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Gaming culture is toxic. A major lawsuit might finally change it.

California’s suit against Activision Blizzard for fostering a toxic workplace could change the whole industry.

Gamers play Destiny 2, which was first published by Activision, in Paris in 2017.
Chesnot/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The state of California filed a massive lawsuit in July against gaming giant Activision, parent company to the game developer Blizzard.

The suit, spearheaded by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), concluded a two-year investigation into Blizzard and Activision’s workplace culture, and contains allegations of entrenched misogyny, gender-based discrimination, and rape culture throughout the corporation. The suit paints a damning picture not just of Activision — the company behind game franchises like Candy Crush, World of Warcraft, Guitar Hero, Overwatch, and Call of Duty — but of gaming culture itself.

Among other allegations, the suit includes claims that while attending Activision’s popular annual gaming conference, BlizzCon, higher-level male staffers hung out at a hotel suite nicknamed the “Cosby Suite,” after Bill Cosby, who would later be convicted for serial sexual assault. (His sentence was vacated in June). The suit further named the suite’s occupant, former Blizzard game director Alex Afrasiabi, citing multiple incidents in which he allegedly harassed women at the conference.

The suit also purports that in an unrelated event, after a period of targeted sexual harassment which reportedly included male staffers sharing nude photos of her around the office, one employee died by suicide.

It’s hardly news that gaming culture has a problem with misogyny; the explosion of the Gamergate online harassment campaign throughout 2014 and 2015 made that abundantly clear. Still, it might be natural to assume that the gaming industry made attempts to create meaningful change in the wake of Gamergate — or if not then, perhaps in 2017, when so many industries were facing their #MeToo reckonings.

Indeed, one of Activision’s responses to the lawsuit was to note that Afrasiabi had already been fired in 2020, while emphasizing that the “Cosby Suite” had been part of “2013 events,” perhaps implying that the allegations were outdated.

This assumption belies the ugly truth about the gaming industry: though it’s easy to assume that things must have changed since the mid-2010s, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The lawsuit cites one complaint made to company leadership about gender-based discrimination as late as “early 2019.”

What this leaves us with, then, is a portrait of a gaming industry with deep-rooted toxicity and misogyny, problems that have been entrenched since the very beginning. The Activision lawsuit indicts not just gaming culture, but the broader dysfunction of tech culture, as well as the high-pressure, often exploitative environments in which games employees are all too frequently expected to thrive.

Activision has been around since the dawn of the gaming industry, more or less; first formed in 1979, it merged with Blizzard’s parent company in 2008 and became an industry behemoth, employing nearly 10,000 people worldwide. Blizzard enjoys a huge amount of fan loyalty, runs multiple esports leagues, and, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, produced BlizzCon every year for over 40,000 attendees.

Despite all this public-facing good will, the allegations in the DFEH lawsuit paint a far different picture of Activision’s internal environment. Women were allegedly consistently “offered lower compensation and less lucrative job assignments and opportunities ... and often had to work harder and longer to earn equal promotional opportunities.” One woman employee who “generated significantly more revenue [and] ran almost twice as many campaigns as her male counterpart” was repeatedly overlooked and passed over for promotion in favor of her coworker, a man.

At times, the lawsuit’s details of the alleged sexism and sexual harassment seem like a parody of a toxic office. “A female employee had assumed some of the responsibilities of being a manager, but when she asked [about] being paid fairly,” was told “they could not risk promoting her as she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much ... Other female employees were criticized for leaving to pick their children up from daycare while their male counterparts were playing video games.”

Meanwhile, Black women on staff say they were continually micromanaged, with one employee facing criticism from male supervisors for requesting time off, asking for help, and for her “body language,” according to the lawsuit.

All of this alleged discrimination played out against a backdrop repeatedly described as a “fratboy culture,” one in which “male employees proudly came into work hungover,” perpetually played video games instead of doing work (“A newly promoted male supervisor delegated his responsibilities to his now female subordinates in favor of playing Call of Duty”), and perpetually sexually harassed female employees. This described harassment included a litany of inappropriate sexual advances, rape jokes, demeaning sexual comments, and non-consensual touching, groping, and physical harassment, according to the lawsuit.

One male member of company leadership, Blizzard’s former senior creative director Alex Afrasiabi, was purported to be the brainchild behind the BlizzCon “Cosby Suite.” On July 28, Kotaku published photos of the suite, allegedly taken in 2013, which included a group of Activision staff posing with a painting of Bill Cosby. Afrasiabi allegedly physically groped and harassed multiple female staffers and other BlizzCon attendees. Activision said in an emailed statement to Kotaku that it had become aware of the allegations in 2020 and “immediately took corrective action,” but that it had “already conducted a separate investigation of Alex Afrasiabi and terminated him for his misconduct in his treatment of other employees.”

It’s hard to overstate just how dysfunctional much of the gaming industry’s workplace environments are. Alongside the rampant misogyny, many gaming companies also struggle with abusive labor practices that lay the groundwork for the environments in which this level of toxicity flourishes.

