Activision Blizzard execs respond to harassment and discrimination lawsuit

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Engadget 23 July, 2021 - 02:25pm 61 views

Why is Activision getting sued?

California Sues Gaming Giant Activision Blizzard Over Unequal Pay, Sexual Harassment. A lawsuit filed by the state of California on Wednesday alleges sexual harassment, gender discrimination and violations of the state's equal pay law at the video game giant Activision Blizzard. NPRSuit Claims Sexual Harassment, Discrimination At Game Studio Activision Blizzard

Brack wrote that everyone should feel safe at Blizzard and that "it is completely unacceptable for anyone in the company to face discrimination or harassment." He noted it requires courage for people to come forward with their stories, and that all claims brought to the company are taken seriously and investigated.

Blizzard president J. Allen Brack sent out an email to staff last night addressing the allegations from this week's explosive lawsuit, calling them "extremely troubling" and saying that he'd be "meeting with many of you to answer questions and discuss how we can move forward." pic.twitter.com/NsMV6CNdTE

"People with different backgrounds, views, and experiences are essential for Blizzard, our teams, and our player community," Brack wrote. "I disdain 'bro culture,' and have spent my career fighting against it."

Brack is said to be among those who were aware of Afrasiabi's purported actions. The DFEH claimed Brack "allegedly had multiple conversations with Afrasiabi about his drinking and that he had been 'too friendly' towards female employees at company events but gave Afrasiabi a slap on the wrist (i.e. verbal counseling) in response to those incidents." After those supposed talks, Afrasiabi "continued to make unwanted advances towards female employees," including groping one of them, according to the suit.

The DFEH claimed a Blizzard employee informed Brack in early 2019 that people were leaving the company because of sexual harassment and sexism. The employee allegedly said that women on the Battle.net team were "subjected to disparaging comments," that "the environment was akin to working in a frat house" and that women who weren't "huge gamers" or "into the party scene" were "excluded and treated as outsiders."

Activision Blizzard has denied the allegations. It claimed the suit "includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard's past." The company also accused the DFEH, which investigated Activision Blizzard for two years, of "disgraceful and unprofessional" conduct and claimed the agency didn't engage in a “good faith effort” to resolve complaints before resorting to legal action.

Activision Blizzard executive Fran Townsend, who was the Homeland Security Advisor to George W. Bush from 2004-2007 and joined Activision in March, sent out a very different kind of email that has some Blizzard employees fuming. pic.twitter.com/BxGeMTuRYF

Townsend, a former Homeland Security advisor to President George W. Bush who joined Activision Blizzard this year, said "the Activision companies of today, the Activision companies that I know, are great companies with good values." Townsend also claimed Activision Blizzard "takes a hardline approach to inappropriate or hostile work environments and sexual harassment issues" and that the company has "put tremendous effort into creating fair compensation policies that reflect our commitment to equal opportunity."

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WoW Players Call For Removal Of NPCs Named After Ex-Director Identified In New Lawsuit

GameSpot 23 July, 2021 - 06:10pm

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Afrasiabi, who unceremoniously left Blizzard in the summer of 2020, is the only person named directly in the State of California's lawsuit in reference to sexual harassment allegations. The lawsuit claims he would frequently hit on female employees by attempting to kiss them and put his arms around them. One portion of the lawsuit that is particularly telling is the claim that Afrasiabi's suite was nicknamed the "Crosby Suite," an apparent mispelled reference to alleged rapist Bill Cosby, who in 2018 was sentenced to 10 years in jail for sexual assault charges, charges which were recently overturned by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court.

The lawsuit states Afrasiabi's alleged pattern of harassment was known to Blizzard executives, but that no corrective measures were taken due to his seniority, with Blizzard president J. Allen Brack allegedly only giving Afrasiabi a metaphorical slap on the wrist in response to his behavior. Afrasiabi joined Blizzard in 2004 as a quest designer on vanilla WoW. He would go on to serve as creative director for the game's Warlords of Draenor and Legion expansions.

Now, players on the game's forums and Reddit are calling for two human NPCs named after Afrasiabi to be removed from the game. The two NPCs in question are Field Marshal Afrasiabi, found in the Alliance capital city of Stormwind, and Lord Afrasastrasz, found in Wrymwrest Temple in Northrend. As of writing, both NPCs are still present in-game, with Field Marshal Afrasiabi able to be found in both WoW Classic and the game's most recent expansion, Shadowlands. Field Marshal Afrasiabi appears to be phasing in and out of existence in the Shadowlands version of the game, though the reason for this is currently unclear. Players are currently using an in-game toy to post warning signs around the Stormwind NPC, with some Horde players even taking matters into their own hands, invading the Alliance city to dispose of Field Marshal Afrasiabi personally.

