Protocol | Workplace

The Activision Blizzard lawsuit has opened the floodgates

An employee walkout, a tumbling stock price and damning new reports of misconduct.

Activision Blizzard workers protest outside the entrance

Activision Blizzard is being sued for widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination.

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Activision Blizzard is in crisis mode. The World of Warcraft publisher was the subject of a shocking lawsuit filed by California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing last week over claims of widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination against female employees. The resulting fallout has only intensified by the day, culminating in a 500-person walkout at the headquarters of Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine on Wednesday.

The company's stock price has tumbled nearly 10% this week, and CEO Bobby Kotick acknowledged in a message to employees Tuesday that Activision Blizzard's initial response was "tone deaf." Meanwhile, there has been a continuous stream of new reports unearthing horrendous misconduct as more and more former and current employees speak out about the working conditions and alleged rampant misogyny at one of the video game industry's largest and most powerful employers.

The game industry is rallying around Activision Blizzard employees. Numerous former and current Blizzard members, prominent industry figures and Twitch streamers, and even developers from competing game studios have joined employees in solidarity for Wednesday's walkout, demanding concrete action from management.

  • Close to 500 Ubisoft employees from 32 studios around the globe signed an open letter on Wednesday showing support for Activision Blizzard employees, Axios reported. The letter also calls for an industrywide "set of rules and processes for handling reports of these offences." Ubisoft has been embroiled in a series of sexual harassment scandals of its own over the past two years.
  • "I stand in virtual solidarity with those in the #ActiBlizzWalkout. I promise to be part of the change," wrote former CEO Mike Morhaime, who left the company in 2018 just prior to California launching the two-year investigation that prompted last week's lawsuit. Earlier this week, he apologized to employees, saying he "failed" them in his capacity as a leader.
  • The team behind massively popular online game World of Warcraft has issued a statement this week, saying it would "take immediate action" to remove in-game references "that are not appropriate for our world," though the statement was light on specifics. A 2010 video of World of Warcraft developers mocking a woman for critiquing the game's female representation has also prompted widespread criticism and apologies from some of those involved.

Organizers of the walkout are calling for change. The demonstration was billed as "the beginning of an enduring movement in favor of better labor conditions for all employees," organizers said ahead of the event. Now, those who participated say they "will not return to silence," according to Axios.

  • The swell of employee activism began with an open letter on Monday, since signed by more than 2,500 current and former Activision Blizzard employees condemning the initial response from company leadership, which the letter called "abhorrent and insulting."
  • "We expect a prompt response and a commitment to action from leadership on the points enumerated above, and look forward to maintaining a constructive dialogue on how to build a better Activision Blizzard for all employees," reads a statement from the walkout organizers.
  • Participating employees have shied away from outright discussing unionization, telling The Verge "no comment" when asked. Regardless, Activision Blizzard has decided to hire prominent law firm WilmerHale, which helped Amazon with its successful union-busting efforts earlier this year in Alabama.

The floodgates have opened. Stories of misconduct, primarily at subsidiary Blizzard Entertainment, have begun pouring out in the past few days. Among the most shocking include a Kotaku investigation about the so-called "Cosby Suite" allegedly belonging to or connected with disgraced former Blizzard creative director Alex Afrasiabi. The suite, mentioned directly in the lawsuit, was a known industry hangout and drinking spot at company events.

  • In text messages and Facebook posts obtained by Kotaku, there's strong insinuation the name started as or eventually became an inside joke among top Blizzard leadership pertaining to the actor's history of date rape and sexual assault allegations, though some employees claim it was a reference to Cosby's ugly sweaters.
  • The article features a photo of many of Blizzard's most well-known leaders and game designers posing around a portrait of Cosby. Old tweets authored by subjects of the photo also suggest it was an ongoing joke as of 2013, prior to allegations against Cosby going mainstream but well after numerous early accusers had already come forward.
  • Activision Blizzard confirmed for the first time Wednesday that it fired Afrasiabi for misconduct last year following Kotaku's report. Afrasiabi is accused of serial sexual harassment of Blizzard employees and other women in the industry, both directly in the lawsuit as well as in separate accounts that have since been made public.

It's only been one week since the Activision Blizzard lawsuit surfaced, but backlash against its alleged work environment and the behavior and inaction of company leadership have coalesced into a full-blown labor movement.

It remains to be seen whether the company will respond at all to the walkout organizers' demands; early signs point to a focus more on damage control, as the company has canceled further all-hands meetings. But Activision Blizzard's initial response — that the lawsuit was filled with "meritless," "distorted" and "out of date" depictions of the past — has already completely crumbled. Regardless of what happens with California's lawsuit, sustained pressure of this magnitude is proving a rather effective counter to even the most powerful corporate defenses.

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Photo: Ian Hutchinson/Unsplash

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Image: Christopher T. Fong / Protocol

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