Xantia doesn’t spend much time on Twitter, so she learned that California was suing Activision Blizzard for years of alleged sexual harassment and discrimination a couple days late. She had no idea she became the face of discussions about Blizzard’s questionable past with women until a friend messaged her on Facebook. She says it felt like the meme of Leonardo DiCapiro pointing at the TV screen.
“It’s really weird seeing this whole thing getting press coverage for a question that I asked 11 years ago,” Xantia, who preferred to go by her World of Warcraft handle to protect her privacy, told Kotaku in a phone interview. “It was just surreal.”
The clip of an all-male panel of World of Warcraft developers condescendingly mocking and dismissing a question by Xantia at BlizzCon 2010 resurfaced around July 23, partially as a response to a staff email sent by Blizzard president J. Allen Brack. In it, Brack called the recent allegations against the company “troubling,” going so far as to express shock and dismay at the idea the company might have a history with sexism. But then people started circulating the footage of the panel, where instead of calling out his coworkers or pushing back against the boos from the audience against Xantia, he just joked and chuckled along with them.
While the video was new to some, for many it’s emblematic of a rotten culture at the heart of Blizzard that’s been there for years — if not proof of gaming’s ambient hostility to women.
“It’s hard to have your voice heard when there are that many guys setting the tone,” Xantia said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why that video has gone viral. It just exemplifies so much of what’s wrong right now with the industry at large. There is me being utterly dismissed by a panel of men who run the company and at the same time having a small, small group of women in the audience cheer and then that immediately being drowned out by men booing.”
Xantia has been playing games for as long as she can remember, and some of her favourite ones happened to have been made by Blizzard. She picked up the original Diablo in high school, fell in love with StarCraft, and eventually found her way into the giant online community of World of Warcraft. “I viewed [Blizzard] as something apart from a lot of the other major developers in that they seemed to genuinely care about their fan base,” she said.
By 2010, she was in graduate school and decided to go to BlizzCon not only as a fan but as a potential networking opportunity to find a job in the video game industry. “It was a bit like being a kid in a candy shop,” Xantia said.
And that’s how she found herself in Hall D of the Anaheim Convention Centre asking a World of Warcraft panel why so many of their strong female characters nevertheless still looked like they had just walked out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue.
“I spent like a good 20, 30 minutes working my way up the line [for fan questions] thinking, ‘What’s the best way of phrasing this?’ Like, ‘Hey, for some of the major female characters, can they at least be wearing pants?’”
The most recent World of Warcraft expansion at the time, Wrath of the Lich King, had introduced a new female character named Alexstrasza, a powerful dragon queen empowered to watch over all life. Her outfit, meanwhile, was red bikini armour. “I remember doing the quest chain and my reaction was just like, ‘Oh, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me,’” Xantia said.
And so with Alexstrasza in mind, she asked the panel of Brack, Greg Street, Tom Chilton, Alex Afrisiabi, and others, in front of the BlizzCon cameras and an audience of thousands, for more varied female character designs.
“Which catalogue would you like them to step out of,” responded game director Tom Chilton at the time. “I feel you, and we want to vary our female characters absolutely, so yeah we’ll pick different catalogues,” said Alex Afrasiabi. The rest of the panel laughed. Brack tried to keep the joke going. Xantia was eventually prompted to move out of the line, her question unanswered.
“I tell you, it’s funny, I didn’t really think much about it at the time just because it’s so daunting,” she told Kotaku. “You get up there, you’re nervous because you’re being filmed, you’re being streamed and you’re in front of an audience of easily a couple of thousand people. And on top of it you’re asking the panel in front of this enormous screen where you’re watching yourself ask that question. So it’s hard to even kind of keep your thoughts straight. And I manage to sum it up coherently, come out with that question and they make a joke. I kind of like how I laugh and then they just keep going with it. I’m like, OK, I guess I’m not going to get a chance for a follow-up. OK, I’m being dismissed, great.”
She said that afterwards, quite a few women and some men came up to her saying they appreciated her question. Despite Blizzard’s dismissal, other players found themselves lending their support. Still, the whole experience threw her off a bit.
