The trouble with game development
Edge|November 2021
The Activision Blizzard harassment and discrimination lawsuit has repercussions for the industry as a whole

DEVELOPING PROBLEM

One of the many trains of thought prompted by these reports is why such toxic workplaces might be endemic to the videogame industry in particular. The DFEH lawsuit offers one potential reason, calling it a “male-dominated industry”. HR specialist Caroline Stokes points to the pressures that most studios are operating under, both financially and in terms of backlash if a game is received poorly. Another problem, she notes, involves the pedestals on which notable developers can be placed. This contributes to “a sense of superiority”, which means attempted remedies can be viewed as “a pain in the neck that’s getting in the way of them programming or doing their art or, you know, doing things how they used to be able to.”

By now, you’re probably familiar with at least the broad strokes of the lawsuit brought against Activision Blizzard by the California Department Of Fair Employment And Housing. Since it was filed in July, its allegations have inspired a lot of discussion around “frat boy” workplace culture”, with “cube crawls” seeing male employees drinking “copious amounts of alcohol” and wandering between office cubicles, leading to “inappropriate behaviour toward female employees.”

The full complaint makes for grim reading. The result of a two-year investigation by the DFEH, it describes “a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women”, spanning everything from unequal pay and opportunities for promotion to rape jokes and unsolicited comments about the bodies of female employees.

Former World Of Warcraft creative director Alex Afrasiabi is named specifically, alleged to have preyed on female employees at events, “attempting to kiss them, and putting his arms around them”. So widely acknowledged were these activities, the filing says, that during BlizzCon “his [hotel] suite was nicknamed the ‘Cosby Suite’ after alleged rapist Bill Cosby”. Afrasiabi was ejected from Blizzard in 2020, after an internal investigation into his behaviour, but the filing claims that he’d had “multiple conversations” with Blizzard president J Allen Brack about his behaviour previously, and that the only consequences were “a slap on the wrist”.

The picture being painted might be particularly unpleasant, but it’s also one that has become uncomfortably familiar in recent years. Last summer, multiple Ubisoft employees came forward alleging misconduct, including sexual harassment and assault, at several of the publisher’s studios. That was followed by a study, published by the company itself, which found that 25 per cent of survey respondents had witnessed or experienced misconduct first-hand. This July, French videogame workers union Solidaires Informatique filed a legal complaint against the company, alleging a culture of “institutional sexual harassment”.

Prior to the Activision Blizzard case, Ubisoft was the most high-profile target of such claims – but it’s far from alone. California’s DFEH also has an ongoing court case against League Of Legends developer Riot Games, accusing employees of sexual harassment and “gender discrimination in hiring, pay and promotion decisions”. The studio was previously sued in 2018 by two female staffers for similar reasons; that case came a few months after a Kotaku exposé on Riot’s so-called “bro culture”, with reported issues ranging from inequitable interview practices to employees being sent unsolicited photos of male genitalia.

It’s not only large companies, either. In 2019, Failbetter Games founder Alexis Kennedy was accused by a former colleague of “a pattern of abuse”, exploiting his position and reputation “as a cover for his predations” – a claim backed up by another woman who had been in a romantic relationship with Kennedy while he was her line manager. (Kennedy, for his part, responded that “all these claims are nonsense”.) In early 2021, Games industry. biz reported on what it called an “environment hostile to women” at Scavengers Studio, the Montreal-based developer of Season, focusing on sexist conduct and inappropriate comments on the part of studio co-founder and creative director Simon Darveau. (Scavengers said in a statement that Darveau “accepted responsibility for his actions”.)

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