Companies don't care about harassment, only controversy

The recent Activision-Blizzard lawsuit signal boosted some of the industry's oldest, biggest problems while showing how little companies care.

Discrimination, sexual harassment, mistreatment and other abuses committed against employees have always been a problem across most industries and professions, with those in leadership or other privileged positions getting away with just about anything. The video game industry is no exception - if anything, things are worse there than the average. Recent lawsuits against major companies prove as much, and the responses prove how little these companies care.

Across many industries, there's been a shift from these abuses being quietly and unquestioningly tolerated, accepted and even encouraged to them... still being tolerated, accepted and even encouraged, but no longer unquestioningly. More and more voices can be heard, more and more observers and victims speak out, even under threat of losing jobs or being blacklisted from entire industries. We're a long, long way from solutions, but these things aren't being swept under rugs anymore - no matter how hard Riot Games, Activision-Blizzard, Ubisoft and other game companies try.

These three were the highest profile companies targeted by sexual harassment accusations in recent years, but the list could just go on and on - toss in EA for good measure - filled with major companies sheltering abusers in management and among executives. Ubisoft has sort of coasted out of the public eye, mostly due to the lack of a major legal push and the spotlight being diverted. Riot Games has investigated itself and cleared itself of wrongdoing, but are still in hot water. Meanwhile, Activision-Blizzard's controversy sent the most shockwaves.

In the wake of the lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing following a 2 year investigation, we saw a cascade of tangible repercussions. Ironically, the company actually exasperated the entire situation with their initial response, wherein Compliance Officer Frances Townsend - former Bush-era homeland security advisor known for defending torture - dismissed the lawsuit and the victims of harassment as 'meritless'.

Three sponsors have stepped away from the OWL.

We're still seeing new effects of the lawsuit and this initial, incendiary response, but a quick rundown of what it caused is as follows: the response drew widespread condemnation from employees and fans alike; development on World of Warcraft stalled; an Overwatch map reveal was delayed; Hearthstone cards were revealed quietly; WoW players cancelled subscriptions en-masse and used remaining game time for in-game protests; J. Allen Brack, Jesse McCree, Jesse Meschuk, Louis Barriga and Jonathan LeCraft left the company; CEO Bobby Kotick issued a statement after shares dropped; T-Mobile, Coca-Cola and State Farm pulled Overwatch League sponsorships; additional testimonies of harassment and abuse were added to the lawsuit; Frances Townsend blocked employees dissatisfied with the company response before retweeting a negative article about whistleblowers; in-game references to those named in the lawsuit have been removed; employees staged a walkout in protest of the company response to the lawsuit, and an additional report about an infamous "Cosby Suite" run by those named in the lawsuit surfaced.

These are all tangible results, right? Sure, it's more than what happened in the past, but let's examine the results for a bit - the CEO under whose 'leadership' the offenses took place only graced the situation with acknowledgement after shares took a hit, Townsend has not been reprimanded in any visible way, companies pulling sponsorships in situations of controversy have repeatedly been documented to return months later at a lower fee, and while some figureheads 'left' the company as sacrificial lambs, little is being done about the endemic "frat-boy culture" that cultivated an environment of harassment.

Gestures by T-Mobile, Coca-Cola and State Farm in pulling sponsorships also ring hollow. These steps were not taken when accusations arose years ago, leading to Alex Afrasabi's departure from the company in 2020. They didn't pull support after the lawsuit was filed, either. They pulled support only after the controversy got too hot. We'll see how long they stay away.

Several high-ranking people have left Activision-Blizzard in the wake of the lawsuit.

Kotick announced that he hired law firm WilmerHale to review company policies, and that employees should approach the law firm with anything to report; WilmerHale has a proven track record of protecting corporate interests at the expense of employee rights and opposing unionization.

The fallout from the lawsuit is still producing new conundrums for the company - Jesse McCree left the company after being named in the lawsuit, but as others have had in-game references also scrubbed, what will Blizzard do with the Overwatch hero? The iconic cowboy gunslinger was named McCree after Jesse, and in the wake of the lawsuit fans have petitioned for a name change and some casters have stopped using the hero's name, instead referring to "the cowboy". No official statement about this issue has been given, yet.

Meanwhile over at Riot Games, a company that has garnered infamy for being a toxic work environment over the course of years, has enjoyed some respite as the spotlight was pointed at Activision-Blizzard. They faced their own sexual harassment lawsuit recently, but vastly fewer results came of that effort.

Nonetheless, the legal battle continues, and most recently the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing stated that the company has been deliberately misleading its employees about their rights to speak to the government about harassment or discrimination regardless of any non-disclosure or non-disparagement agreements they might have signed.

The DFEH has, upon reviewing Riot legal documents, found a troubling amount of language used in agreements signed by employees that apparently seeks to block them from candidly discussing issues related to discrimination and sexual harassment to official and legal bodies.

As a result of this, the DFEH requested in court that Riot be forced to issue a notice to employees about their rights, and the court granted this request. However, now the DFEH has claimed that 2 months later Riot has still failed to complete this requirement.

Riot Games was embroiled in a harassment case before the Activision-Blizzard lawsuit was filed.

All of these events following gross abuses coming to light have just confirmed what we already new - companies only ever care about their interests and the interests of those in executive or management positions. These harassment lawsuits come after multiple high-profile cases of layoffs followed by multi-million dollar bonuses paid out to executives or free-speech rows such as the one involving a Hearthstone player dropped by Blizzard after the company bowed to Chinese pressure in response to the player commenting on the political situation in Hong Kong.

Where does this leave victims of harassment and abuse, and all other employees and fans who do not want to see this stand? This, arguably the largest outcry and controversy surrounding a sexual harassment lawsuit in gaming, has only gotten us token results - but results nonetheless. Should we, as a community, be satisfied? Certainly not, but it proves that speaking out against institutionalized discrimination and sexism does get some results. It just needs to be done more and louder.

Aron Gerencser
Gaming at least as long as he's been walking, Aron is a fan of all things sci-fi and lover of RPGs. Having written about games for years, he's right at home reporting most of the breaking news in the industry and covering the happenings of the e-sports world. Graduating summa cum laude from Università degli Studi Guglielmo Marconi with a BA in Media Production, Aron has been a game journalist since 2014. When not writing, editing or playing, Aron is building models which you can find on Instagram.
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