On July 20, 2021, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Activision Blizzard, Inc. and related entities. The DFEH set out multiple allegations, but they primarily revolve around numerous instances of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation.
This lawsuit is the culmination of a DFEH investigation lasting more than two years into the “frat boy culture” at Activision Blizzard. The investigation was also a reflection of the sexist culture that exists in the gaming industry.
Sexism in the Gaming Industry
Because of the #MeToo movement, there has been increased awareness of the fact that many video games are developed for a straight male audience. This has led to the prevalence of games with male leads and the objectification of female characters.
It makes sense that a company would develop its products and services to appeal to its main audience. But the idea that gamers are mostly male is no longer true.
In 2020, 41% of video game players in the United States were female. Yet the vast majority of game protagonists are male. Also, according to the 2020 Global Gaming Gender Balance Scorecard, roughly 84% of executives at the top 14 global gaming companies were men.
Whether on accident or by design, there’s a dearth of women in upper management positions at video game companies. This has likely contributed to several notable recent examples of discriminatory behavior against women.
For instance, at Ubisoft, several top executives left after allegations of sexual harassment. Then there’s Riot Games, which agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit for $10 million that concerned claims of gender discrimination and sexual harassment against its female employees.
Blizzard Activision appears to be the most recent example, and potentially one facing the most serious legal consequences.
DFEH v. Activision Blizzard, Inc.
In its complaint, the DFEH accused Activision Blizzard of unlawfully treating many of its female employees by:
- Paying them less than their male counterparts;
- Firing them;
- Sexually harassing them;
- Denying them the same opportunities for promotion as their male colleagues;
- Retaliating against them for complaining about harassment and unequal treatment;
- Refusing to prevent discrimination and harassment against them; and
- Forcing them to waive certain legal rights as a condition of employment.
In support of these claims, the DFEH cited numerous incidents of alleged discriminatory conduct, retaliation and harassing behavior. These included:
- When female employees were hired, they were given lower compensation (in terms of salary, incentive pay and stocks), fewer professional opportunities and less lucrative work assignments.
- One male supervisor refusing to talk to female employees and instead required anything a female had to say to him be relayed through a male employee.
- Telling a female employee that she’s not getting promoted because she might get pregnant and “like being a mom too much.”
- Giving negative performance reviews to female employees on maternity leave.
- Criticizing female employees who left work to pick up their children from daycare.
- Kicking lactating employees out of lactation rooms so that other employees could use the room for a meeting.
- Hosting “cube crawls,” where male employees would get drunk and “crawl” from cubicle to cubicle, acting inappropriately toward female employees.
- Male employees groping co-workers, openly talking about their sexual experiences, discussing female bodies, and making jokes about rape.
- During a company holiday party, male co-workers allegedly passed around a sexual picture of a female employee. This female employee later took her own life on a company trip.
When female employees complained to human resources, they were often transferred, chosen for layoffs or had work taken away from them. One reason retaliation was so common was because human resources did not keep complaints confidential.
If the above allegations are true, they clearly paint the picture of a “frat boy” office environment at Activision Blizzard. This idea is best illustrated with a video clip from 2010 where a woman tells an all-male group of video game developers from Activision Blizzard that she appreciates the strong female characters they have created, but wonders “if we could have some that don’t look like they stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog?”
The relevant portion begins at the 4:24 mark, and the response from the panel is deflective and dismissive. One member of the panel was J. Allen Brack, the President of Blizzard who stepped down after the DFEH filed its lawsuit.
This clip and the allegations made by the DFEH make it clear that what allegedly went on at Activision Blizzard was not an isolated incident or the result of a single rogue manager. As if that weren’t enough evidence of the poor company culture, Activision Blizzard’s initial responses to news to the DFEH lawsuit were equally troubling.
In an internal email, Frances Townsend (the Chief Compliance Officer at Activision Blizzard), said that the lawsuit “presented a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually inaccurate, old, and out of context stories…” She also called it a “truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit.”
Then there’s an official company statement claiming that the DFEH’s allegations were “distorted,” “false,” and calling the DFEH “unaccountable State bureaucrats…” Needless to say, the employees were not happy about their company’s response. But this initial response seems to be perfectly in line with the alleged company culture.
Why Company Culture Matters
A company’s culture represents ideas, beliefs and traits that are shared by the workers within that company. Culture drives not just what kind of employment policies the company puts into place, but how it implements and enforces them.
Based on the DFEH’s complaint, it sounds like Activision Blizzard may have had the necessary rules against harassment and discrimination. But due to its poor culture, these policies were just window dressing to both its female or male employees.
If Activision Blizzard wants to stop the discrimination, harassment and retaliation from occurring, they’ll need to start with fixing their culture. Activision Blizzard claims it has started doing that.
For example, they imposed a two-drink limit at events in 2019. However, some employees claim that limit was easily bypassed. And based on Activision Blizzard’s “tone deaf” initial response to the DFEH’s lawsuit, perhaps they still have more work to do.
What Can an Employee Do at a Company With the Wrong Culture?
If an employee is dealing with unlawful behavior at work that’s explicitly or implicitly condoned by the employer, there’s little the employee can do to stop it. Filing a formal complaint with human resources won’t work. It’ll get dismissed, won’t be investigated, will lead to retaliation, or only result in negligible positive outcome (like a slap on the wrist).
The employee can take legal action. But there’s no guarantee this will offer the employee the remedy they desire. Also, it all but assures they can never work for that company again. Settlements are possible, but their terms are often confidential. This secrecy makes it possible for the negative culture to continue.
The best way for the employee to bring about positive change is to change the company’s culture. To do that, they’ll usually need help. This assistance is more likely to arrive if there’s a lawsuit that gets plenty of publicity. When the details about a company’s toxic culture go viral, it’s more likely that:
- Individuals in positions of power at the company will get fired or resign.
- State or federal government governments will take action, whether it be through enacting new laws or filing lawsuits.
- The company will lose money. Customers might boycott the company or sponsors could pull away.
- Employees will feel emboldened to take collective action, perhaps by staging a walkout.
There’s an adage that’s applicable here: you don’t treat the symptoms, you treat the cause. When a company has a culture that promotes and supports sexist behavior, the culture is the cause while the instances of improper workplace conduct are merely the symptoms.
Perhaps the DFEH’s lawsuit will lead to significant improvements in Activision Blizzard’s company culture, and maybe even the gaming industry as a whole, as the fight to leave misogyny behind us continues.