To make sure games are released on time, game developers often operate on months of intense work schedules known as “crunch times” — absurdly long work weeks, sometimes as long as 100 hours or more, nearly always characterized by unpaid overtime. This practice has intensified to the point of becoming known as crunch culture, in which the ability of a company’s staff to work exhaustively to deliver a product on a high-pressure work deadline is almost a matter of pride.

“If you have a culture of a particular studio that says, ‘work hard, live hard, fight hard,’ [where] everything has to be 100 percent or give up,” one employee with game developer Ubisoft told me, “all it takes [to apply pressure to overwork] is just somebody to say, well, you must not love it that much.”

The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me she only realized how harsh the work culture of the US gaming industry was after she relocated to a country with a better work-life balance. “I was working overtime pretty much every single day, not really getting paid for it,” she said. “And when I was getting paid for it, I was told I needed to cut back.”

The pressure to overwork manifested in other ways, too. “I would have dudes throwing humongous temper tantrums or putting their fingers in my face, yelling at me,” she said. “And if I said, ‘This is wildly inappropriate and slightly illegal,’ everybody in the room would be like, ‘Whoa, you need to relax.’”

This worker exploitation pops up throughout tech culture, which has managed over the decades to reframe labor exploitation as a love of workaholism. Such zeal frequently verges on cult-like loyalty toward tech companies and one’s own employers. Many gaming employees grew up loving, and dreaming of working for, the companies that made the games they loved, so many are primed to accept an exploitative environment as the trade-off for attaining that dream.

“It starts when you first apply for the job,” the Ubisoft staffer said. “We need a rockstar, we need a ninja, we need someone who’s passionate, who’s going to give it their all. Then you go and you interview and you may just feel like the most special human being in the world. And if you don’t do the job, if you don’t work the 50, 60, 70, 80 hours, then you’re not that rock star — then you’re nothing.”

Partly as a reward for getting through the crunch, gaming employees flock to the industry’s run of massive gaming conferences — huge, weeklong events like E3, BlizzCon, and PAX. These conventions not only serve as spaces where fans and game promotions converge; they also serve as pressure valves for the other, more stressful parts of the job — and they often come with a side of additional issues.

“I witnessed so many divorces because the dudes would be doing their things,” the Ubisoft staffer observed. “They could date and live the high life while the women [employees] suffered. They would sexually harass the women. And their wives would be back home and they would be living their lives at all of the [industry] events.”

She noted that the interplay between fans and employees at gaming cons can be “a fantastic high” that feeds the egos of staffers and elevates the “rock star” culture. The convention VIP treatment both feeds their ego and becomes a status symbol they then pass on to their friends and favored employees. “It’s all totally connected,” she said, “and it all adds to the magical world of the gaming industry.”

In such a context, any attempt to question the company or cultural status quo might easily be taken as a show of disloyalty, or a sign that someone is disgruntled and doesn’t belong. Furthermore, a great majority of these employees are young men who’ve been raised in an environment where casual misogyny is a habitual part of gaming socialization.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that some gaming companies tend to foster an environment that normalizes casual misogyny, harassment, and sexism in the workplace, and then denigrate, ostracize, and punish women who attempt to change that culture.

“What you have is an industry filled with Peter Pans,” game developer Brianna Wu, a feminist activist whose outspoken views on the industry have frequently made her a prominent target for harassment, told me. “And the thing is Wendy eventually leaves the Lost Boys, and that’s very much a metaphor for the game industry.”

This workplace conflict reflects the broader tension between traditional gaming culture — the “fratboy” atmosphere described in the lawsuit — and the growing visibility of women and other diverse players in gaming communities. This conflict gained media attention, particularly in the years just prior to Gamergate, when headlines involving rampant, extreme sexism in geek spaces seemed to pop up on a near-weekly basis. In response to the current Activision lawsuit, social media users resurfaced a video from 2010 in which an all-male panel of Blizzard staffers mocked a female WoW player’s request to have less sexualized female characters.

“Blizzard is the Disney of the gaming industry,” Wu observed. “They’re well-regarded for putting out games that are fun to play, but also have that stench of misogynistic, dated game design.”

In this regard, Blizzard is typical of the industry as a whole, she noted. Like other major developers, Blizzard has “focused on a very particular kind of fan like a laser, who generally speaking is [a] white straight male, 20 to 40,” she said. “And they’ve catered to their every single whim.”

This focus on male consumers contributed to Gamergate, a social media movement which ostensibly began as a protest against biased games journalism in 2014, but really was focused on intimidating and harassing a handful of prominent, outspoken feminists in the industry, Wu among them. Gamergate’s overt misogyny sparked massive criticism of gaming culture, and many people hoped that it might result in more support for women in gaming.

“I think there was a sense with a lot of women in the field that we were about to change — that the industry was about to change,” Wu said. “Finally, our stories were being told, finally, people knew about the constant deluge of sexism.”

Despite the gaming industry taking “a reputational hit” for its misogyny, Wu told me bluntly that the expected change never came. “Every single convention I go to has more panels for women to come forward and talk about what it’s like to be a woman in games. We did all these things that feel good and might look good for a PR perspective, but doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, which is [that] you’ve got to fire the a-hole, and you’ve got to promote women, We treated it like a marketing problem rather than a workplace problem.”

