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Activision Blizzard Employees Organize Against Abusive and Dismissive Culture, Are Optimistic for Change

ABK workers demand a real culture change amidst a lawsuit alleging a pattern of pay and gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation.

Signs at the Activision Blizzard walkout (Photo: Jon Peltz)

Knock LA spoke to multiple current employees of Activision Blizzard for this piece, who requested anonymity because of Activision Blizzard’s alleged pattern of retaliation and because they choose to present as a united front, rather than as individuals.

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick — who was paid over $150 million in salary in 2020 —  spoke on a call to investors yesterday, assuring them that the company was taking note of the atrocious alleged systemic discrimination, brought in a lawsuit last month by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Kotick outlined a few changes that the company is ostensibly making to address their failure to properly address the company’s myriad alleged workplace safety issues and discriminatory practices.

Activision Blizzard is the company formed after the 2007 merger of Activision and Vivendi Games/Blizzard. Vivendi was later bought out. The workers are organized under the moniker Activision Blizzard King. King is responsible for the company’s mobile games. Altogether, this encompasses 9,500 workers, and the entire company is responsible for some of the most beloved — and addictive — games in the world, from World of Warcraft to Call of Duty to Diablo to even the Candy Crush series. Earlier this year, they laid off 190 employees, while CEO Kotick took home a whopping $200 million bonus from a contract clause regarding his stock options stemming from company profits rising dramatically during the pandemic.

Walkout staged at Blizzard HQ in Irvine on July 28, 2021 (Photo: Jon Peltz)

Kotick said, “When we learn of shortcomings, we will take decisive action and to strengthen our capabilities in this area, we’ll be adding additional staff and resources.” They were strong words from a man who had to correct his initial denial-heavy response to the lawsuit — he decried his own letter as tone-deaf — and has yet to actually communicate with his workers about their demands. “It’s unfortunate, because we would love for leadership to work with us,” an anonymous Activision employee told Knock LA, “but we’ve heard nothing from them except for platitudes and the occasional personnel change.” Shareholders are now suing the company, alleging that it hid the knowledge of widespread misconduct from investors.

The lawsuit, which alleges a pattern of pay and gender discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, and more labor abuses, including — but not limited to — an instance where a woman was being harassed by the superior she had been dating, and eventually committed suicide.

“As someone who struggles with mental illness, [the suicide] very much hit home for me,” an anonymous Activision employee told Knock LA. “I have hospitalized myself twice for attempted suicide. And that very much felt like that could be me. If I don’t fix these problems, that could end up being me. And I don’t want that — that could end up being any one of my co-workers or any one of my fellow industry folks and that it’s unacceptable.”

Another nightmarish account in the lawsuit describes a World of Warcraft developer’s Bill Cosby–themed suite at the 2013 Blizzcon — a convention celebrating the release of Blizzard’s many wildly popular games — where women would be taken to be sexually harassed

It’s estimated that LA and Orange counties have a combined 228,720 tech workers, many of whom are not unionized. ABK has 9,500 workers in total with offices and studios in Los Angeles. Last week, ABK held a massive walkout at the Irvine Blizzard HQ, which was held in conjunction with other virtual walkouts.

Activision Blizzard employee holds a sign at walkout protesting labor abuses. The white cardboard sign reads: "no forced arbitration, hiring diversity, public payday, third party non corporate audits."
Activision Blizzard employee holds a sign at walkout (Photo: Jon Peltz)

“Everybody who is here today is putting themselves at risk [of retaliation],” an anonymous Activision employee told Knock LA. The walkout received attention from the national media as well as from other developers and gamers. “We’ve been seeing a lot of our fellow developers from other companies stepping up and supporting our messaging, especially in calling for WilmerHale to not represent our interests,” one anonymous Blizzard Employee told Knock LA. “They’ve been very vocal, using our hashtags and announcing themselves as friends in the industry to support us.”

Yesterday, Blizzard’s now former president, J. Allen Brack, left the company and was replaced by two new co-presidents, in what Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier suggests is less of an olive branch toward the company’s workers and more of a brazen power grab by CEO Kotick. Jesse Meschuk — Blizzard’s head of HR until January of this year — left the company yesterday, and a bombshell Axios report came out outlining the HR department’s psychologically abusive, unhelpful, and retaliatory posturing toward Activision Blizzard workers over the years. 

The ABK Workers Alliance — an organization of current employees at different studios under the Activision Blizzard Inc. corporate umbrella working to improve conditions for workers at the company — were not impressed by these maneuvers, as they had nothing to do with their demands for meaningful change: “We thank J. for the contributions that he’s made throughout his career. But ultimately, this isn’t a single person problem. It’s not a single person solution, no one person is responsible for the culture that has been cultivated so far at ABK. [Resignations] were not one of the demands that we had, we were not looking for or asking directly for anyone to step down,” the anonymous Blizzard employee told Knock LA. 

The ABK Workers Alliance has four simple demands: 

1. The end of mandatory arbitration clauses in all employee contracts, which force employees to negotiate claims on an individual basis with the company without involving lawyers. (“That allows for a much higher risk of retaliation. It allows for isolation and sweeping systemic issues under the rug,” an anonymous Activision employee told Knock LA.)

