Wrangling with the Activision Blizzard scandal

During a recent episode of the DenPod (my unscripted podcast), I said that I’ve found it difficult to know what to say about the Activision Blizzard scandal, and how to cover the story in a way that’s appropriate in style and tone. It goes without saying that what happened at Activision Blizzard, as well as the company’s pathetic reaction to it, is incredibly serious, but I feel that a lot of the commentary and discussion around the scandal, even from well-established critics and publications, missed the mark.

To briefly recap what’s been going on in case you didn’t know, Activision Blizzard has been sued by the state of California in the United States for violating the rights of female (and other) employees. Activision Blizzard is accused of fostering a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination that is so intense that at least one employee is believed to have committed suicide following an extended period of harassment. The lawsuit is ongoing and unresolved at time of writing, but Activision Blizzard has acknowledged that there are “issues” with its corporate culture, and at least one senior executive has now resigned. Activision Blizzard employees also staged a walkout in response to the company’s handling of the scandal.

Some outlets have referred to this as a “frat boy” culture (a reference to the loutish, sexually aggressive behaviour of some college fraternities in the United States), but I don’t think that term comes close to describing what’s alleged to have happened at Activision Blizzard. Nor does it do justice to the severity of the accusations.

Sexual harassment is said to be rife at Activision Blizzard.

Other reports have suggested that this kind of sexual harassment is a problem that plagues the games industry as a whole. I agree, though I’d also add that this kind of behaviour can happen at any kind of company in any industry; it’s an industry problem, not specifically a games industry one. Tackling institutional or systemic misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace is clearly an ongoing struggle, particularly in the United States and other parts of the world where workers’ rights are not as well-protected as they are in parts of Europe, for example.

I used to work in the games industry. I spent several years with a large games company based in Germany, and as a freelancer I worked with about a dozen small and large games companies in the years after I left my position at that company. I was fortunate that, in the decade or so I spent working in the industry, I never saw or experienced harassment or bullying of that nature. But as I often say, one person’s experience is not a complete worldview, and the fact that I didn’t see sexual harassment first-hand during the years I worked in the industry doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening.

Activision Blizzard has this statement on their website – quite unironically, it seems.

In recent years we’ve learned a lot more than ever before about abusive management practices and “corporate cultures” at large video games companies. Rockstar is just one of many companies that have been called out for their awful practices during “crunch” times – and crunch is something I definitely saw and experienced first-hand during my time working in the industry. Other companies like CD Projekt Red and even the sainted Nintendo have been criticised for this as well. Then there was Ubisoft, a company which faced comparable accusations of sexual harassment – and worse – to Activision Blizzard.

All of these cases – and many more besides – follow a pattern which is all too familiar in the days of 24/7 rolling news and social media outrage mobs: the story blows up, has its five minutes in the spotlight, then disappears. News of the Ubisoft scandal broke barely a year ago, yet practically no outlets, publications, or even independent commentators have so much as mentioned it for months. New Ubisoft games like Watch Dogs: Legion, Immortals Fenyx Rising, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla have all been released since the scandal, and what happened? Practically all of the outlets and critics who went hell-for-leather against Ubisoft for all of five minutes forgot the scandal and reviewed their latest games – often giving them glowing recommendations. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has an average score from professional critics of 80/100 on Metacritic, for example.

A similar scandal involving Ubisoft doesn’t appear to have harmed its recent games.

So we come to the Activision Blizzard scandal itself. The reaction from amateur and professional commentators alike was unanimous – the company is to be condemned for not only allowing this behaviour, but rewarding those involved and covering for senior managers and executives. And that is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with, not that it should even need to be said. Practically everyone who hears about what’s been going on at Activision Blizzard will have felt that such behaviour is unacceptable – and potentially criminal, as the lawsuit alleges. Those instincts are spot on, and I don’t disagree in the slightest.

But then I started to hear some very familiar statements and promises, accompanied by the same semi-hysterical language and, in some cases, blatant over-acting on podcasts and videos by folks trying to channel their original instinctive outrage into clicks, views, and advertising revenue. Critics and publications began inserting themselves into the story. Articles and columns weren’t about Activision Blizzard so much as they were about the writers and critics themselves, and how the scandal made them feel.

Some of this is unavoidable; when people are paid to discuss a big news story, how they feel about the story often creeps into even the most well-intentioned journalism. But in this case a lot of folks seemed to go way beyond that, promising their audiences that they will “boycott” future Activision Blizzard releases and discussing at length their own feelings and opinions on the subject. Many of these stories ceased to be about Activision Blizzard and became a “look at me” kind of thing, with publications and critics using the backdrop of the scandal to score attention, clicks, and money for themselves.

A visual metaphor.

This happens a lot on social media, where scandals and news stories are often less about the events themselves and more about the people discussing them. The term “virtue signalling” is often used to derisively critique people who feign outrage or interest in a story while it’s popular, and there seemed to be an awful lot of virtue signalling coming from professional and amateur commentators as news of the Activision Blizzard scandal was breaking.

