Activision Blizzard Lawsuit Shows an Industry in Need of Reform
In its early days, the gaming industry was once viewed as a fledgling business, one that exists only to churn out high-tech distractions for young boys. Fortunately, such stereotypes were overcome, and it is now a powerhouse of the entertainment industry where dreams can be turned into reality. And yet, for all the decades of progress that were made in dispelling the idea that games are a boy’s club of violence and sex, every once in a while something happens that reminds us that there’s still some aspects of the gaming industry that need to be eradicated. One such cancer, brought to light by a lawsuit filed by the state of California, revealed that Activision Blizzard had been subjecting its workers to horrible conditions, with multiple allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination, and unfair pay.
The damning report by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing states that a “frat boy” culture was present at Activision Blizzard’s offices, leading to a “breeding ground of harassment and discrimination against women.” Women were subjected to lower pay and fewer promotions, groping, and what is effectively rape, for lack of a better word. Complaints were routinely disregarded by HR, and perpetrators were effectively given free reign to continue their disgusting behavior without consequences. Conditions were so bad that one female worker committed suicide. There are quite a few more allegations to be found in the report, though they mostly serve to reinforce the claims that sexual harassment was rampant throughout the company.
Those who are most responsible for the success of our beloved hobby are being exploited and literally killed by their work.
Needless to say, the report should disgust any moral and decent person. One should hope that the lawsuit leads to a crippling punishment for Activision Blizzard and fair and swift compensation for the injured parties, but whether this actually happens remains to be seen. Regardless of the outcome of this particular lawsuit, it has become abundantly clear that the gaming industry as a whole needs to be reformed. This is not the first time that a major gaming company was caught fostering an environment of sexual harassment. In fact, Ubisoft was exposed for doing what is essentially the same thing, with as many as one in four employees stating that they were either victims of or witnesses to workplace misconduct. From Bethesda to EA to Naughty Dog and beyond, sexual harassment cases in the gaming industry are apparently so common that it’s probably easier to just assume that every AAA-sized publisher or developer has had at least one credible and or public case of sexual harassment.
Even if you put aside the claims of sexual harassment, the gaming industry is evidently rife with corruption and unethical working conditions. CD Projekt Red for example overworked their employees to the point that at least one worker compared it to being on a death march. Rockstar relies so heavily on crunch that workers sleep at the office and laundry services had to be hired during extended periods of crunch. Stories where workers at Epic Games were worked until they “broke down in tears” aren’t hard to find. Activision Blizzard (again) famously fired some 800 workers, or about eight percent of its workforce, in 2019 in spite of the fact that the previous year “achieved record results.” Another 100 or so were let go in late 2020.
At this point, there’s really no way to sugarcoat the working conditions in the gaming industry. Non-isolated instances of abuse, reported by countless individuals from every part of the world and backed up by a state lawsuit, makes the situation abundantly clear: Those who are most responsible for the success of our beloved hobby are being exploited and literally killed by their work. But what is to be done? One could simply say that any guilty companies should be dissolved and control should be handed over to the workers. Worker cooperatives in the gaming industry aren’t exactly unheard of (see also Pixel Pushers Union 512 and Tonight We Riot). This is a rather extreme option though, and not exactly realistic all things considered.
The most obvious and practical answer is that there needs to be some form of game developer’s union, plain and simple. Organized labor has historically been the working class’s greatest weapon against abuse, and there’s plenty of abuse going on right now. In addition, it is high time for many prolific villains of the gaming industry to go. The recent Activision Blizzard lawsuit report states that Bobby Kotick, the CEO, had a salary of almost $1.5 million in 2020. Other executive officers are living the good life on the surplus value of their workers with salaries ranging from $650,000 to $1 million. To say that these people deserve such salaries given the quality (or lack thereof) of recent Activision Blizzard games is laughable. That crimes are going unpunished (perhaps literally) under their noses points to either incompetence or willful ignorance and ought to be considered criminal. Keep in mind that this isn’t just an issue exclusive to Activision Blizzard. If the video-game industry is to be purged of corruption, it must start from those who have the most power and are most capable of enabling the sexism, racism, and worker abuse that happens in their own office.
Either way, unless things change, we might very well be looking at the slow but unmistakable implosion of major parts of the gaming industry. Between crunch, widespread sexual harassment, and incompetent management that focus purely on revenue, you will almost certainly see talented developers leave. Logically, more inexperienced developers will try take their place and fail through no real fault of their own, resulting in lower-quality products. The cycle can (kind of) be seen with the recent release of Cyberpunk 2077 and the largely uninspired route that many major franchises have taken, especially those handled by EA, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, and Rockstar. Hopefully, working conditions for developers will improve soon as there is still a place for AAA blockbuster titles, but if not, then it is a self-inflicted death that is well deserved.