Activision Blizzard laid off hundreds of employees in 2019, but they weren't the only ones going through the exit doors. At around that time, "waves" of employees were leaving voluntarily, according to a former employee interviewed by PC Gamer. That was her cue to get out, too.
"This is the Titanic," she remembers thinking. "We're going toward the iceberg and we're about to crash. These are smart people. I should probably follow suit."
She's glad she did, and so are two other ex-Blizzard women who spoke to PC Gamer.
Each of the three women PC Gamer interviewed worked at the studio for different periods over the past decade-plus, and left within the past few years. They all cooperated with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing investigation that led to the sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit which rocked Activision Blizzard last summer, and none of them were surprised by the contents of the lawsuit. It was "impossible" not to see misconduct at the company, one said.
California's lawsuit hit a snarl last October when it came into conflict with an $18 million settlement agreement reached by a similar federal investigation, but the ongoing litigation itself feels like a footnote in a larger process of discovery and change occurring within Activision Blizzard and the game industry at large. The experiences of the women who spoke to PC Gamer help explain how Blizzard arrived at this moment.
Their stories are summarized below, with their names changed out of concern that speaking about their former employer could lead to professional repercussions elsewhere. PC Gamer also spoke to other current and former Blizzard employees for this article.
Iris: "Don't go to anything this person invites you to"
What hurt Iris most about the reaction to the California lawsuit were the expressions of disbelief from former co-workers and company leaders. After the suit was filed, former CEO and Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime apologized for "failing" women at the company. Iris finds it difficult to believe that he and others didn't know about at least some of "the biggest offenders" who set the standard for behavior that others followed.
Rather than a professional environment, the Blizzard she experienced felt like a dysfunctional "family" that had grown from a tight-knit group. It lacked boundaries, and bad behavior was treated as normal, or repeatedly excused as a one-time lapse or misunderstanding, she says.
One of the only people named in the California lawsuit is former World of Warcraft creative director Alex Afrasiabi, who was quietly fired in 2020 after 16 years at Blizzard. The lawsuit states that he was known for hitting on women at events, attempting to kiss and put his arms around them. Iris says that she was one of the women Afrasiabi "chased" around parties, and that it happened in clear view of other developers.
If incidents such as that one went unreported to HR, Iris says it's because she didn't trust the department. The other women interviewed by PC Gamer said the same thing. Activision Blizzard replaced its head of HR and established a centralized Ethics and Compliance team last year, and the company says that there are currently "many ways for employees to report issues," including anonymously. Iris left before the aftermath of the California lawsuit, and her experience was one in which she felt she had no recourse without proactive support from colleagues.
During BlizzCon one year, another employee asked Iris to bring them to the "Cosby Suite," a hotel room developers used as a green room and gathering place during the annual fan convention. The room had a reputation for being a party room, which gave Iris pause, but she reluctantly obliged. The intoxicated behavior she and her coworker walked in on was blatantly inappropriate for a work event, and along with Afrasiabi and other developers, HR personnel were in the room.
"[HR is] drinking with these people," says Iris. "So you don't have anyone to report this to."
One detail in the DFEH lawsuit which struggles under scrutiny, and perhaps misdirected some amount of internet ire, is the origin of the Cosby Suite's name. The lawsuit implies that the name is a reference to sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, and a Kotaku report cites two sources who said that those allegations were "the point" of a 2013 photo in which Blizzard employees are seen posing under a portrait of the comedian. However, three sources told Kotaku that the nickname was a reference to the dated sweaters that once defined Cosby's look, and two former Blizzard developers, Joshua Mosqueira and Greg Street, said publicly that they hadn't known about the Cosby sexual assault allegations at the time.
It wasn't until a 2014 Hannibal Buress stand up routine and a subsequent Washington Post article that the allegations against Cosby became common knowledge. Anyone who was conscious of the allegations prior to late 2014 would have been particularly clued in, and "these are people who are not paying attention to Bill Cosby," Iris says.
She thinks they're telling the truth about that, but Iris' experience is nevertheless an example of the boundaryless environment which kept her constantly "on alert" while she worked at Blizzard. In and out of the office, she recalls receiving inappropriate comments about her appearance and uninvited shoulder massages.
The closer a woman worked with certain "rockstar" developers (who at times could behave with the general arrogance implied by the word, making unreasonable demands or throwing tantrums) and high-level management, the more warnings she'd start to hear from other women, says Iris. The basic warning was: "Watch out for this person if they start drinking." A more specific warning was: "Don't go to anything this person invites you to." After work social events could take unexpected turns, she says.
At a party Iris heard about, people started "taking off their clothes and getting in the pool." Another party turned out to be a "swingers" party to the surprise of an attendee invited from work. Another woman interviewed by PC Gamer mentioned the same incident. Activision Blizzard declined to comment on the claim.
