It’s been months since the state of California publicly filed a suit against Activision Blizzard. This doesn’t change the annual cadence of a behemoth like Call of Duty, which employs thousands of developers. But while Gamescom attempted to carry on as if Call of Duty: Vanguard was simply another video game, things were a little different this year.
Video game conventions tend to be uncritical by their nature. They’re jampacked with announcements, reveals and new information, typically within minutes of each other. Everyone covering them is generally super stressed, and that’s whether you’re at the event or covering from afar due to COVID or other circumstances. You have seconds to encapsulate a lot of info very quickly, you’re dealing with multiple social media platforms at the same time, and you’re trying to get the news out fast before you miss whatever the next announcement is.
So for publishers besieged by scandal, like Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard have been throughout this year, something like Gamescom and Gamescom Opening Night Live can be a bit of a PR circuit breaker. It provides fertile ground to move the conversation away from things that are generally toxic for share prices, like “constant sexual harassment”, towards more comfortable territory like pre-order bonuses.
That disconnect between Just Another Video Game and the circumstances in the real world became even more awkward when Vanguard revealed one of its key characters. The new Call of Duty campaign — the fifth mainline title in the franchise to focus on WW2 at a setting — would star Laura Bailey as Polina, a Russian sniper inspired by the legendary Red Army heroine Lyudmila Pavilchenko, the most lethal female sniper in recorded history.
In isolation it’s a story that makes total sense for Call of Duty, not just for Vanguard’s setting but also the direction of recent Call of Duty games. Black Ops: Cold War has recently toyed around with larger, more methodical levels that favour stealthier approaches. Highlighting a Russian sniper as the Red Army fights to push the Germans out of Stalingrad is a perfect fit; it would have fit right in with the original Call of Duty games.
But in a day and age when so many of Activision Blizzard’s own female staffers are facing so many internal battles of their own, the timing couldn’t be worse. The fact that most of the allegations have been centred around Blizzard and Blizzard’s now-former leadership doesn’t change matters, especially since Activision has been steadily assuming more control over the combined company for years — and the Call of Duty part of Activision has had plenty of mistreatment allegations of its own. Even outspoken Activision Blizzard employees have been pressured by internal recruiters to moderate or balance their public criticism due to the impact the spotlight is having on hiring efforts.
Unsurprisingly, the live response during the Vanguard reveal was more pointed than usual. Filtering out the usual responses — both YouTube and Twitch featured plenty of complaints that Vanguard was woke from the second Laura Bailey appeared on screen — there was a consistent volley of suggestions to boycott Activision or support other publishers.
“Why waste your money on supporting workplace harassment when you could play Psychonauts 2 instead,” one comment read. Others referenced the recent allegations from the state of California that Activision had shredded evidence relating to the lawsuit; others used the moment for some natural schadenfreude.
“Everything is just falling apart and on fire, is the setting supposed to be the Activision blizzard shareholder meeting,” another wrote on YouTube.
But the strongest criticism came from other parts of the media, who questioned why Gamescom — and Geoff Keighley — gave such an uncritical platform to Activision in the first place.
Given Activision took the extraordinarily unusual step of removing its logo from the Vanguard trailer, the absence of any kind of statement was a glaring oversight. It’s also partially because Gamescom Opening Night Live’s host, Geoff Keighley, has made no bones about using his presence and shows to advocate for better developer treatment. He famously put Konami in the public crosshairs a few years ago after the publisher legally barred Hideo Kojima from accepting an award for Metal Gear Solid 5.
“Mr Kojima had every intention of being with us tonight, but unfortunately he was informed by a lawyer representing Konami just recently that he would not be allowed to travel to tonight’s award ceremony to accept any awards,” Keighley said at the time. “It’s disappointing and inconceivable that an artist like Hideo would not be allowed to come here and celebrate with his peers.”
Similarly, you think it would be equally disappointing and inconceivable that another Call of Duty would be rolled out months later like just another video game, when workers are complaining about being overworked to the point of physical and economic distress. But this is Gamescom’s show, not Keighley’s. So while it makes sense the recurring video game host has received criticism of late — you accept the standard you walk past, after all — questions need to be asked of the Gamescom organisers and the bodies managing the trade show.
It’s worth noting that the same organisation which runs Gamescom also hosts Devcom. Devcom is similar to the Games Developer Conference in structure with lots of talks and panels about the realities of working in video games. So it’s a bit on the nose to be hosting panels talking about how to better represent mental health in games, representation and how to create more sustainable business environments when such serious allegations are floating around.
I want to stress that none of this is targeted or designed to minimise the immense hard work from all the individual developers working on Vanguard, many of whom undoubtedly have no connection to the events of recent years or no capacity to force the company to be better. A lot of these situations and circumstances are the byproduct of executive decisions and choices made by people in power, not the person working in engineering on networking code, not the community managers wading through countless toxic social media comments, not the artists getting into the industry for the first time, or the designers just trying to make the best Call of Duty maps they can.
These people simply want a better environment to do the thing they love, and I sympathise with the bind they’re in. Agitating for change from the inside can often only get you so far, even in companies that pride themselves on open and honest engagement with their workers. That’s why it’s the job of media and major platforms to pick up the torch when others cannot. But if publishers can just book a major slot in a conference and everyone lets them carry on like everything is normal, how can we truly expect things to improve?