California Sues Activision Blizzard for Being 'Breeding Ground for Harassment'

The lawsuit alleges that for years women at the video game giant faced blatant discrimination, abuse and sexual harassment.
July 22, 2021, 2:03pm
Overwatch
Image: Chesnot/Getty Images

Video game giant Activision Blizzard is being sued by the state of California for allegedly fostering a "frat boy" culture that led to years of sexual harassment and abuse, according to a complaint filed Wednesday. 

The lawsuit is the result of a two-year investigation led by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing that found that Activision Blizzard had discriminated against women at the company also in terms of promotions, compensations, assignments, and firings. "Female employees were overwhelmingly assigned into lower grades/levels… and received less stock," the complaint alleges.

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In the office, women were subject to so-called "cube crawls" during which men at the company got drunk and "crawl[ed]" through office cubicles and harassed women, the complaint alleges. Men played videos games for extended periods of time during work hours, delegating tasks to women, joked about rape, commented on women's bodies, and groped them, the complaint continues. High-ranking men at the company engaged in blatant sexual harassment without repercussions. 

The agency seeks an injunction that would force compliance with workplace protections, in addition to pay adjustments, unpaid wages, back pay, lost wages and benefits for women at the company, stating that “compliance with California’s broad workplace protections is long overdue.”

In one instance, the lawsuit alleges that a woman at the company killed herself on a business trip with a supervisor she was having a sexual relationship with. The woman had previously faced harassment from men at the company, including a holiday party before her death, when her male colleagues allegedly passed around a photo of her vagina, according to the complaint. 

The company's workforce is about 20 percent women, and its top leadership is exclusively white and male, according to the lawsuit. 

Do you have a tip to share with us about sexual harassment and discrimination at Activision Blizzard? We’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch with the reporters, Patrick Klepek, patrick.klepek@vice.com/Signal (224-707-1561), and Lauren Gurley, lauren.gurley@vice.com/Signal (201)-897-2109.

The complaint also highlights examples of women at the company being held back from promotions because of the chance they could become pregnant, receiving negative performance reviews while they were on maternity leave, getting kicked out of lactation rooms by male colleagues for meetings, and receiving criticism for leaving work to pick up their kids. 

Women of color at the company faced discrimination in the form of constant micromanaging, the complaint alleges. One Black woman who worked in the IT department was forced to write up a one-page summary of how she would spend her time off when she asked for vacation, when no one else on her team had to, according to the complaint. Another Black woman at the company said it took two years for her to be offered a full-time position, long after everyone else on her team had been made full employees. Men on her team were allowed to play video games during the workday, but her supervisor would call and check on her if she went outside for a walk, the complaint states. 

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Like other video game publishers of its size, Activision Blizzard's operations span multiple offices in different locations. The lawsuit is not always specific about which part of the company the harassment took place in, but it specifies Blizzard Entertainment, the beloved developer behind World of Warcraft and Overwatch which merged with Activision in 2008, multiple times. 

"Female employees working for the World of Warcraft team noted that male employees and supervisors would hit on them, make derogatory comments about rape, and otherwise engage in demeaning behavior," the lawsuit claims. "This behavior was was known to supervisors and indeed encouraged by them, including a male supervisor openly encouraging a male subordinate to 'buy' a prostitute to cure his bad mood"

Activision Blizzard said the Department of Fair Employment and Housing lawsuit "includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past."

"We have been extremely cooperative with the DFEH throughout their investigation, including providing them with extensive data and ample documentation, but they refused to inform us what issues they perceived," Activision Blizzard said in a statement to Waypoint.  "They were required by law to adequately investigate and to have good faith discussions with us to better understand and to resolve any claims or concerns before going to litigation, but they failed to do so."

Activision Blizzard also said it was "sickened" that the Department of Fair Employment and Housing included the suicide of the employee in the complaint. "It is this type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California," the company said.

In 2018, Activision Blizzard was named on Fortune's "100 Best Companies to to Work For" list. "To connect the world through epic entertainment, we recruit and develop the world's best talent," the company's CEO Bobby Kotick said in a press release. "We're proud to be recognized for so many years as one of the best companies to work for. We remain committed to constant improvement so we are always one of the very best places to work."

The lawsuit against Activision Blizzard is just the most recent example of legal action against major video game companies accused of gender discrimination and harassment. Last year, Assassin's Creed publisher Ubisoft was accused of mishandling widespread sexual misconduct claims at the company; the company now faces a legal complaint in France. In 2018, League of Legends publisher Riot Games was sued after an in-depth and damning investigation into the company’s culture by Kotaku.