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Nov 22, 2021
During the pandemic, the number of gamers in the US grew to 227 million, making gaming more profitable than movies and North American sports combined. But all that growth isn’t enough to hide the industry’s dark underbelly.
Activision Blizzard, the creator of classic games like Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and World of Warcraft, has been embroiled in controversy since July, when the state of Californiasuedthe company for a culture of rampant sexual harassment and discrimination. The company found itself in the hot seat once again ast week, when a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick was well aware of sexual misconduct allegations, including alleged rapes, which he failed to report to the company’s board.
More than 1,500 Activision Blizzard employees signed a petition to have Kotick fired. But as of today, Kotick still has a job, claiming he’ll “consider” stepping down if he can’t fix the problem quickly.
Sadly, Activision Blizzard is far from alone in an industry rife with racism, discrimination against women and sexual harassment. We’ve devoted today’s Daily Dose to taking a closer look at Activision Blizzard and other cases making waves across the digital world and speaking to gamers with firsthand experience of the industry’s dark side.
-- Based on Reporting by Isabelle Lee
1 - California Takes Action
California’s suit alleged that Activision Blizzard paid female employees less than their male counterparts, passed over women for promotions, promoted them at slower rates than men, and even forced women to quit or assigned them to lower positions no matter their qualifications. All amount to violations of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which protects against discrimination, as well as the state’s Equal Pay Act, mandating equal treatment and opportunity in the workplace. One of the issues stated in the suit is that of the company’s 9,500 employees only 20% are women. The suit also revealed that Black women and other women of color were subject to further harassment from colleagues, including racial slurs.
2 - Federal Investigations Ensue
The California suit, settled for $18 million in September, was immediately followed by a subpoena from the Securities Exchange Commission seeking to determine whether Activision and its executives properly disclosed allegations of workplace harassment and gender-pay issues to investors and the board. Activision CEO Bobby Kotick claimed he wasn’t aware of many of the allegations of misconduct, but adamning reportfrom the Wall Street Journal last week says otherwise. Citing interviews and internal documents, the report shows that Kotick failed to report major allegations, including rape, to the company’s board. It also detailed misconduct allegations against Kotick himself, including a voicemail he left threatening to have an assistant killed.
3 - Talking Conduct
The abuse was so ingrained in company culture that one executive’s hotel room at the annual BlizzCon convention was referred to as the “Cosby suite.”Among the events that Activision Blizzard’s female employees endured were “cube crawls,” when male employees, often drunk, made their way from cubicle to cubicle, sometimes making inappropriate advances or comments along the way. California’s lawsuit also describes how male employees would proudly come into work hungover and play video games for long periods of time during work hours while delegating their responsibilities to female employees.” According to the suit, men would also joke about their sexual encounters, their colleagues bodies and rape.
4 - What's the Impact?
After California filed suit, more than 2,000 employees signed a letter condemning Activision Blizzard's “frat boy” culture and hundreds staged a walkout at the company’s campus on July 28. When California expanded its suit against them the following month, adding temporary workers’ charges and citing efforts by Activision Blizzard to interfere in the proceedings by subjecting employees to non-disclosure agreements, J. Allen Brack, president of Activision subsidiary Blizzard, stepped down, as did its top HR executive Jesse Meshuk. Following the Journal report last week, more than 1,500 employees signed a petition to have Kotick fired. As of this publishing, he still has a job, but said he will consider leaving if he can’t quickly fix the problems.
A Broken Industry
1 - Stats Don't Lie
The statistics paint a telling picture of discrimination within the gaming industry. A 2020 survey of female gamers found that 77% had experienced gender-based harassment while gaming, while 59% said they try to hide their gender while playing to avoid unwanted attention. Data from Statista shows that only 30% of game developers are female. According to 2019 data from the International Game Developers Association, just 2% of game developers are Black while 69% identify as white. Despite dismal representation in game development, gamers of color between the ages of 6 and 29 will make up 57% of all gamers in the U.S. by 2028, with Black and Latino youth spending more time playing video games than white youth. According to the 2019 IGDA report, 87% of game developers think that the future of video games will involve greater content diversity.