Other players are calling for even more drastic measures, requesting that quests created by Afrasiabi be reworked or removed entirely. Numerous in-game items are named in reference to Afrasiabi as well, and his influence on the game as a whole is a big one. As a quest designer in the game's early days, he designed some of WoW's most iconic quest lines and areas, including the quest chain for the legendary weapon Thunderfury and the Death Knight starting zone in Wrath of the Lich King.

There is precedent for Blizzard removing NPCs from the game. Two NPCs named after popular WoW streamer Swifty were quietly removed last summer. Blizzard gave no official reason for the change, but the removal of the NPCs came after allegations of sexual misconduct. Voice actor Quinton Flynn, who voiced the character Kael'thas Sunstrider in Warcraft 3 and WoW's Burning Crusade expansion, saw his voice removed from the game earlier this year. Once again, no explicit reason was given for the change, but it is assumed to be due to sexual misconduct allegations brought against Flynn around the same time.

But even if Afrasiabi's NPCs are removed and his quests reworked, fans are wondering if any action on Blizzard's part would be symbolic enough, given allegations that Afrasiabi's actions were said to be well-known to management, including Brack himself. Players have begun to stage in-game protests in response to the lawsuit's allegations, with many saying they've canceled their game subscriptions and are using the game-time remaining on their accounts to encourage others to do the same.

Blizzard has yet comment on the matter publicly, but an Activision Blizzard spokesperson's response to California's lawsuit claims that the picture painted by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing is "not the Blizzard workplace of today," and that the company has made "significant changes to address company culture" over the past several years, despite Afrasiabi continuing to be employed by the company in a senior role as recently as last year. An internal Blizzard email from Brack obtained by Bloomberg's Jason Schreier call the lawsuit allegations "extremely troubling" and the behavior outlined within it "completely unacceptable."

Blizzard has recently seen an exodus of talent away from the studio in favor of going independent. Many ex-Blizzard developers are forming their own studios, looking to make new games in genres, like RTS, that Blizzard hasn't recently shown an interest in creating. A new Bloomberg report also recently documented the struggles behind the making of Warcraft 3: Reforged, the remake of Blizzard's classic RTS that released in 2020 to lackluster reviews and fan reception, with internal Blizzard documents stating developers on the project suffered from depression, exhaustion, and anxiety over the course of development.

Is the Video Game Industry Truly Rotten to the Core?

Pajiba 23 July, 2021 - 06:10pm

This week, it was revealed that California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing was launching legal action against Activision Blizzard, one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the video game industry. Concluding a two-year investigation, the DFEH made extensive allegations about an ingrained culture of discrimination and sexual harassment, with their legal filing claiming that ‘female employees almost universally confirmed that working for defendants was akin to working in a frat house.’ The allegations are numerous, shocking, but horribly unsurprising to those who have paid even the barest sliver of attention to the industry.

Women at Activision Blizzard are allegedly subjected to ‘cube crawls’, a sick game where male employees get drunk and ‘crawl’ their way through various cubicles in the office and often engage in inappropriate behavior toward female employees. Rape jokes are reportedly commonplace, as are incidents of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. Women were assigned grunt work and lower-paid positions, with a starting wage far less than men in similar work. One woman alleged that, after asking for a promotion and pay increase, her manager ‘commented that they could not risk promoting her, as she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much.’ Women of color were particularly at risk according to the DFEH’s insights.

The DFEH said, ‘As a result of these complaints, female employees were subjected to retaliation, including but not limited to being deprived of work on projects, unwillingly transferred to different units and selected for layoffs.’ They even claimed that one woman employed at Activision Blizzard had died by suicide ‘due to a sexual relationship with her male superior’ after discovering her male co-workers ‘passed around’ intimate photos of her.

Activision Blizzard’s spokesperson responded that ‘it is this type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable state bureaucrats that are driving many of the state’s best businesses out of California.’

If you’ve been following the past two decades or so of the video game industry, news like this probably feels all-too-familiar. What the DFEH highlighted with this company is horrific but the culture of abuse at the heart of the video game world is so prevalent that its most exploitative practices now have funny names and are basically memes. The notion of ‘crunch’, wherein employees are forced to work dangerous amounts of overtime, often without financial compensation, is now an expected part of the job rather than a rarity. Many employees, current and former, in the games industry have shared their experiences with crunch, many of which were physically, mentally, and emotionally damaging. A 2014 survey by the International Game Developers Association found that 81% of polled game developers had done this kind of forced overtime, with 50% feeling it was now a ‘normal part of the job.’

