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California sues Activision Blizzard over alleged sexual harassment and ‘frat boy’ culture

Experts said that the allegations in the lawsuit echoed accusations against other companies in the gaming industry. 
Image: Activision Blizzard E3
Attendees walk past Activision Blizzard Inc. signage during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, Calif, U.S., on June 14, 2017.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The video game company Activision Blizzard, which makes the popular World of Warcraft and Call of Duty video game franchises, has a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ culture” where female employees are sexually harassed and paid and promoted less than male counterparts, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

The state agency conducted a two-year investigation of the Santa Monica-based business, which has about 9,500 employees, and found that the company consistently discriminated against women, who make up about 20 percent of its workforce, the agency said

“Female employees receive lower starting pay and also earn less than male employees for substantially similar work,” the state alleges in the complaint, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court. “Defendants promote women more slowly and terminate them more quickly than their male counterparts. Faced with such adverse terms and conditions of employment, many women have been forced to leave the company.”

The lawsuit also describes a “frat boy” culture in which male employees engage in “cube crawls” in the office, where they drink “copious amounts of alcohol” and then crawl their way through team members’ cubicles  and “often engage in inappropriate behavior toward female employees,” including groping them. Women also have to “continually fend off unwanted sexual comments and advances by their male co-workers,” the lawsuit alleges. 

The lawsuit details some personal experiences of women at the company, including one employee who assumed some management responsibilities and asked a male supervisor about being fairly paid for the additional work. The manager said they couldn’t risk promoting her “as she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much,” the lawsuit alleges. Other female employees said they were criticized for leaving work to pick up children from day care and kicked out of lactation rooms to accommodate business meetings. 

The lawsuit also details the death by suicide of a female employee on a company trip who allegedly faced harassment at work, including having nude photos circulated by male co-workers at a holiday party. 

“We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone. There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind,” a spokesperson for Activision Blizzard said in a statement. “We take every allegation seriously and investigate all claims. In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue.”

The spokesperson said the lawsuit includes “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past” and that the picture the Fair Employment and Housing Department paints is “not the Blizzard workplace of today.”

Kevin Kish, the department’s director, said it is crucial for companies in industries such as video gaming to be conscious of the dynamics of their workplaces.

“All employers should ensure that their employees are being paid equally and take all steps to prevent discrimination, harassment, and retaliation,” Kevin said. “This is especially important for employers in male-dominated industries, such as technology and gaming.” 

Experts said that the allegations in the lawsuit echoed accusations against other companies in the gaming industry. 

“We cannot allow harassment and toxicity to go unchecked. We must support inclusion and diversity within our industry so that we may all thrive together and support the development of our future talents as well,” said Renee Gittins, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, a professional body for people who create video games. 

Gittins said that the IGDA had developed guidebooks to help game studios implement human resources policies, improve their culture and prevent toxicity from thriving.

“Together we can condemn the failures in our industry’s past and take the steps forward to enact change that will ensure this wonderful, creative, diverse industry will support every person who contributes to it,” she added.