Iris also believes that her department's leadership excluded her and other women from opportunities, passed them over for promotions, and took credit for their work.
"If you were a woman, you didn't look like what they wanted a leader to look like," she says.
And women who spoke up, whether about unfair treatment or to criticize creative decisions such as oversexualized character designs, had a "target on their back," says Iris. When she criticized a creative decision that had a racist connotation, for example, she says that "opportunities started to plummet" for her.
"That's the point that really upsets me," says Iris. "There were people who saw, people who knew, and they just never did anything. And if you spoke up, or you pushed back, then you were a problem. The rungs on your ladder were taken."
Violet: "Who was going to tell them no?"
After the DFEH lawsuit was filed in July, executive VP of corporate affairs Frances Townsend said in an email to employees that the lawsuit "presented a distorted and untrue" picture of Activision Blizzard. The company softened its tone following that email, and in November, The Wall Street Journal reported that it was actually Kotick who drafted the denial email, which Activision Blizzard characterized as a "mistake."
At the time, longtime Blizzard employee Violet felt that Townsend was calling her and her coworkers liars. "I could not believe it," she says. "I was shaking."
Violet nearly quit on the spot, but after seeking advice, she opted for a more planned exit: She used up her accumulated sick days and then quit.
"There are some genuine people in leadership positions" at Activision Blizzard, says Violet. She loved one of the teams she worked on and liked the boss she reported to prior to quitting. But she was not at all shocked by the allegations in the California lawsuit, and doesn't trust executives like Kotick or Townsend to improve the company.
Violet experienced sexual harassment at Blizzard, but like Iris, had no trust for HR while she was there. The one time she filed a report, it was about a man making rape jokes during a large meeting, and she says that nothing came of it, although she heard that he unsuccessfully demanded to know who reported him. Also like Iris, Violet says she holds Morhaime and other former leaders responsible for the dysfunctional "Blizzard family," in which bad behavior was excused and "professionalism was out the window."
"Personally, I never want that again," says Violet. "I want a job that's just a job, because now I've seen what happens."
Violet was particularly affected by Blizzard's heavy drinking culture, which she says created an environment in which bad men and women (but mostly men) could act however they wanted. HR personnel were getting drunk with them, so "who was going to tell them no?" she asks.
"I had so many negative experiences drinking around coworkers that I stopped," says Violet.
She started faking intoxication on work trips and in other situations where she was expected to organize and participate in drinking, but didn't feel safe with coworkers. She also avoided the boozy in-office "cube crawls" mentioned in the California lawsuit, during which dev teams turned their work areas into party spots.
As of November 29, Activision Blizzard has banned drinking in the office, and says it has adopted a "more stringent global alcohol policy for company-sponsored events."
In the immediate aftermath of the lawsuit, Violet didn't feel that Blizzard leadership was making a genuine effort to change the company. People were fired, but the email that announced the departures to employees didn't explain why.
"If [the firings] meant something, they would be like, 'Here's what these people did. Don't do this,'" said Violet.
In October, Kotick said that Activision Blizzard strives to have the "strictest harassment and non-retaliation policies of any employer." Specifics about recent HR investigations that led to the dismissal of 20-plus employees have not been disclosed.
"We are aware of the greater desire for transparency from the company, particularly in this area," an Activision Blizzard spokesperson told PC Gamer. "As part of our ongoing commitment to our employees, we are continuing to consider ways in which we can be more transparent, especially when it comes to workplace investigations, and we are moving in that direction."
Holly: "I thought this was the entire industry"
Holly joined Blizzard early in her career, and after she left Blizzard for a new job in the game industry, she was astonished by how different it was. "I honestly cannot see anyone doing 90% of the shit that went on at Blizzard [at my new company]," she says. Although she didn't directly experience sexual harassment, she heard stories, and says she witnessed drunk coworkers talk about women like "frat bros," a term used in the California lawsuit.
"Everything was so normalized [at Activision Blizzard]. I thought this was the entire industry, an industry-wide problem, and to some degree it is, but I'm being treated way better than I was at Blizzard."
Activision Blizzard says that a 2020 pay equity review determined that "women and men who performed comparable work at ABK earned essentially the same amount of compensation," but that wasn't Holly's experience. From her perspective, women in her department were working under a glass ceiling installed by their boss, who she says interacted more easily with white men on the team. Women, meanwhile, were passed up for promotions and had to chase down raises, including one to create parity between a woman and a less-experienced man who had been hired later at a higher rate.
Company-wide corporate communication from Activision also frustrated Holly. There were months of uncertainty in 2020 when Blizzard employees were left to wonder about the status of yearly raises, which had been delayed. Eventually, Activision Blizzard responded to complaints, saying that a cost of living assessment was being completed to ensure the raises would be competitive. When the raises finally came, Holly and another source did not feel they were competitive.