2 - Survey Says
Unfortunately, Activision Blizzard isn’t alone. The Swedish company Paradox Interactive, makers of the Crusader Kings series, came under fire when a union-conducted survey in August revealed that nearly 70% of female employees reported having experienced gender discrimination or harassment. A full 44% of employees at the company said they had experienced mistreatment. Workers surveyed also said that the company seemed “uninterested” in fixing the work culture. One employee wrote: “There is a perception that perpetrators at the managerial level are protected by the company.” Paradox CEO Ebba Ljungerud resigned from her post following publication of the leaked survey results.
3 - The Past Comes to Light
Fredrik Wester, the former CEO of Paradox Interactive brought in to replace Ljungerud, took to Twitter last month to apologize for acting inappropriately toward an employee in 2018, tweeting: “Accountability starts at the top ... I understand that this makes my cause less credible when it comes to handling these issues internally and will therefore not be involved directly with it.” He went on to say that efforts to stamp out discrimination had his full support, whether directly involved or not. Still, the allegations don’t help the embattled company’s image in the wake of the explosive survey.
4 - Start a Riot
In 2019, Riot Games agreed to pay $10 million in damages to nearly 1,000 female employees, ending a yearlong lawsuit. The lawsuit began when two women sued Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends, after they were harassed while working for the gaming giant and triggered a series of exposés that shocked readers with a behind-the-scenes look at Riot Games. One woman described how an idea she proposed in a meeting was shot down only to be enthusiastically received the following week when she asked a male colleague to present the same idea, leading the female employee to conclude, “They just don’t respect women.”
5 - Reverse Game
Popular gamers often use Twitch to livestream their play. But the platform is rife with viewers who engage in sexism and gender- and race-based harassment in the chat section of livestreams. Bursts of hateful comments, when a user’s chat is attacked by bots, are so common they have their own term: “hate raids.” Twitch decided to take action. In a suit filed in San Francisco, the streaming platform sued two users, believed to be based in Austria and the Netherlands, it identified as the hate raid ringleaders. Twitch hopes that the suit will serve to unmask the anonymous trolls and prove to others that there are repercussions for bad conduct.
WATCH Marin Ireland
Watch Marin Ireland Sit Down with Carlos Watson
Gaming's Dark Underbelly
1 - Call it a Crunch
If you’ve ever been up against an impossible deadline, you know the anxiety-inducing experience of a “crunch.” The term is used in the gaming world to describe the insane hours game developers put in before a product launch. The 2019 IGDA survey found that 40% of game developers reported they had experienced a crunch, with many working up to 20 hours over the standard 40-hour work week. Only 8% of those surveyed said they were paid for their overtime hours. One of the earliest overtime suits in gaming was initiated in 2004 by developer Jamie Kirschenbaum against Electronic Arts. Kirschenbaum sued EA, the maker of The Sims, for denying overtime wages owed to employees stemming from crunch. EA settled the suit for $15.6 million in 2005.
2 - After the Crunch Comes the Layoffs
In the aftermath of the intense push to produce and release a game, studios are regularly left with a team of developers who aren’t working on any particular project. And while the gaming industry exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, racking up revenues of more than $170 billion globally last year, it also suffered significant job losses. One project manager who spoke to OZY anonymously described how her company had undergone a mass layoff in May 2020. “The company I was working for decided to abandon the game we were designing and, just like that, all the developers and I were out of a job,” she said. “Luckily, I got reshuffled to another team within the company but the developers were just kind of cut and forgotten.”
3 - Tough Look
A gamer and manager at Dice Cove, Alexander Reeves is well aware of the flaws within the gaming industry. “Despite the gaming industry being around 60 years old, there is not much progress made in making sure marginalized genders are safe to work and play in these circles,” he says. Reeves is not alone in this view: According to the IGDA, 65% of developers feel that there is not equal treatment or opportunity for all within the industry.
4 - Beyond Company Culture
Melanie Allen, a gamer from Pennsylvania, has had her fair share of appalling experiences online. “I've been sexually harassed while streaming (men commenting on my body, even doxing [attempting to blackmail] me) and it can be a terrifying experience,” the force behind the blog Partners in Fire told OZY. “I stream because I enjoy gaming and community building, but getting comments like that can suck the fun out of it.” Allen, 38, runs a chatroom on Discord, an audio streaming platform that’s often used by gamers as a virtual discussion space. But even her Discord community isn’t immune to harassment. One gamer has demeaned female streamers. “We are just there to have fun,” she says, “and it's disheartening to hear our entire gender disparaged for the horrible crime of existing in an online space.”
Quote of the Day
“It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.”
— Niccolo Machiavelli
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