Activision Blizzard, one of the world’s largest gaming companies and the publisher behind titles such as World of Warcraft and Overwatch, is facing a massive lawsuit in California over an alleged endemic culture of sexual harassment.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) has slammed the company for enabling what it calls a “frat house” culture, with female employees subject to constant harassment at the hands of male staff, which was subsequently ignored or covered up.
“In the office, women are subjected to ‘cube crawls’, in which male employees drink copious amounts of alcohol as they ‘crawl’ their way through various cubicles in the office and often engage in inappropriate behaviour toward female employees,” the filing reads.
The lawsuit also makes mention of one female employee who committed suicide after a sexual relationship with a male supervisor; at a company trip, the lawsuit alleges, nude photos of her were also “passed around” by male employees at a party.
Formal complaints were dismissed or ignored, the DFEH says, with the employees who made them instead themselves being punished – being deprived of work, unwillingly transferred, or even laid off completely.
In particular, the DFEH’s filing calls out Alex Afrasiabi, a former creative director on World of Warcraft until mid-2020, whose alleged behaviour – including putting his arm around female employees, saying he wanted to marry them, and attempting to kiss them – was so egregious that his suite was known as the “Crosby Suite” (sic) after Bill Cosby.
“Afrasiabi’s conduct was known to Blizzard Entertainment’s executives, who took no effective remedial measures. J. Allen Brack, President of Blizzard Entertainment, allegedly had multiple conversations with Afrasiabi about his drinking and that he had been ‘too friendly’ towards female employees at company events but gave Afiasiabi a slap on the wrist (i.e. verbal counselling) in response to these incidents,” the lawsuit says.
Several characters and items in World of Warcraft are named after Afrasiabi, prompting calls from angry users to change them. Players have taken to social media and Blizzard’s forums to express their outrage, with many cancelling their subscriptions; one player-run guild held a sit-in protest in a major in-game city on the Wyrmrest Accord server, comprising “sub-locked” players – those who still have pre-paid game time remaining on their accounts.
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Activision Blizzard has ferociously hit back at the lawsuit, saying it “includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past” and does not reflect its modern workplace; additionally, it condemns the DFEH for bringing up the female employee’s suicide.
“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.
“It is this type of irresponsible behaviour from unaccountable state bureaucrats that are driving many of the state’s best businesses out of California,” the company said in a statement.
Activision Blizzard is not the only big game publisher to face accusations of a systematic culture of sexual harassment; European publisher Ubisoft, publisher of titles including the Assassin’s Creed franchise, has also faced lawsuits and reports of sexual misconduct under the watch of CEO Yves Guillemot, most recently in its Singapore office.
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