Long before this investigation, Activision Blizzard was already being called out for the shocking underpayment of its staff. In August 2020, employees circulated a spreadsheet that anonymously revealed how overworked staff were not fairly compensated and many were struggling to make ends meet, a fact that coincided with the company’s CEO Bobby Kotick receiving a staggering $40 million payout for the previous year.

A scathing 2015 report on Konami’s workplace alleged that employee morale was rock bottom thanks to their every movement being monitored by cameras and that game developers no longer considered useful by the highers-up were reassigned to jobs as security guards and cleaning staff. Former employees described the experience as being akin to prison.

Only last year, Ubisoft was the subject of numerous allegations of workplace harassment, sexual abuse, and physical assault. In the anonymous survey of nearly 14,000 employees, one in four respondents said that they had either witnessed or experienced workplace misconduct themselves in the past two years. Like Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft was accused of having a deeply toxic fratboy culture that left women and non-binary employees feeling unsafe. The company’s COO, Serge Hascoët, reportedly held business meetings in strip clubs. Bloomberg reported that, in 2015, a group of Ubisoft staff in Bulgaria referred to John Boyega as a ‘monkey’ after watching a trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A former employee of Ubisoft’s Customer Relationship Center in North Carolina told Kotaku that she had submitted multiple reports of graphic sexual harassment to her manager, only for them to tell her to ‘talk it out with her harasser. Ubisoft promised changes, but a year after the whistleblowers went public, it seems that little tangible progress has been made.

The danger is that Activision Blizzard becomes the big bad wolf of this situation, the singled-out poisoned apple of the bunch who can be chastised and allow for everyone else to return to the status quo. Truthfully, I could be here all day listing the extensively documented history of the video game industry’s abuses, exploitations, and bigotry. We could discuss how Blizzard censored players who voiced support for the recent Hong Kong protests, for example, or the mass tax avoidance of some of the biggest companies in the industry. The rot, however, runs far beyond the development process. The current trend of free-to-play, loot-box-dominated gaming that functions as little more than a glorified gambling ring has been called out by multiple world governments as a danger to kids. The entire industry bends over backward to accommodate the censorship demands of the Chinese government, a move they have tried to characterize as being wholly devoid of political agendas. Hell, the entire ‘keep your politics out of my video games’ nonsense from the top downwards is a farce given how giddy the American government is about using games like Call of Duty as army recruitment tools.

And then, of course, there’s that thing called GamerGate. It would be deeply foolish of us to pretend that the mass harassment and abuse campaign directed at various women in the industry happened in a bubble separate from the concerted hate campaigns rooted in appropriating pop culture and weaponizing fandom that have now become a disheartening norm. it would also be naïve to assume that the games industry’s overwhelming silence over the hate crusade wasn’t in some way connected to this frat culture that dominated every aspect of the business. This is an industry, a fandom, and an internet overwhelmed by the prematurely shot-down lives and careers of so many women and marginalized voices.

Companies like Ubisoft share vague platitudes about listening and doing better, although Activision Blizzard’s grandstanding and faux-underdog statement feels more accurate to the mood of the industry’s shareholders. Take a gander on social media and it won’t take you long to find the same crowd of trolls spewing the same lines about how women are oversensitive, that developers should just suck it up and do crunch, that this doesn’t matter in the long term. There are plenty of people who seem more concerned with the fates of their favorite video games than the lives of those who have faced the most astounding of abuses.

Really, such opinions are easily dwarfed by the gargantuan size of the game industry and how its multi-billion-dollar profits have made it essentially impervious to accountability. This cycle of toxicity — exploitation and terrorizing of employees, increased focus on microtransactions and loot boxes, the political cowardice — has helped to transform the AAA video game industry into a money-printing machine. You can call for a boycott but how do you truly wield your financial power against something this wealthy and wealth-driven? As far as the CEOs are concerned, the numbers speak for themselves.

Aside from an obvious need for the industry to unionize en masse, the video game business can only be truly fixed with a multi-level teardown of its rotten work culture and profit-driven ethos. So, it seems unlikely that anything will truly change, and it’s not just the gaming world either. Hollywood hasn’t exactly cleaned things up following #MeToo, and the music world still keeps Dr. Luke booked and busy. Activision Blizzard can just announce a new Overwatch update and expect to see a slew of enthusiastic fans on their side once more. Change? Why bother? The system is working exactly as it was designed to.

