A bombshell lawsuit filed against Activision Blizzard by California regulators has once again forced the gaming world to publicly reckon with longstanding issues around its exploitation and mistreatment of women. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. But developers, advocates, and other industry experts are trying to figure out how to make this latest media cycle of heartbreak and outrage different.
Content Warning: Descriptions of sexual assault
The news first broke Wednesday afternoon and began reverberating throughout social media late into the evening. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against the Call of Duty and World of Warcraft publisher for alleged widespread gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and myriad harm stemming from a longstanding “frat boy” workplace culture.
The allegations were based on a two-year investigation that uncovered a number of incidents of alleged abuse ranging from the damning to the chiling. Activision Blizzard, which denied the accusations in a statement and claimed they were mostly “based on descriptions of Blizzard’s past,” nevertheless continued trending on Twitter into the next morning.
It’s also empowered more people to continue speaking up about their own experiences at the Diablo and Overwatch maker. According to one former developer at Blizzard who spoke to Kotaku under the condition of anonymity, the systemic injustices begin from the moment women are hired at the company.
“Women are generally brought in at a lower rate of pay than their male counterparts with the same experience levels,” they wrote. “Often this is because the men that join Blizzard have friends on the inside pulling [for] them. It also happens because women coming in are usually paid less at their previous job and will accept lower offers without knowing the pay band they are being brought in on.”
Part of the problem, they say, is that many details surrounding compensation at the company — including perks like stock options — are shrouded in secrecy. Even if you become aware that there’s an imbalance, there’s not a defined pathway to correct it. Really, more often than not, actively trying to do something about any given issue only leads to more problems, current and former employees are saying on social media.
It's so hard to talk about this aspect because they are victims of the behavior too, but preserving their spot in the limited "special unicorn woman" slots, and enable the men so they aren't ousted.
You don't know who to trust other than the other victims. https://t.co/kTBOkcgHHU
— Cher Scarlett (@cherthedev) July 22, 2021
“As someone who was harassed, violated, retaliated against, had a false report filed AGAINST me that was ACTED ON BY MY ONE OF MY HARASSERS, & watched one of my best friends be traumatized over and over again by the men in power at this company, I can’t express the relief I feel,” former Blizzard employee Cher Scarlett wrote on Twitter after news broke. Scarlett went on to describe a previously reported incident involving revenge porn that, to her, illuminated the degree to which Blizzard does not properly take care of its women. It’s an issue that follows women even if they spend years at Blizzard, according to our anonymous source.
“When a female employee gets a new manager, she has to prove her worth over and over again,” they wrote. “Competence and talent in her area of expertise are never assumed, in my experience. Male employees on the other hand are often given the benefit of the doubt and given opportunities to rise in situations where opportunities open up. When this cycle happens over and over, with a new manager every year or so, the female employee gets left behind, under promoted and not given opportunities to develop her skills and prove herself.”
Another former employee, Shaynuh Chanel, wrote on Twitter today, “I’ve been openly discussing the discrimination I received during my employment at Blizzard for a few years now. Even in coming out about the harassment (that was met with HR leads telling me ‘it was a privilege to work here’) I, we — never had a voice. Now — we have a voice.”
Set aside your love for the company's products and fictional universe for a moment and consider this: I witnessed my female colleagues being demoted for pregnancies and female-health related concerns because of their "inability to fulfill the requirements of the job".
— Shay (@SHAYNUHCHANEL) July 22, 2021
Chanel went on to detail accounts of women being demoted for pregnancies and female-health concerns, lower pay raises than male counterparts, management making crude remarks about female colleagues’ apparences, and management offering drugs at off-site parties.
Another aspect that allows problems to fester is that, even if a woman has the courage to speak up for herself or report it to human resources, those entities largely exist to protect the interests of the company.
