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We Need to Talk About Activision

Because that company's problems run very, very deep.

Over the past few months now, the games industry has watched as Activision-Blizzard’s workplace culture has come under fire. If you follow gaming news at all (especially our podcast, where it’s become a recurring segment at this point), it’s been hard to miss. 

However, after almost six months of upsetting reports, it’s easy to forget both the full scale of this ongoing scandal and the fact that the only way this can actually change — at Activision-Blizzard or anywhere else — is through a change in leadership.

Image: The Verge (Zoe Schiffer)

California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) kicked things off back in July, suing the Call of Duty publisher for cultivating a “frat” environment that featured systemic sexism and toxic behaviour following a two year investigation. The DFEH’s lawsuit was filled with detailed personal accounts of some truly disgusting behaviour towards female employees — who make up less than a fifth of the company’s total workforce, and who continue to be paid significantly less than their male counterparts. 

These accounts were so horrific, and so powerful, that Activision received more than 500 further reports of harassment, sexual assault, bullying, pay disparities and other issues; the company’s staff signed an open letter supporting the DFEH’s lawsuit and staged an organised walk-out in solidarity with those who came forward to report said toxic culture; Blizzard’s President stepped down (and one of his replacements expressed a lack of faith in Activision’s leadership to right the ship and then stepped down after just three months); and sponsors started to distance themselves from the company’s popular Call of Duty League and Overwatch League tournaments. 

On top of all that, in September, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a separate complaint against the company, the result of an investigation that it says began three years earlier. In that complaint, which accused the company of sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, retaliation and more, the EEOC alleged that Activision-Blizzard “knew or should have known” about the complaints and “failed to take prompt and effective remedial action reasonably calculated to end the harassment”. 

Former staff members took to their personal social media channels to corroborate the reports from both this suit and the DFEH’s, while Activision reached an agreement with the EEOC to create a US$18 million fund to “compensate and make amends to eligible claimants” — with any funds not required to be forwarded to “charities that advance women in the video game industry or promote awareness around harassment and gender equality issues”, as well as to work on its own “diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, as approved by the EEOC”. 

When it comes to the DFEH’s lawsuit, however, the company has been on the defensive, employing the time-tested mantra that “the best defence is a good offence”: it released a statement to various investigating media outlets that suggested that “the DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past,” before attacking the Department’s handling of the investigation and the lawsuit. Not once has the company, or its Board of Directors (more on them later), publicly stated that it would be investigating any of the claims made in any of the reports. 

Image: Los Angeles Times (Allen J. Schaben)

Throughout all of this, Activision-Blizzard’s CEO, Robert A. “Bobby” Kotick, has sworn up and down that he wasn’t aware that any of this was going on, which isn’t too hard to believe given that CEOs of large companies are often not super hands-on. It became absolutely impossible to believe, however, when the Wall Street Journal released a report claiming that Kotick not only knew about the allegations, but he knew about them in enough detail to decide to help cover them up

These aren’t minor allegations, either: the report suggests that Kotick had a hand in reaching out-of-court settlements for allegations against his staff that ranged from sexual harassment to rape. Even more disturbing, however, is the fact that there were also claims of harassment and retaliation made against Kotick himself — including a death threat that he made to one of his assistants — which were also settled quietly outside the courtroom. 

While people all over the games industry have been almost united in calling for Kotick to step down or be sacked, Activision-Blizzard has been steadfast in its support of its CEO, with its Board of Directors releasing a statement of its own in the hours after the Wall Street Journal’s report: 

“The Activision Blizzard Board remains committed to the goal of making Activision Blizzard the most welcoming and inclusive company in the industry. Under Bobby Kotick’s leadership the Company is already implementing industry leading changes including a zero tolerance harassment policy, a dedication to achieving significant increases to the percentages of women and non-binary people in our workforce and significant internal and external investments to accelerate opportunities for diverse talent. The Board remains confident that Bobby Kotick appropriately addressed workplace issues brought to his attention.