"I hate complaining about money, but it's just really unfair for the amount of work and responsibility that's put on folks," said Holly. "We were very, very short staffed and we all had to wear many different hats."
In contrast, Holly is much happier with her current compensation, and says that "there's a lot more communication" from the top at her current company. She's hearing a similar story from others who left the company in recent years.
"Whether they were laid off or left voluntarily, every single person I know is in a better position than they were during their time at Blizzard," says Holly.
What comes after the "Blizzard family"?
The problems that led Holly and the others to leave Blizzard started a long time ago, but Holly says that the reputational collapse that led to today started around the time of BlizzCon 2018, which included the infamous Diablo Immortal announcement. That BlizzCon was demoralizing, she says, and the sense that Blizzard was a "cool game company" where everyone was "family" started to crack.
As trust in "Blizzard magic" faded, employees "stopped putting up with the behavior and pay discrepancies," she says.
At the same time and just a little ways up the coast from Blizzard's Irvine headquarters, Santa Monica-based developer Riot Games was being scrutinized following sexism and harassment allegations.
"People think Riot is bad?" Violet recalls thinking at the time. "We knew the reckoning was coming."
Following the claim that the lawsuit was "distorted," Activision Blizzard took a more conciliatory turn. Blizzard president J Allen Brack stepped down, CEO Bobby Kotick said that the company's reaction had been "tone deaf" and took a symbolic pay cut, the head of HR was replaced, old policies were changed and new ones adopted, and over 20 people were fired based on new internal investigations.
"There is no place for discrimination or mistreatment in Activision Blizzard," the company told PC Gamer when reached for comment. "We take every allegation seriously, and we have and continue to investigate any claims of discrimination or mistreatment. We absolutely do not, and will not, retaliate against any employees who speak out about any discrimination or mistreatment."
There have been some positive reactions to the changes. Last November, a current employee told PC Gamer that the removal of mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment and discrimination claims felt like a win. The morale boost was short-lived, though, because it was immediately marred by the departure of studio co-lead Jen Oneal, who represented the possibility of real change for some at Blizzard. Technical director Amy Dunham was another high-profile woman who resigned recently. They aren't alone. In September, PC Gamer heard from an Activision Blizzard employee that attrition has been a challenge for employee organizers.
A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard acknowledged that, "like many companies," Activision Blizzard saw an increase in attrition in 2021. However, the company says it added "several hundred" developers in the first nine months of last year, and believes its commitments to employees and workplace improvements will help it bring in and hold onto new talent.
Activision Blizzard employs thousands of people, and its development teams have carried on with their work through the chaos of the past six months, releasing a World of Warcraft content update, Diablo 2: Resurrected, a new Hearthstone expansion, and more. Including the studios associated with Activision, it also released a new Call of Duty and a new Warzone map.
There have been lulls in employee organizing at times, but things are far from going back to how they used to be. Call of Duty QA workers at Raven Software recently walked out in support of a dozen contractors who were let go as part of a restructuring, and unionization talks with the Communications Workers of America became serious enough last year to prompt a corporate response. Predictably, Activision Blizzard believes that "employees are best served working directly with the company" rather than negotiating through CWA, but rejects any claim that it is "union busting."
"We will continue to advance workplace improvements, regardless of the outcome of this unionization topic, and look forward to continued engagement with our employees along the way," the company told PC Gamer.
Today is the third week in which employees across the company are striking in solidarity with Raven QA in response to surprise layoffs. Having had no response from our leadership, Raven QA sent the following letter earlier today. #WeAreRaven pic.twitter.com/e9AjbpuiJNJanuary 4, 2022
The formation of an Activision Blizzard union would be a monumental event in the game industry. At present, only one game studio, a small one, has organized with the CWA. What outcome Activision Blizzard employee organizing will have in the near future is uncertain, but the existence of the ABK Workers Alliance alone feels like the rumbling before a tectonic shift that can be stalled but not stopped.
The messy collapse of the "Blizzard family" has opened up new possibilities within one of the game industry's biggest employers, and game development professionals at large are beginning to view themselves as a collective of workers that crosses studio lines. Case in point: A current Activision Blizzard employee told PC Gamer that Riot employees who helped organize that company's 2019 walkout have been in contact with Blizzard's organizers, providing advice and resources.
"I think you could draw a pretty clear throughline from the Riot walkout to the Blizz walkout," they said.
Last year, Riot settled its gender discrimination lawsuit for $100 million. The Activision Blizzard lawsuit filed by the California DFEH is ongoing.
If you're a former or current Blizzard employee who'd like to speak to PC Gamer about your experience at the company, contact us at [email protected]