“When HR has to get involved, it is never good for the victim,” our source said. “She is subjected to humiliating questioning, asked how much of the harasser’s behaviour was her fault, and told to be a ‘team player’ and make things easier for the harasser to work with her. Going to HR labels her a troublemaker in the department, and retaliation has followed in almost every case I’ve witnessed or experienced.”
The video game industry has grappled with these issues since its inception as an insular tech industry spin-off dominated by cishet white men, but in increasingly visible ways in recent years. A culture of sexism at League of Legends maker Riot Games, first outed in an investigation by Kotaku in 2018, eventually led to some changes at the company and a landmark cash settlement for victims that California regulators are still fighting in court to increase. Last summer, a wave of sexual misconduct allegations swept through Assassin’s Creed publisher Ubisoft, leading to several high-profile resignations and a lawsuit in French court.
But the case against Activision Blizzard is proving what many women already knew — misogyny in the industry doesn’t come down to just a few bad apples at a few companies. It’s deeply ingrained in the culture at the heart of how the games business has operated for decades.
Other conversations taking place online have grappled with the moral quandary of asking women to join an industry that is so actively hostile to them. Many women game devs right now are challenging the efficacy of grassroots movements, and the usual calls to improve that happen when these stories break out, when the reality is that the industry needs top-down structural changes. Some people have called for unionization, which usually involves ratifying a contract that outlines a wide variety of rules that try to ensure everyone is treated and paid fairly. And, failing that, unions can also try to ensure that everyone has an equal voice, ideally allowing women to have avenues to speak out without fear of retaliation.
Others are calling for men — who make up the overwhelming majority of most studios — to hold themselves accountable for creating safer spaces.
“Gamedev dudes, the thing NOT to do this week is turn to the women in your company to reassure you that no, actually, you’re one of the good ones,” wrote Insomniac Games writer Mary Kenney. “Self-reflect on what you’ve done to help marginalised voices in your org. If the answer is nothing? Well, it’s a good day to start.”
“Men in games, dedicate some brain space today thinking about the following: what would you do if a man said something sexist about a colleague? What would you do if he was your buddy? What would you do if he was your boss? How do these circumstances augment your response?” wrote Leena van Deventer, game developer and board member of the Victorian Women’s Trust femenist group.
“Making the games industry safe for women has been women’s business for too long. It feels Sisyphean. I see a lot of horrified men on my timeline. What are you going to do with this rage? What are you going to build?”
Disclaimer for all this talk of reporting at work:
Please keep in mind that HR are there to protect The Company, and will choose The Company and the Executive Level over employees and contractors EVERY time. Your plan doesn't have to involve them if you don't want it to.
— Leena ???? (@LeenaVanD) July 22, 2021
The video game industry is great at papering over its problems. Activision Blizzard claims it’s all in the past, while Ubisoft announces time and again that it’s made big strides in making its workplaces diverse, inclusive, and equal — despite voices on the inside repeatedly challenging those narratives. The men who predominantly run these companies can be quick to try and turn the page as well.
When the boy’s club at Riot was exposed back in 2018, it sparked meetings at Blizzard on the issue that were seen by some as little more than preemptive damage control for a similar story coming out there, another source told Kotaku. During Ubisoft’s reckoning last year, multiple sources told Kotaku that some men tried to rewrite their own pasts in meetings about the issues, adopting the stance of allies while challenging little about their own behaviour or the company structures that had enabled a toxic environment to flourish in the first place.
“Don’t let this be a moment that passes us by,” our source warned. “Start by throwing out the harassers and abusers. Make moves to elevate the voices that will hold strong and make systemic changes. Hire female and POC leadership and not just to clean up the messes made in the past, but with the full support, guidance and funding their predecessors were given as well.”
“I hope these stories can reach and empower other women to do the same and share their experiences working for this company,” Chanel wrote. “I felt alone and minimized my pain for a long time, I hope nobody else has to do that anymore. This is our time to speak.”
Additional reporting by Nathan Grayson