The goals we have set for ourselves are both critical and ambitious. The Board remains confident in Bobby Kotick’s leadership, commitment and ability to achieve these goals.”

Based on this statement, it’s clear that Activision Blizzard’s Board of Directors isn’t even planning to investigate the claims against Kotick and his fellow executives. In other words: the entity that can take decisive action to punish a number of individuals accused by multiple accusers of damnable acts like sexual harassment, assault, rape, and more… has decided that those people don’t have a case to answer for. In a society that constantly hears how important it is to take such claims seriously — especially when there are so many of them — the Activision Blizzard Board of Directors has decided that it will not be taking such claims seriously because it likes its CEO. 

Of course, the statement doesn’t directly say that, so I could be completely wrong and Kotick could be sitting in a sexual harassment seminar as this article goes live, but let’s be honest: there’s a tiny chance that that’s the case, if even that. He’s a straight white man who’s ludicrously rich, occupies a high-ranking position, and has the complete backing (or blind faith) of his Board of Directors… despite the fact that the company’s shareholders are now standing against it — and him — in a court of law, and its employees are continuing to petition and protest against his continued employment.

Image: Getty Images (Drew Angerer)

We’ve already seen members of the public expressing interest in boycotting Activision Blizzard’s games, and although boycotts are often a brilliant way to get a message across, in this situation I’m not sure it’s the right way for the games industry to send its message. 

Yes, it would definitely hit the executives and the shareholders right where it hurts, but it’ll have an even greater impact on those further down the chain: those workers who rely on the games performing well in order to maintain their job security; those workers who’ve poured hours upon hours into these games in order to make them the best they can be; hell, even those workers who came forward to report the wrongdoings in the first place. Those workers will be the first ones impacted by the boycotts, and once those boycotts have ruined innocent lives, there’s only a chance that they might impact the Board and the shareholders. By then, it would’ve done more harm — to the wrong people — than good. 

Instead, the industry at large should be turning its attention directly to the source of the problem: whether of his own volition or by that of others, Bobby Kotick can no longer be the CEO of Activision Blizzard. Even if the allegations directly against him are proven untrue (or he uses his position of power to make them disappear, which is more likely at this point), the fact that he’s been complicit in — and helped to cover up — what is clearly a deep-rooted systemic issue within his company makes his position as CEO completely untenable. 

It’s not just Kotick that has to go, though; it’s the entire Board of Directors. You simply can’t have a Board of Directors suggest that it’s trying to be “the most welcoming and inclusive company in the industry” in the same breath as it blindly suggests that a person accused of multiple counts of severe misconduct has nothing to answer for. By rallying around Kotick and the other executives named in the lawsuits rather than setting an example by publicly investigating the multiple claims against them — or at least, just, not completely discrediting them — the Activision Blizzard Board of Directors has made two things abundantly clear: (1) that its apparent commitment to being a welcoming, inclusive, safe space for its staff is little more than a piece of damage control; and (2) that nobody on the Board is fit to continue in their roles (in case that wasn’t clear already). 

Image: Getty Images (Drew Angerer)

Unfortunately, there really isn’t much that we as an industry can do about Activision’s catastrophically, irreparably flawed leadership. The only people who can do anything about the problem are the very same immoral, inept people who are causing it. The fact that it’s not just happening at Activision makes things worse, too, because we know that it’s going to be really, really difficult to inspire any genuine change within Activision. 

All we can really hope for is that we don’t see these issues within any other companies, but even that’s a stretch, so I guess I just hope the people who’ve been victimised by Activision and its toxic culture can find their way into studios that aren’t run like frat houses… and maybe, just maybe, somewhere down the line, someone will find a way to make the changes we need to see.

This article was originally published on Doublejump. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, you can support the site further by following us on social media, becoming a member, and/or purchasing some merchandise!