Header Image Source: Pavlo Gonchar // SOPA Images // LightRocket via Getty Images

Blizzard Boss Accused Of Failing To Address Sexual Harassment Calls New Allegations 'Troubling'

Kotaku 23 July, 2021 - 01:40pm

In the email, first reported by Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier, a copy of which was also viewed by Kotaku, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack wrote, “I personally have a lot of emotions coming out of yesterday, and I know you do, too. The allegations and the hurt of current and former employees are extremely troubling.”

He went on to reconfirm the company’s commitment to making sure employees feel safe working there.

“It is completely unacceptable for anyone in the company to face discrimination or harassment,” he wrote. “It takes courage to come forward, and all claims brought to the company are investigated by internal and (when needed) external investigators.”

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing decided that Blizzard did, in fact, need external investigators two years ago (which the company said it has fully complied with), filing a complaint in court earlier this week. After the investgation from two years ago revealed an alleged “frat boy” workplace culture which contributed to discrimination, harrssment, rape, and, in one case, suicide. Parent company Activision Blizzard denied most of the claims in the complaint in a statement, calling it the result of a bad-faith investigation by “unaccountable State bureaucrats.”

In his email, Brack appears to be caught by surprise by the widespread allegations, despite being named in the complaint himself as one of the top managers who failed to deal with sexual harassment even when he was aware of it.

“J. Allen Brack, President of Blizzard Entertainment, allegedly had multiple conversations with [Alex Afrasiabi, former senior creative director of world of Warcraft] about his drinking and that he had been ‘too friendly’ towards female employees at company events but gave Afrasiabi a slap on the wrist (i.e. verbal counseling) in response to these incidents,” the complaint reads.

It goes on to allege that Afrasiabi continued sexually harassing women even after Brack reportedly spoke with him.

To reassert his bonafides as someone who takes misogyny seriously, in his letter to staff last night Brack made reference to writer and second-wave femenist icon Gloria Steinem.

“When I talked with Bobby [Kotick] about taking this job, one of the first things I mentioned was a revered saint of the Brack household—Gloria Steinem,” he wrote. “Growing up, the value of women as equals, understanding the work that had been done for equal treatment, and the fact that there was still much to do, were common themes.”

“Personally, I was not satisfied by it,” one current Blizzard developer told Kotaku. “I wanted to hear an explicit admission by leadership that we have a problem, followed by concrete steps to fix it. Instead it felt like a bunch of empty words.”

“The part about Gloria Steinem was particularly confusing to me,” they went on. “[J. Allen Brack] worked alongside Afrasiabi for years, and it’s hard to believe he wasn’t aware of his behavior. JAB is in that video circulating of a 2010 BlizzCon panel where leaders of the World of Warcraft team were extremely patronizing and sexist to a woman asking a reasonable question. I want JAB to resign and the email didn’t change that.”

The video the developer was talking about, which has started making the rounds online, shows a female fan at a 2010 World of Warcraft developer panel hosted by Brack, Afrasiabi, and others, requesting more varied female character designs.

“I love the fact that you have a lot of very strong female characters. However, I was wondering if we could have some that don’t look like they just stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog,” she says to roaring audience applause.

“Which catalog would you like them to step out of,” responds Afrasiabi. Brack laughs and nods. “I feel you, and we want to vary our female characters absolutely, so yeah we’ll pick different catalogs,” Afrasiabi says afterwards.

He smirks. The fan looks mortified. But the exchange continues:

Brack: Hey Alex, what catalog is that Tauren female coming out of?

Afrasiabi: Not one you’d read.

Brack: Sexy sexy cow business. (The Tauren are a cow-race).

“I want you to know that you can talk to any manager, any HR partner, any member of the legal team, or to any one on the executive team [including, Hey J],” Brack wrote in his letter to staff today

Other Activision Blizzard executives have also been in damage control mode.

Activision president Rob Kostich called the allegations in the complaint “deeply disturbing” in a letter to staff yesterday as well, Polygon’s Nicole Carpenter reports, He went on to write that the “behaviors described are not reflective of our Activision company values. The Call of Duty maker merged with Blizzard in 2008 after it acquired the latter from French media conglomerate Vivendi’s game’s division.

“We work at a company that truly values equality and fairness,” she wrote. “Rest assured that leadership is committed to continuing to maintain a safe, fair, and inclusive workplace. We cannot let egregious actions of others, and a truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit, damage our culture of respect and equal opportunity for all employees.”

Activision Blizzard did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Why should anyone? The state of California conducted a 2-year investigation, let the company know about multiple violations and tried to get them to initiate corrective action voluntarily. This was regarding teams and individuals inside WoW’s primary operations. There’s simply no way the man in charge of WoW did not know about any of this and was still be doing his job.

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