“Honestly, the sound of being booed by that many guys, honestly, in some ways that bothered me more than getting dismissed,” she said. “You had that initial cheer from the women in the crowd and then just wave boos.”
But while the clip has become a signifier now for what’s wrong with Blizzard and the games industry at-large, it didn’t necessarily stick with Xantia in the months and years that followed.
“I didn’t think that much about it, because there’s always been for the longest time a certain amount of sexism in the games industry that is just there and you learn to roll your eyes and do your best to ignore it and just try to appreciate the things that you do like about it, Xantia said.
“I loved Diablo II back in the day. Did I love the character model for the Amazon? No, not really. Hell, one of my earliest memories of gaming was being excited about the first Tomb Raider game and thinking, ‘That’s so cool it has a female protagonist.’ And then you see the first model of Lara Croft in the game and you’re like, oh, cool, great, great…”
There’s an audible exhaustion in her voice when she recalls this memory. The 2010 BlizzCon panel wasn’t an anomaly. It wasn’t the mask slipping in front of thousands on video. It was what she had come to expect from a space dominated by men with little regard for anyone else, and as California’s lawsuit and new reporting has confirmed, who were at times explicitly dangerous to the women around them.
Afrasiabi is one of the only people named in California’s lawsuit, accused of sexually harassing and groping female Blizzard employees. It also accused him of having a “Cosby Suite” at BlizzCon where he would also prey on women.
Based on images obtained by Kotaku, the “Cosby Suite’’ was an actual booze-filled party room at BlizzCon 2013 in which Afrasiabi and others would pose with a giant portrait of the comedian. Activision Blizzard confirmed to Kotaku that Afrasiabi was terminated last year for “misconduct.” Brack, the only other person named in California’s lawsuit for failing to address sexual harassment compalints against Afrasiabi, is still currently in charge of Blizzard.
Despite the experience at the panel, Xantia said she tried to get a job at Blizzard in its Strategic Initiatives Department around 2012 and was in the running for a while before ultimately being rejected. “I was pretty heartbroken about it at the time, but man, talk about being lucky in your failures,” she said. “I now feel like I dodged a bullet there.”
Following the resurfacing of the BlizzCon 2010 moment, former World of Warcraft lead designer Greg Street, currently at Riot Games, took to Twitter to apologise in a somewhat meandering tweet thread. He first qualified the “shitty answer” by saying it can be hard to see who’s asking the questions. He also mentioned that developers are nervous up there, in front of the crowd, out of fear they will say the wrong thing. Eventually he settled on, “I find the video embarrassing and I apologise to the player who asked the question and all others who were disappointed with our ‘answer.’”
Xantia said part of what’s been so weird about seeing the video brought back up over a decade later is seeing responses like Street’s.
“I guess Greg Street now knows who I am now. Cool. OK. And also that wasn’t really an apology, but sure you do you. Whatever gets you to sleep at night,” she said. “I was joking with a friend when I saw it, when I saw everything he was writing about that, just, you know, ‘Oh, I couldn’t see her react, I couldn’t see her face’ and how he’s disappointed in all of these things. Yeah, but your ears were working just fine. Did you not hear hundreds of people booing me? What would it have taken to say, ‘Hey, guys, come on, that’s not cool’? “Whenever you start explaining yourself to that degree, it stops being an apology.”
Xantia thinks Blizzard needs to be more candid too.
“One of the biggest things that they could do is, actually be honest and have that kind of ‘boys club’ not be above reproach,” she said. “It has to be more than just a show of ‘We did these couple acts of penance and now we’re all better.’ I think there actually has to be a fundamental reevaluation.”
Xantia’s found the recent actions of other developers at Activision Blizzard, including an open letter and walkout, to be cause for optimism. And despite how bizarre it’s been to play such a visible role in the public outcry that’s currently unfolding after all these years, she’s hopeful the negative experience is now making a positive contribution.
“I’ve gotten a moderate amount of attention for all this when I’m only tangentially connected to it,” she said. “I think the important voices are for the women who were actually at Blizzard who have had to endure far, far more than just being dismissed at a convention.”
“There are worse reasons to go viral. And if this helps to actually bring about change then that would be something profoundly good that came out of a pretty small, but still shitty moment.”