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State of California sues Activision Blizzard over "frat boy" culture

Former staff take to social media to back up claims.

The State of California has sued Activision Blizzard over what it alleges to be a "frat boy" culture that created "a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women".

The lawsuit, filed by the State's Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) on Tuesday includes a number of disturbing allegations and alleges a culture of "constant sexual harassment" mainly at Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of World of Warcraft, Diablo and Overwatch (via Bloomberg).


According to the suit, female employees "almost universally confirmed that working for Defendants was akin to working in a frat house, which invariably involved male employees drinking and subjecting female employees to sexual harassment with no repercussion".

The suit mentions "cube crawls" in which male employees "proudly came into work hungover".

"Similarly, male employees would play video games during work, engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies, and make numerous jokes about rape," the lawsuit continued.

"As a product of this 'frat boy' culture, women were subjected to numerous sexual comments and advances, groping and unwanted physical touching, and other forms of harassment.

"A female employee noted that random male employees would approach her on Defendants' work site and comment on her breasts. 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 behaviour. This behaviour 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."

One particularly disturbing claim in the lawsuit alleges a female employee committed suicide during a business trip "due to a sexual relationship that she had been having with her male supervisor".

Lawyers for the State of California said complaints about this unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation were made to human resources personnel and executives, including to Blizzard boss J. Allen Brack, but "Defendants failed to take effective remedial measures in response to these complaints".

Blizzard boss J. Allen Brack. Image credit Activision Blizzard.

"Employees were further discouraged from complaining as human resource personnel were known to be close to alleged harassers," the lawsuit continued.

An unnamed former Blizzard CTO "was observed by employees groping inebriated female employees at company events", the lawsuit alleged. Alex Afrasiabi, the former senior creative director of World of Warcraft "was permitted to engage in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions".

During BlizzCon, Afrasiabi was alleged to "hit on female employees, telling him he wanted to marry them, attempting to kiss them, and putting his arms around them".

"This was in plain view of other male employees, including supervisors, who had to intervene and pull him off female employees."

Activision Blizzard issued a lengthy response statement to The Verge that mainly hit out at the investigation by the DFEH. The company called the lawsuit "irresponsible behaviour from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State's best businesses out of California".

The statement is published here in full:

"We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone. There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind. We take every allegation seriously and investigate all claims. In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue.

Alex Afrasiabi, the former senior creative director of World of Warcraft.

"The DFEH 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. 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. Instead, they rushed to file an inaccurate complaint, as we will demonstrate in court.

"We are sickened by the reprehensible conduct of the DFEH to drag into the complaint the tragic suicide of an employee whose passing has no bearing whatsoever on this case and with no regard for her grieving family. While we find this behaviour to be disgraceful and unprofessional, it is unfortunately an example of how they have conducted themselves throughout the course of their investigation. 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 picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today. Over the past several years and continuing since the initial investigation started, we've made significant changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams. We've amplified internal programs and channels for employees to report violations, including the 'ASK List' with a confidential integrity hotline, and introduced an Employee Relations team dedicated to investigating employee concerns. We have strengthened our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and combined our Employee Networks at a global level, to provide additional support. Employees must also undergo regular anti-harassment training and have done so for many years.

"We put tremendous effort in creating fair and rewarding compensation packages and policies that reflect our culture and business, and we strive to pay all employees fairly for equal or substantially similar work. We take a variety of proactive steps to ensure that pay is driven by non-discriminatory factors. For example, we reward and compensate employees based on their performance, and we conduct extensive anti-discrimination trainings including for those who are part of the compensation process.

"We are confident in our ability to demonstrate our practices as an equal opportunity employer that fosters a supportive, diverse, and inclusive workplace for our people, and we are committed to continuing this effort in the years to come. It is a shame that the DFEH did not want to engage with us on what they thought they were seeing in their investigation."

In the hours since the lawsuit was made public, multiple former Blizzard employees took to social media to back up the claims, detailing incidents of sexual harassment either experienced or witnessed.

The State of California's lawsuit demands a trial by jury.

The allegations surrounding Activision Blizzard follow a major sexual harassment and discrimination suit against League of Legends maker Riot Games. This initially secured a settlement of $10m, although the State of California subsequently said the women involved could be entitled to as much as $400m.

Assassin's Creed maker Ubisoft has also been embroiled in allegations of a toxic work culture and sexual harassment, which has led to the exit of a number of high-profile executives. Ubisoft now faces new legal action over alleged sexual harassment in France after French workers union Solidaires Informatiques and two former Ubisoft staffers sued the game developer for allegedly enabling a culture of "institutional sexual harassment".

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