Having been down this road before, both with companies that saw comparable scandals and with other companies that received justified or unjustified criticism, let me say this: the vast majority of the folks promising to “boycott” future Activision Blizzard titles will do nothing of the sort. A small minority may stick to their guns beyond the next few weeks and months, but eventually critics and publications will return to the company. Activision Blizzard has big releases planned, including the next Call of Duty title, a remaster of Diablo II, and the long-awaited Diablo IV. Not to mention that the company manages hugely popular online titles like Overwatch and World of Warcraft. I simply don’t believe that most of the people who’ve jumped on this story and criticised the company in such a public way will be able to resist the temptation of talking about some of these titles – particularly if hype and excitement grows, as it may for the likes of Diablo IV.

I’m pretty sure that a lot of critics and commentators will be back for Diablo IV, regardless of what they may have said about Activision Blizzard in the last few days.

We’ve been here too many times for me to have any confidence in people sticking to any promises or commitments that they may have made in the heat of a (scripted and well-planned) rant to camera about Activision Blizzard. Not only that, but the backlash a publication or critic can expect to receive for reneging on such a promise is basically non-existent. They might get a few comments calling them out for going back on their word, but that’s all. If history is any guide, most readers or viewers won’t even remember the Activision Blizzard scandal in a few weeks’ time, let alone be willing to hold a publication or critic to account for failing to live up to a commitment not to cover their future releases.

As the news of the scandal was breaking and I saw the increasingly manufactured outrage from professionals and amateurs unfolding, I felt there was no way to cover the story without getting sucked into all of this. I don’t like my website to be a space for negativity, so I shelved it and aside from a mention on my podcast I haven’t talked about the Activision Blizzard scandal until now.

Trying to step back from the quagmire surrounding the story and address it head-on is a challenge, but here we go. There needs to be a complete overhaul of Activision Blizzard from the top down. Senior executives and managers need to be investigated to see what they knew and whether or to what extent they were complicit in the behaviour or in covering it up. The company needs to make real changes to the way it deals with its employees, and there needs to be some way of enforcing that and holding the company to that commitment. If those things can’t happen, the only other option is for the company to disband and be shut down.

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.

In 2021 it’s so incredibly depressing that we’re still dealing with sexual harassment of women in the workplace. It feels like the kind of story that should’ve been dealt with fifty years ago or more, and the fact that this kind of behaviour can still happen, and happen so openly at a large company, is unacceptable and deserves all of the criticism it gets – and more.

But at the same time, much of the criticism that I’ve seen smacked of the kind of soft-touch, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it coverage that has been all too common in recent years. And I note echoes of similar scandals at other large companies in the video games industry that have all but disappeared despite no senior managers or executives even being fired, let alone prosecuted for their actions.

The even more depressing truth is that I expect the vast majority of critics and players to drift back to Activision Blizzard in the weeks and months ahead, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit and regardless of whether any substantial changes are actually made at the company. Activision Blizzard will try to get away with doing the bare minimum, making superficial changes and perhaps finding a scapegoat or two to fire in public. The company will then likely spend a lot of money on a marketing blitz for upcoming titles, wooing critics with everything they can muster.

A new Call of Duty game is scheduled to be released this year.

I could be wrong, and this could be the first time a company actually sees long-lasting consequences from its customers. But I doubt it. The sad truth is that most people don’t care. They want to be left alone to play Overwatch or Call of Duty, and even if they joined in the discussion and said they’d never buy another Activision Blizzard game again, chances are it’s only a matter of months before they go back on that and quietly pick up Diablo IV or whatever game they get excited about after seeing a slick, expensive marketing campaign. The same goes for publications and professional critics. Having made hay with their righteous indignation at the company’s behaviour, they’ll go right back to reviewing their games and publishing lists of “the ten worst Call of Duty levels ever!!!” because they know hardly anyone will remember or even notice their empty words and hollow promises.

As for me, I’m not making any such commitment. I don’t play games like Call of Duty, and I can count on one finger the number of Activision Blizzard’s upcoming games I was even vaguely interested in. I’ll do my best to keep tabs on this story as the lawsuit and the fallout from it rumbles on, but I think the ending will be depressingly familiar. Activision Blizzard will bring in people to manage the “optics” of the scandal, they’ll do the bare minimum to convince people they’re taking it seriously, and sooner rather than later it’ll drop off the radar entirely. The company will lay low for a while, then return with their latest game – and most folks will have forgotten all about it. That’s what happened with Ubisoft, with Rockstar’s crunch scandal, and many, many others. Despite the way people have reacted to Activision Blizzard in recent days, I’ve seen nothing that makes me think this scandal will play out any differently.

This is why it’s been so difficult to know what to say about the Activision Blizzard scandal. It’s such a serious story that it deserves to be covered extensively, but at the same time the manufactured outrage and over-acting has been cringeworthy to watch and listen to in some quarters. I’m not calling out any one individual critic or commentator for their coverage, but as a general point this is how I feel about it. It’s been interesting to see the story hit the mainstream press, but even then it barely lasted a day before dropping out of the headlines. Activision Blizzard will try to ride this out, and for my two cents, I think most players and publications are going to let them, just as they let other companies survive their respective scandals.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective publisher, developer, etc. Some stock images courtesy of Pixabay. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.