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Activision’s Kotick knew of rape allegations, kept them quiet, new report says

Activision disputes Wall Street Journal report as ‘a misleading view of our CEO’

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Activision chief executive Bobby Kotick, at Sun Valley, Idaho in 2019.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

A Wall Street Journal report on Tuesday said that, despite what he told Activision Blizzard’s board of directors, chief executive Bobby Kotick did know of allegations of employee sexual misconduct throughout the company, including a rape allegation one former Sledgehammer Games employee made against a co-worker.

Kotick, says the Journal, cut his own salary and promised zero-tolerance changes to Activision’s harassment policy after the newspaper asked questions regarding the Sledgehammer rape allegation last month. Tuesday’s report depicts Kotick, Activision’s boss for the past 25 years, as minimizing the problem to his board, if not outright hiding his full knowledge of it from them.

The Journal’s report also mentions an incident at Treyarch, in which the Call of Duty studio’s co-lead was accused of sexual harassment, and that Kotick intervened to limit disciplinary measures meted out against the accused employee, Dan Bunting.

Activision responded to the Journal with a written statement saying Kotick could not “reasonably be expected to have been updated on all personnel issues.” A statement from Activision’s board said Kotick had kept them “informed at all times with respect to the status of regulatory matters,” and denied that Kotick minimized the scope of the problem or said it was limited to Blizzard Entertainment’s workplace environment.

But the Journal’s lengthy report, documented with internal memos and emails, at least casts Kotick’s response, since Activision was sued by California regulators in July, as negligent and focused on damage control, rather than acknowledging or cleaning up a toxic workplace culture. After news of the allegations broke, Activision was hit with a shareholder lawsuit alleging that Kotick’s negligent management, as well as several allegedly false statements to investors that omitted mention of the sex harassment charges, tanked the company’s share price.

The allegation regarding Sledgehammer Games also extends the scope of the problem at Activision, which publicly had been thought to be contained to Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of the Warcraft, Diablo, and Overwatch franchises. Sledgehammer Games is a Call of Duty studio, and developed Call of Duty: Vanguard, which launched two weeks ago.

The Journal says that a lawyer for the former Sledgehammer employee sent an email to Kotick himself, alleging her client had been raped in 2016 and 2017 by her supervisor at the studio. After taking that accusation to Sledgehammer’s human resources officers, nothing happened, leading to the email to Kotick and the threat of a lawsuit. Activision, the Journal reported, quickly settled the matter out of court, but Kotick did not tell the board of directors about the alleged rapes, or the settlement.

Kotick, the Journal said, also drafted the notorious email sent out by Fran Townsend, the company’s chief compliance officer, which resulted in an employee walkout at Blizzard. Activision employees singled out Townsend for an “abhorrent and insulting” response in the crisis’ earliest days, and Kotick later apologized for the company’s tone, without saying he was directly responsible for the memo.

Townsend “should not be blamed for this mistake,” an Activision spokeswoman told the Journal. Nonetheless, she was excoriated in news reports about the memo, deleted her Twitter presence in the social media aftermath of that, and left her position as executive sponsor of the company’s internal women’s network. She is still with Activision, and is one of very few women among its senior executive ranks.

Polygon reached out to Activision for additional comment, and in a statement, the company called The Wall Street Journal’s report “a misleading view of Activision Blizzard and our CEO.

“Instances of sexual misconduct that were brought to his attention were acted upon,” the statement said. “The WSJ ignores important changes underway to make this the industry’s most welcoming and inclusive workplace and it fails to account for the efforts of thousands of employees who work hard every day to live up to their — and our — values.”

The remainder of Activision’s statement to Polygon says:

The constant desire to be better has always set this company apart. Which is why, at Mr. Kotick’s direction, we have made significant improvements, including a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate conduct. And it is why we are moving forward with unwavering focus, speed, and resources to continue increasing diversity across our company and industry and to ensure that every employee comes to work feeling valued, safe, respected, and inspired. We will not stop until we have the best workplace for our team.

Update: Activision Blizzard’s board of directors likewise released a statement in response to the Wall Street Journal’s report on Tuesday, saying they remain “confident” that Kotick “appropriately addressed workplace issues brought to his attention” and “confident” in his leadership. Here is the board’s statement:

The Activision Blizzard Board remains committed to the goal of making Activision Blizzard the most welcoming and inclusive company in the industry. Under Bobby Kotick’s leadership the Company is already implementing industry leading changes including a zero tolerance harassment policy, a dedication to achieving significant increases to the percentages of women and non-binary people in our workforce and significant internal and external investments to accelerate opportunities for diverse talent. The Board remains confident that Bobby Kotick appropriately addressed workplace issues brought to his attention.

The goals we have set for ourselves are both critical and ambitious. The Board remains confident in Bobby Kotick’s leadership, commitment and ability to achieve these goals.

An employee group for Activision Blizzard King workers has announced plans to stage a digital and in-person walkout in protest of Kotick’s leadership on Tuesday afternoon.