The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is suing Activision Blizzard over what court documents refer to as a “frat boy” workplace culture that subjects its female employees to gender-based discrimination and “constant sexual harassment.” Bloomberg Law first reported the news. Several former Activision Blizzard employees have spoken out on social media to corroborate these stories.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in a Los Angeles court, alleging that Activision Blizzard — and its subsidiaries, including Blizzard Entertainment — allows sexism and discrimination across the company. Several top executives, including Blizzard president J. Allen Brack, are named in the lawsuit for knowing about and enabling this behavior. The DFEH said it conducted a two-year investigation into Activision Blizzard before filing the lawsuit.
Allegations documented in the lawsuit are widespread: The investigation found that women account for only 20% of Activision Blizzard’s employees, noting that “very few women ever reach top roles at the company.” Those that do, the DFEH said, earn less money than their male colleagues — something that allegedly trickles down through all positions at the company. In other instances, the lawsuit describes managers refusing to promote women.
“Women of color were particularly vulnerable targets of [Activision Blizzard’s] discriminatory practices,” the DFEH said in the lawsuit. It also alleged that employees were “discouraged from complaining as human resource personnel were known to be close to alleged harassers.”
The DFEH also likened Activision Blizzard’s culture to “a frat house,” where a culture of sexual harassment prevailed. One employee highlighted in the lawsuit said that “random male employees would [...] comment on her breasts.” The World of Warcraft team, too, was called out in the lawsuit for how its male employees would “hit on [female employees], make derogatory comments about rape, and otherwise engage in demeaning behavior.”
Former World of Warcraft senior creative director Alex Afrasiabi was named as a top-level “harasser” who was “permitted to engage in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions.”
During a company event (an annual convention called Blizz Con) Afrasiabi would hit on female employees, telling him he wanted to marry them, attempting to kiss them, and putting his arms around them. This was in plain view of other male employees, including supervisors, who had to intervene and pull him off female employees.
Blizzard president Brack is alleged to have had “multiple conversations” with Afrasiabi about this conduct, but opted for “a slap on the wrist” in response, according to the suit. The DFEH said Afrasiabi “continued to make unwanted advances towards female employees, including grabbing a female employee’s hand and inviting her to his hotel room and groping another women.”
In a statement provided to Polygon, Activision Blizzard denied allegations of a sexist culture, calling the report “distorted, and in many cases false.” You can read the company’s full statement below.
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. We take every allegation seriously and investigate all claims. In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue.
The DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past. We have been extremely cooperative with the DFEH throughout their investigation, including providing them with extensive data and ample documentation, but they refused to inform us what issues they perceived. They were required by law to adequately investigate and to have good faith discussions with us to better understand and to resolve any claims or concerns before going to litigation, but they failed to do so. Instead, they rushed to file an inaccurate complaint, as we will demonstrate in court. We are sickened by the reprehensible conduct of the DFEH to drag into the complaint the tragic suicide of an employee whose passing has no bearing whatsoever on this case and with no regard for her grieving family. While we find this behavior to be disgraceful and unprofessional, it is unfortunately an example of how they have conducted themselves throughout the course of their investigation. It is this type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.
The picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today. Over the past several years and continuing since the initial investigation started, we’ve made significant changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams. We’ve amplified internal programs and channels for employees to report violations, including the “ASK List” with a confidential integrity hotline, and introduced an Employee Relations team dedicated to investigating employee concerns. We have strengthened our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and combined our Employee Networks at a global level, to provide additional support. Employees must also undergo regular anti-harassment training and have done so for many years.
We put tremendous effort in creating fair and rewarding compensation packages and policies that reflect our culture and business, and we strive to pay all employees fairly for equal or substantially similar work. We take a variety of proactive steps to ensure that pay is driven by non-discriminatory factors. For example, we reward and compensate employees based on their performance, and we conduct extensive anti-discrimination trainings including for those who are part of the compensation process.
We are confident in our ability to demonstrate our practices as an equal opportunity employer that fosters a supportive, diverse, and inclusive workplace for our people, and we are committed to continuing this effort in the years to come. It is a shame that the DFEH did not want to engage with us on what they thought they were seeing in their investigation.
The DFEH was also involved in a gender-based discrimination lawsuit at Riot Games in 2018, which was filed following a Kotaku investigation into the company’s sexist culture. The League of Legends developer was ordered to pay “at least $10 million” to women that have worked at Riot within a five-year period. A month later, the DFEH objected to the $10 million payout, saying the women were owed much more — as much as $400 million.
In the years following the Riot Games report, waves of video game developers and other industry members who say they’ve experienced harassment and toxic work cultures have come forward — resulting in multiple “#MeToo moments.” Wednesday’s lawsuit against Activision Blizzard has similarly ushered in a new round of game industry employees sharing stories on social media of harassment, sexism, and racism they’ve faced at Activision Blizzard and elsewhere.