Is the Activision-Blizzard Lawsuit the Beginning of the End for the Games Industry?

I wish things were different. I wish I could play games that weren’t built by the labour of burnt-out, broken people. I wish that the CEOs, Presidents and Directors of some of the largest game studios in the world weren’t abusive psychopaths. I wish that blockbuster video games weren’t released as broken lumps of code only rendered playable 6 months after launch. I wish data mines weren’t burning unholy amounts of coal on altars built from GPUs to mine a fluctuating currency named after a dead meme. But the world, and by-proxy the gaming industry, doesn’t run on wishes. It runs on greed and on cruelty and on the coal used to run the doge coin mines. These are not the end times but they are fast approaching.

Activision-Blizzard is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, gaming companies in the world. They own and operate Activision, Blizzard and mobile developer King. Between them these companies have respectively developed and published the Call of Duty franchise, the World of Warcraft series and the mobile game Candy Crush. Other franchises they either now own or continue to work on include Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Overwatch and Diablo. Unsurprisingly Activision-Blizzard also have what can only be described as “Fuck you money”. Quarterly their earnings register in the billions, enough that their historic earning of $2.4 billion in the first quarter of 2019 was summed up by CEO Bobby Kotick with the words “we didn’t realize our full potential”. Approximately 800 people were fired from Activision-Blizzard at the time of that earnings call. It says it all doesn’t it? Well no it doesn’t.

If avarice and greed were all that affected Activision-Blizzard and others of their ilk like Ubisoft and Rockstar then they’d just be another evil tech company like Cyberdyne Systems or Weyland-Yutani just less interesting. But no a far more personal and human evil lives at the core of Activision-Blizzard and has rotted this megacorporation from within. Over the last fortnight allegations of a “Frat boy culture” at Blizzard – first revealed in a lawsuit filed by the state of California – have emerged alongside repeated sexual harassment by at least one lead developer at Blizzard. More troubling was Activision-Blizzard’s response which glossed over the fact that many of Blizzard’s top brass were either named in the lawsuit or present during these instances of sexual harassment, many of which involved the presence of a portrait of alleged rapist and former entertainer Bill Cosby in a room known as the “Cosby Suite“. The question remains: What can be done?

Last summer when similar accusations rocked multiple Ubisoft studios across the globe I wrote about how I hoped things would change after this. That there was a newer, safer way forward for the games industry. Almost a year on it’s pretty clear my hopes were unfounded. Beyond the removal of some choice scumbags at Ubisoft, many of which held top level development or managerial positions, little has changed at the company. The same culture persists though some of the faces have changed. What we need to start realising is that this stuff trickles down from the top. Men (and they are almost always men) in positions of great power will use that power in a way that directly benefits them and those that enable them. It’s not a lone middle management type that’s the problem, although they are definitely part of it, it’s the people at the top that either witness or are informed of this behaviour and elect to do nothing. The controlled burn needs to start at the top.

But starting this fire has proven to be a difficult challenge. Fire being a a metaphor for a systemic overhaul on an international level, I won’t advocate arson unless absolutely necessary. For the last three years Riot Games, developers of the massively popular MOBA League of Legends, have been wrapped up in endless lawsuits over sexual harassment, discrimination and forced arbitration clauses. If it’s taken this long for these cases to progress imagine how long it will take to harpoon and bring down a leviathan like Activision-Blizzard. But there are steps that can and must be taken if we are to see things not only progress but improve overall. Taking down a bad boss is one thing but it means nothing if they’re replaced by the same monster with a different face. What means everything is if they come up against a united workforce.

Unionization is not an instant cure, the rot runs deep here after all, but it is a barrier against these behaviours in the future. It means fair wages, an end to crunch and a management beholden to their employees. But it’s a long and difficult process, one which is unilaterally opposed by management types the world over. That said it will make long and difficult processes like rooting out these ugly cultures that have been allowed to fester and grow for so long that much easier. It will also make cutting off the branches affected by this easier too. Branches can regrow but a tree is nothing without its roots.

Burn out is a real thing across every industry from retail to gaming to long-haul trucking. Humans are not an infinite resource. We need sleep, food and shelter if we are to be at our best at work and at play. Even then we will eventually retire and, shocker, die. There are hundreds of thousands of game industry workers across the world and not every studio or publisher insists on unpaid overtime, some actively resist it like Nintendo or Sony Santa Monica but they are the exception not the rule.

The insistence on crunch comes from the top whether it’s lead by example or demanded by a faceless CEO. Sure there are some developers or designers or artists that can and indeed love to work 80 hour weeks that’s how passionate they are but that shouldn’t matter. Working 80 hours a week might not affect a 26 year old level designer but fast forward twenty years and all of a sudden the now 46 year old development lead (they got promoted yay!) is wondering why they have a bum ticker. It’s about more than workers rights’ or saving an industry that some day may be teetering on the brink because all its workers are dead, retired or have moved on. It’s about being human, it’s about empathy and most importantly it’s about respect for our fellow man.

Make no mistake we are seeing a shift in the games industry but much like modern game development it’s happening at a glacial pace and it needs to pick up speed. The likes of Activision-Blizzard, Ubisoft, CD Projekt Red and Rockstar to name a few have a chance to correct the course of the games industry so it doesn’t plunge off a cliff years from now. Unfortunately we’ve already seen how little they’re willing to do to change a culture that makes them richer than God every financial quarter. So it needs to start at the bottom. Conversations need to happen on closed, private channels. Unions must be formed. Those that bullied, assaulted, enforced long hours or turned a blind eye must be made to answer for their actions or inaction. The Activision-Blizzard walkout is a good sign as is the media’s coverage and the calls for fans to boycott the company’s products. This is a case of the many against the few and the few should be shaking in their money pits.

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