2. The adoption of new recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and promotion policies at the company, as the company’s current practices have led to the marginalization and slow-promotion of women of color, transgender women, and nonbinary people when compared to men at the company.

3. Publication of data on relative compensation (including equity grants [aka stock options] and profit sharing) and salary ranges, so employees of all genders and ethnicities can make sure they are being compensated fairly.

4. The creation of a company-wide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force to audit ABK’s HR department, reporting structure, and executive staff. 

“We’re asking for change in the form of our four demands that we’ve laid out. And, quite frankly, it’s kind of ridiculous. They aren’t taking action at this point. We are aware that they’ve seen [the documents]. We’ve gotten confirmation of that. However, they’ve just chosen not to do anything about them,” another anonymous Blizzard employee told Knock LA. 

Not only has Activision Blizzard not responded to employee demands, but they hired “independent” union-busting law firm WilmerHale to audit the company’s practices, which ABK workers quickly rejected in another letter to corporate, pointing out WilmerHale’s work with Activision Blizzard in the past to stymy an effort to make the company make more diverse hires. Of Activision Blizzard’s 9,500-person workforce, only 20% of it is women, and the DFEH lawsuit describes top leadership as “exclusively male and white.” Another conflict of interest ABK employees note is that Wilmerhale partner Robert Mueller III of having a previous relationship with Activision Blizzard VP of Corporate affairs Frances Townsend. A post speaking about the history of Activision Blizzard executives having worked in right-wing political administrations also went viral.

Townsend had her own scandal this week — she originally called the lawsuit “meritless” in an internal letter sent to employees, linked an awful Elizabeth Bruenig article decrying “tattletales,” in an obvious subtweet of the ABK employees, and then blocked employees on Twitter for ratio’ing her tweet. Over 3,000 ABK current employees signed an open letter asking for Frances Townsend to step down as executive sponsor of the ABK Employee Women’s Network. According to workers, Townsend was on a July 23 Zoom meeting with ABK employees, called the women in the room “emotional and unproductive,” and left the meeting. As of today, her Twitter account is inaccessible (they say that her account no longer exists). Jason Schreier reported earlier today that Townsend deleted her account and is still with the company.

Despite all this, ABK Workers Alliance cautions against blaming any single individuals for their company’s ills: “When a single person is attributed to or not even officially attributed to being the cause of a problem … or somehow faces some form of retribution for their behavior, regardless of how they were involved. They become a scapegoat,” an anonymous Activision employee told Knock LA. “And the scapegoat situation is something we want to avoid, because the presence or absence of one person — while may in and of itself, as a standalone action, be extremely beneficial — it does not solve any kind of like what are systemic issues.”

Indeed, the workers stressed that abuse of workers was endemic to the games industry. “[Harasssment of workers] doesn’t just happen at Activision Blizzard, it happens at Ubisoft, at Riot [Games], EA,” said an anonymous Blizzard employee. California DFEH is, as of 2019 also suing Riot Games for gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation.

While the workers have been aggressively organizing, they have not decided to or suggested unionizing: “We’re not currently talking about unionization at this time. What we are talking about is solidarity,” an anonymous Activision employee told Knock LA. “We’re talking about elevating voices within ABK, and we’re talking about giving power to those who are in the game industry, who might feel isolated.” 

Knock LA spoke to Game Workers of Southern California, which describes itself as a horizontal org advocating for workers’ rights in the gaming industry, about the difficulties of unionizing in the California tech industry. “The games industry in the greater LA area is virtually non-unionized,” they told Knock LA, but “the desire to unionize is there, we believe it’s now time to organize and act upon that desire.” They told us that workers face multiple uphill battles in forming a union, including a lack of awareness of the complicated process, and the fear of harassment and retaliation.

“Many of our workers are exploited, subject to tenuous contract work, underpaid, and overworked,” Game Workers SoCal told Knock LA. “Our Quality Assurance workers in particular, the folks who test our games and make sure they are bug free, are on the receiving end of incredibly low pay and monumental crunch.” They also say that many tech workers are here on a worker visa, and face the possibility of losing that as well as their employment. “Although they are not a union campaign, the workers at Activision Blizzard King have shown the power of sidestepping the boss and organizing themselves to fight toxicity and harassment, organizing hundreds of fellow workers to walk out last week,” they said.

ABK Workers Alliance has also asked supporters and fans to be vocal and optimistic about their support for the workers: “Let’s all not let fatalism get the best of us. We have an opportunity here. But it’s going to require a lot of work by everyone. And we can’t give up because it’s people’s lives on the line. It’s people’s livelihoods. It’s their safety. If we didn’t think that it was possible for change to happen, we wouldn’t be working so hard to try and make it so,” an anonymous Blizzard employee told Knock LA. What happens at Activision Blizzard could be a sea change for the rest of Los Angeles’ tech workers and games developers. 

Knock LA reached out to Activision Blizzard for comment, and have not yet heard back as of publishing.

Follow ABetterABK for more updates from the ABK Workers Alliance, and they are using the hashtag, #EndAbuseInGaming.