Initial thoughts on the Activision Blizzard lawsuit, or why strict corporate culture isn’t always a bad thing

A few weeks ago, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed suit against Activision Blizzard. In its complaint (linked here in full) the state agency alleges that the corporation has instilled a culture of sexism affecting its female employees. Many examples of the alleged sexist behaviors are listed, including unequal pay for similar work and explicitly sexual comments and advances towards women in the workplace. The complaint includes specific examples, most of which are revolting on a gut level, even to the point that reader discretion might be advised.

Activision Blizzard’s Santa Monica headquarters, where many of the alleged facts of the case allegedly went down (Source: w:User:Coolcaesar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

None of this is news at the time of writing. When this story broke late last month, it was widely talked about. Sadly, there also wasn’t all that much surprise expressed over it. Activision Blizzard was already widely regarded as a shit company for its lousy business practices and general disregard for its customers, placing it in the same trash league as EA and Ubisoft. But it also seems that the allegations of internal sexism and “frat boy culture” as the California state agency puts it at Activision Blizzard weren’t such a shock either — Ubisoft and other AAA companies have had similar charges leveled against them.

I’m not going to approach this case from a legal perspective, or at least not yet, partly because I don’t know nearly enough about California employment law or the facts of the case to analyze the complaint on that level. California tends to be more protective of the rights of employees (and tenants and consumers for that matter) than other states are, and from that perspective DFEH may be able to come down harder on the company than another state’s counterpart agency would, but anything beyond that would be too much speculation at this point.*

But this time around I’m much more concerned with the allegations and their implications than with the legal aspect of the case. As far as the complaint and its alleged facts go, if even a fraction of them are true, they’re evidence of a degraded culture at Activision and at any other company that encourages or even turns a blind eye to such practices. I know there are some shitty things about the strict sort of generic “corporate culture”, but a decently professional one can discourage such disrespectful behaviors towards fellow employees and subordinates and can punish them when they occur. In theory at least, since these tools are only as effective as the people with the power to use them.

Of course, Activision has asserted that DFEH’s allegations are meritless and that it will prove so in court, and internally it’s showing some defiance towards the agency if this leaked email from the Chief Compliance Officer is any indication (also noting the different tone from the company’s now-former president.) I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of defense the company puts up assuming it actually backs these words up with actions and doesn’t just fold and settle — a common outcome even after this kind of legal smack talk. But a lot of that depends on what evidence the defendant can bring to counter the allegations made against it.

The California Supreme Court standing by to hear appeals, assuming the case gets that far.

While sexism is considered a divisive matter among the various gaming communities, said communities have perhaps never been more united as they now are against Activision. Again, this is partly due to Activision’s established reputation for putting out poor, shoddy games in recent years and for generally treating its customers like ATMs, but great anger has also been inspired by the facts alleged in DFEH’s complaint. This kind of unity among our communities is not all that common to see, either. Online debates and fights are constantly being waged over games and their contents, their depictions of different types of characters and the acts portrayed in them, and especially over those involving sex and sexual appeal.

There’s plenty of room for disagreement over the contents of the games themselves. If you’ve read this site for a while, you know where I stand on that, both in terms of games and other media. I hope there isn’t any real disagreement about this sort of criticism, though, outside of the usual suspects standing on the fringes. The right of the employee to be treated on an equal basis regardless of gender (or race, religion, orientation, etc. etc.) should not be in dispute. There may be certain gray areas where off-color jokes made in the office are concerned, but the best rule to follow is always to err on the side of caution — if you think someone in the group might be put off by what you consider a joke, don’t make it in that group.

This is not a matter of fun, lighthearted office talk being ruined by “snowflakes” but rather common sense. If someone is truly so uptight that they’d make the office a completely miserable, dull place to work, that person tends to be left out of the group anyway, at least as far as I’ve seen. (And it has to be said that the alleged “jokes” cited by DFEH’s complaint are not even really in a gray area. They’re the kinds of comments and actions that would rightfully get you fired from most other companies on the spot, or at least seriously reprimanded and subjected to rigorous “sensitivity training.”)

I haven’t even addressed the most serious allegations made in the complaint against Activision, which include a suicide following some extremely inappropriate sexual activities considering the context. I won’t dig deeper into these allegations for the reasons I’ve stated above, but I will be following the case to see where it goes from here.

For the time being, though, I will back up calls to boycott this company and its products, because there’s no other real way to make its executives and board of directors feel the pain necessary to encourage them to change. We’re their lifeblood, after all. I get that boycotts are notoriously difficult to put in place, especially for fans of established series, but it’s important to back these sentiments up with action. And if the facts in this case are still too unclear for you to act upon (since they are still alleged, though generally speaking a state agency shouldn’t bring a suit like this without some solid evidence — but the discovery process will uncover everything) I have another totally sufficient reason for everyone to shut out Activision Blizzard, one that’s completely, 100% without doubt: its avowed support for the CCP’s crushing of any semblance of Hong Kong independence, to the point that it retaliated against a Hong Kong Hearthstone player for speaking his mind on the subject in 2019.

Be like me and play a ton of Sega games instead. As far as I know, these guys haven’t (allegedly) done anything wrong. And I still need to get past Chapter 5 in Yakuza 0 too; all these damn minigames and sidequests have been distracting me.

Finally — and this is not legal advice or a specific comment on this case, but again simply common sense — if you run a company that has a legal and an HR department, it might be a good idea to make sure they’re effective and that their advice is actually heeded and put into practice. This might be biased coming from a lawyer, but you pay us for a reason, right? Not just to be window dressing?

 

* For the interested, the relevant parts of California’s anti-discrimination code can be found through following the instructions listed here, and this site provides a summary of the state’s Equal Pay Act. The full texts of both code sections are available on the state legislature’s site.