employees, who make games for more than 100 million worldwide players.

An increasing number of them are women.

"Women and girls now make up almost half of gamers in America, but the gaming industry continues to cater to men, even in California," writes the DFEH lawyers in the suit. "Activision Blizzard's double-digit percentage growth, ten-figure annual revenues, and recent diversity marketing campaigns have unfortunately changed little. Defendants' compliance with California's broad workplace protections is long overdue."

The suit makes it impossible to overlook the inequities in the video game industry. Now the narrative, at least in the near- term, of any Call of Duty or World of Warcraft release must be seen through the filter of a corporation leadership created, according to the filing, as "a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women."

No one wants the artistry of those who simply excelled at their job to suffer, as has happened with numerous film and television projects. But far more meaningless organisations — see the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. — have been uprooted for discriminatory behaviour. Change occurs only when it's forced or hurts the bottom line. The state is pushing for a trial by jury, with an as-yet-undetermined fiscal amount.

There's evidence that most fans are interested in the content more than the well-being of those making it; despite outcries and anger on social media, the video game industry remains largely unscathed. This isn't, after all, the first time the DEFH has gone after a video game company; it continues to pursue an investigation into another local studio, Riot Games, for its failures with gender equity. Riot's at-large public perception took merely a dent.

Last summer Ubisoft, the French conglomerate behind Assassin's Creed, faced a similar reckoning. Revelations of rampant sexual harassment led to multiple resignations, a restructuring of the company's human resources department and a pledge to shake up an all-white male editorial team. Last month, a gaming union in France filed a criminal court complaint "denouncing cases of sexual harassment within the Ubisoft group." But it wasn't long before Ubisoft comfortably settled back into the standard video game hype cycle.

No doubt this is what Activision Blizzard would like to happen. The company did not respond to requests for an updated comment or a response to the staff petition. Some former executives have issued apologies via social media, but also largely claimed ignorance to any claims of harassment.

But to be unaware that the video game space can often be unwelcome to anyone who is not a white male is to have never played a game, never read about a game, never attended a gaming event and never visited a gaming studio. Rewiring such long-held prejudices requires constant vigilance.

To pretend this suit is not a potential game-changer is to make the same mistake that much of the mainstream media and popular culture has for the past few decades: We dismiss this multi-billion dollar industry, with its millions of consumers, at our own peril. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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