Employees at the gaming giant Activision Blizzard staged a walkout today, capping off a week of escalating tension over how executives have handled accusations of discrimination and sexual harassment at the 10,000-person company.
Employees held up signs outside Activision Blizzard in Irvine, California, Wednesday morning. They included messages such as “Believe Women”, “Commit To Equality,” and “Fight Bad Guys in Game / Fight Bad Boys IRL.” Drivers honked their horns. The hashtag #ActiBlizzWalkout became a trending topic online as Overwatch and World of Warcraft fans pledged to boycott their games in solidarity.
Based on photographs posted online, the event attracted more than 200 participants. Unknown number of employees also participated remotely in the stoppage.
One Activision worker told WIRED that she loves her job, but not the jobs. This was before the walkout. It hurts. We’re working to make that right.
Activision Blizzard’s response to a frenzied lawsuit by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing led today’s walkout. This suit claims rampant workplace inequalities, including unequal pay for comparable work and a culture of leadership that allowed sexual harassment. It also retaliated against females who spoke out.
Activision Blizzard responded by releasing a statement stating that it values diversity but criticizing the two-year DFEH investigation as “irresponsible behavior of unaccountable State Bureaucrats that are driving many State’s finest businesses out of California”. Fran Townsend was a former security advisor to George W. Bush. A letter that she wrote to her staff last week was obtained by Axios. She described the suit’s merits as “truly meritless” and “irresponsible”, and the claims in it as “factually inaccurate” or “old” while also praising the “irresponsible behavior of unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out California.” J. Allen Brack is the company president and is mentioned in an internal email received by .
Employees–especially those with personal experiences of sexual harassment and discrimintion at the company–chafed hearing what they felt were unempathetic, even dismssive responses. Employees from Activision Blizzard slammed the leadership’s comments in an open letter. They called them “abhorrent” and “insulting to all that our company stands for.” Townsend was asked to resign as Executive Sponsor of the ABK Women’s Network. The letter was signed by over 3200 employees, both current and past.
The lawsuit exposed sentiments of isolation among individuals who felt, for long periods, like they were isolated or that retaliation might happen,” stated the Activision representative and Activision employee who was anonymous out of fear of reprisals. It’s giving voice to the voiceless,” said the Activision Blizzard employee.
“The movement was company-wide and a collaboration effort between hundreds and hundreds,” says a Blizzard representative and employee who is also a walkout leader to WIRED. According to the employee, there’s no conversation currently about unionizing. On Tuesday, the organizers declared the walkout. The organizers also issued a statement of intention for the walkout.
This is “a starting point to us work with leaders,” stated another Blizzard worker and representative of the walkout. There is no one word or sound bite that could adequately describe how much work it takes to build the culture that we desire.
Bobby Kotick, Activision Blizzard’s CEO, apologized later that Tuesday for his company’s “tone-deaf” response. Kotick promised to “swiftly take action” and included “listening sessions”, investigating claims, evaluating leadership, and reviewing hiring practices. WilmerHale will be a partner of the company, which was not selected by employees. A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard said that the company is aware of many topics to consider when answering questions about organizers. Activision Blizzard’s leadership team is committed to lasting change and listening. They also offer employees time off during the walkout.
The organizers called for the end of mandatory arbitration clauses within employees’ contracts. This clause, which is popular in tech companies, prohibits employees from bringing discrimination lawsuits before a judge or jury. Activision Blizzard has chosen a private arbitrator to resolve employees’ claims. Since the #MeToo campaign, forced arbitration has been under fire. Some employers like Google have stopped using this practice following protests from their employees. After a Kotaku investigation into widespread sexism in Riot Games, 150 Riot workers staged a walkout protesting forced arbitration. The DFEH is also suing Riot for allegedly discriminatory workplace practices. WIRED was told by a spokesperson that new employees can opt out from mandatory arbitration after the litigation has been resolved.
WIRED today’s walkout reps tell their strategy is heavily inspired from Riot. Riot finally agreed to fire problematic workers, improve diversity and inclusion programs, revamp hiring policies, and establish “listening sessions.” Blizzard employees and walkout representatives agree that following in Riot’s footsteps “has really helped many of us believe that the future we desire is possible.”
Activision Blizzard employees have been in touch with Riot workers about how to move forward following widespread accusations of sexism. One Riot worker involved in organizing said, “It is great to see other workers realize that organized action (whether formal or informal) is one the best ways exert pressure on company leadership.” It’s both heartening, as well as humbling, to see Blizzard refer to Riot’s actions. This is a reminder of how we all work in the same industry and face many of the same issues.
There is not a long tradition in labor organizing within the games industry, so walkouts are rare. Many employees are motivated by passion and fandom to accept these difficult, underpaid jobs. Even in companies that are not under investigation, burnout is a common problem. A 2018 LinkedIn study found that the industry has a 15.5 per cent turnover rate, which is higher than any other sector. Workers in the industry are often afraid of being labeled troublemakers because they live so close to each other. However, this stigma is gradually fading. Activision Blizzard workers staged a smaller protest in 2019 following the punishment of a pro Hearthstone player who said “Liberate Hong Kong” during a large tournament.
Organizations at major gaming companies face many challenges. Activision Blizzard employees are investing in the future because they enjoy what they do, regardless of all odds. Activision employees say, “It is a movement.” We all share this belief and deserve better.
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Publiated at Wed. 28 July 2021 23.19:46 +0000