They came bearing signs befitting an outraged video game contingent: “Nerf Male Privilege” and “Fight Bad Guys In Game; Fight Bad Guys [In Real Life].”
On Wednesday, workers at Activision Blizzard staged a virtual and in-person walkout in protest of the company’s culture and its handling of a harassment and gender discrimination suit filed by the State of California last week.
The lawsuit alleged that Activision Blizzard “fostered a pervasive ‘frat boy’ workplace,” including “blatant sexual harassment without repercussions.” It was a striking rebuke of one of the video game industry’s most powerful players.
Then the company made things much worse. A spokesperson for the firm told CNN that the allegations were “distorted” and in some cases outright false. Meanwhile, Frances Towsnend, Activision Blizzard’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, sent a note to employees characterizing the lawsuit as “truly meritless and irresponsible.” That didn’t sit well with the rank and file, some of whom say they had experienced inappropriate conduct themselves. “The statements being made do not reflect the [feelings] of the employees,” a current worker told The Daily Beast, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Organizers planned the walkout at headquarters in Santa Monica, and more than 3,000 workers have signed a letter calling Townsend’s comments “abhorrent.”
In response to the uproar, Activision Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick sent a message to staff on Tuesday, acknowledging that the original response was “quite frankly, tone deaf.”
“I have asked the law firm WilmerHale to conduct a review of our policies and procedures,” he wrote in the letter, which was previously published by Polygon.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson added, “We are fully committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and rewarding environment for all of our employees around the world. We support their right to express their opinions and concerns in a safe and respectful manner, without fear of retaliation.”
California’s lawsuit outlined a number of serious allegations. Women were allegedly promoted more slowly than their male counterparts but were fired more quickly. Men openly boasted about their sexual exploits, joked about rape, and made unwanted sexual advances. Employees were groped at company events.
In one especially horrifying anecdote, a female staffer allegedly died by suicide after her supervisor brought butt plugs and lubricant on a work trip. The pair had been having a sexual relationship, court filings say. The suit adds that the employee may have suffered from other forms of harassment. Male employees had allegedly passed around a picture of her vagina at a holiday party.
Cher Scarlett, who worked at Blizzard for a year ending in 2016, told The Daily Beast that her first interaction with the company took place in 2013, when she applied to be a front-end developer with six years of experience. “I was told by the person who interviewed me that I was not really a software engineer, that I was more of a designer,” she says.
When she eventually joined the company, she says she experienced harassment, including a constant stream of crude jokes. “On more than one occasion, I heard people talking about selling women for sex,” she says. “HR wasn't really a safe place for people to go.”
“Such conduct is abhorrent and will not be tolerated,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said in response to the allegations. “We appreciate the courage of any current or former employee in coming forward and will fully investigate any such claims brought to our attention.”
Workers at Activision Blizzard have been known to vocalize their discontent before. In 2019 a group of employees walked out after the company banned a Hong Kong-based professional gamer for saying “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” The company does significant business in mainland China. Amid blowback, Activision Blizzard later reduced the gamer’s punishment.
Kotick, now in his late fifties, first acquired a stake in Activision in 1990, when the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. The company merged with Vivendi Games in 2008, becoming Activision Blizzard in the process. Kotick’s stake in the combined entity is now worth over $250 million.
Despite the current blowback, which has lightly dented Activision Blizzard’s stock, shares rose close to 1 percent on Wednesday. Either way, Kotick will be fine. Last year his total compensation, including stock awards, tallied $154 million.