As for the MeToo movement, Wu believes that, too, has been a nonstarter in the industry: “You can point to a couple people that faced consequences, like IGN editor Steve Butts [who was fired for allegedly harassing a staff member], but overall, the gaming industry never had a #MeToo movement ... Our industry has done nothing but window-dressing in getting rid of the harassers.”

One reason for the lack of a larger movement, she said, is that “women had seen that there were no consequences so many times that there was a fear in coming forward.” In the years since MeToo became a wider movement, many women have come forward to accuse individuals of specific harassment and assault allegations; in 2020, one gamer began documenting specific allegations against Twitch streamers and other gaming figures. Still, little wider change, or even widespread attention, came from that short-lived movement, and instead, instances of the gaming industry’s misogyny continue to make headlines. (See, for example, the release of the 2019 video game Rape Day, in which the player’s goal is to ... you can probably figure it out.)

“I think that the thing I’ve seen over and over from this Activision lawsuit with my friends in the game industry is just a kind of existential rage,” Wu said, “because we keep talking about the same thing and nothing changed.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, Activision has been on the ropes, defending itself on a number of fronts and initially calling the suit “inaccurate” and “irresponsible.” Activision’s employees, on the other hand, responded with outrage, calling the response by company leadership “abhorrent” and organizing for better working conditions, including fairer treatment of women on staff. Over 3,000 current and former employees have since signed an open letter to company leadership, calling for a better, more sensitive response from company leadership and a commitment to holding alleged abusers accountable.

As current staff conducted walkouts in protest, former employees tweeted their their horror stories of experiencing sexism and sexual harassment at the company. The backlash prompted Activision’s CEO to walk back the company’s previous responses and admit that they were “tone deaf.”

The lawsuit prompted numerous corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola and T-Mobile, to exit from their participation in Blizzard’s esports leagues, including its Overwatch and Call of Duty leagues. Activists also called for fans to boycott Activision’s many games in protest; the subsequent drop in Activision stock has reportedly cost the company at least $8 billion.

On August 3, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack, who was directly cited in the DFEH lawsuit as having delivered nothing but “a slap on the wrist” to one of the company’s worst offenders, announced his resignation. The company’s head of HR, Jesse Meschuk, also departed shortly after.

All of this activity may make it seem as though the lawsuit is having an impact: On an August 3 call with investors, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick pledged “swift action” to address the issues raised by the suit.

But Wu’s note about industry window-dressing may be well observed. Even as Activision was pledging an internal review, employees were pushing back over its choice of the third-party company hired to conduct that review: WilmerHale, a law firm known for union-busting that has a history of backing employer interests over those of their employees.

Meanwhile, the calls for accountability have spread to other parts of the industry including Ubisoft, whose employees published their own open letter on July 27, claiming that despite reports of rampant harassment and discrimination in their company that surfaced last year, little had changed and many of the alleged harassers had yet to be held accountable. “It was an open secret that these people were doing these things, and it took public outcry for something to happen and for them to make any sort of choice,” the Ubisoft staffer said. “But did something major change? No, not really.”

When contacted by Vox, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson insisted the company is looking out for its employees. “We support our employees’ right to express their opinions and concerns about benefits and working conditions, without fear of retaliation and with respect for the rights of other employees,” they said in an email. “This includes their right to choose whether or not to organize. As always, we welcome outreach directly from our employees with concerns or ideas to help make improvements, and there are multiple well-established avenues internally for dialogue, both direct and anonymous, with HR, leadership, and legal.”

As for the law firm: “WilmerHale has extensive experience helping organizations strengthen their workplace environment by making improvements around policies and procedures related to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation issues,” they said. “The firm has not been retained to advise on union-related matters.”

Activision also countered the narrative of the company as a straight white boys’ club and committed itself to hiring more diversely. “The only way for our games to reach our desired, global scale is to make them as broadly appealing as possible to anyone who wants to play,” the spokesperson said. “We are proud that our games openly celebrate diversity. We’re constantly introducing characters with different genders, races, and backgrounds to ensure that anyone who plays our game feels welcome and dignified.”

“Activision Blizzard is likewise committed to inclusive hiring practices and to creating a diverse workforce. It is essential to our mission. We are adding personnel to further strengthen our work in response to this directive.”

Wu, for her part, told me she has little faith in the industry’s ability to self-police. Instead, she drew encouragement from the fact that Activision’s stock dropped in response to the uproar — because money might have more of an influence than any number of staff walkouts.

“My bottom line is, until it’s more expensive to treat women wrong than it is to treat women right, this is simply going to continue,” she said. She noted that many major gaming studios had refused to audit their companies to be compliant with federal workplace regulations. “It’s past time that we had real solutions.”

Still, if there’s any silver lining here, she said, it’s that the lawsuit was filed to begin with, because the state of California was able to conduct a real investigation into systemic issues that the company itself never could or would.

“This is the formula we need going forward to change the culture in the video game industry,” Wu said. “It needs to be a top-to-bottom reckoning.”

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