The Downward Spiral: Accountability, Abuse and Activision-Blizzard
Every month brings with it a new controversy in the games industry. Whether it’s cheating at E-Sports events, a lack of oversight on a remaster of a classic or rampant abuse the likes of which hasn’t been seen since #MeToo the games industry has experienced it. The dominant one for the latter half of 2021 was the Activision-Blizzard abuse scandal. The relatively young video game business seems almost immune to the scandals and controversies that would see stock plummet and shareholders swim for shore like rats from a sinking ship. But the length, breadth and sheer scale of what went on behind closed doors at Activision-Blizzard means that it simply won’t go away.
Every other abuse scandal or ethical breach seems like a flash in the pan compared to this. Nothing ever came of the alleged boys club behaviour perpetuated and seemingly encouraged at French studio Quantic Dream. The same can be said of Naughty Dog’s crunch time controversy and although it may still be in the back of certain peoples’ minds the near global Ubisoft harassment fracas of 2020 seems to have been put to bed as well.
Now admittedly solving these kinds of issues can take time. The abusers, at all levels, need to be ousted to create a safe work environment. Employees need to unlearn unhealthy work practices and learn how to take care of themselves. At the same times management need to be able to see when deadlines need to be extended and learn how to create safe and happy workplace environments.
But who’s to say that any positive action taken – like the hiring of workplace relations advisers and the “We need to do better” press releases – isn’t instantly tossed aside once the storm has blown over? Journalists, who often break these stories either by accident or by design, aren’t watchdogs they’re critics, newshounds and reporters. If Peggle 3 (finally) comes out the week after harassment lawsuits start landing at, oh, say Square Enix then the majority of news reporting will pivot to Peggle 3. Well it at last appears as if the impossible has happened. The dogs have not just been watching this time. Now they’re biting and they like what they taste.
The financial toll this has taken on Activision-Blizzard would have crippled and killed a smaller company but Activision-Blizzard pull in billions every quarter thanks to Call of Duty, Diablo, Overwatch and all the other brands they own. Nevertheless this scandal has prompted thousands of employees to stage walk outs, a huge number of sponsors have pulled out of Activision-Blizzard’s E-Sports events, the Big Three – Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo – have all expressed concern regarding the controversy and, furthermore, Activision-Blizzard’s upper management has been decimated.
Blizzard’s President J. Allen Brack was let go along with the global head of HR Jesse Meschuk and several lower level managers. One of Meschuck’s replacements Jen O’Neal left of her own volition in November due to issues relating to the pay gap between herself and Meschuk’s other replacement Mike Ybarra as well as what she described as being “tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against”. The longest holdout by far has been Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick who was named in the initial lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Since July Kotick has been accused of sexual harassment, threatening to kill a female employee over voicemail and the endless litany of racial and sexual discrimination listed in the lawsuit itself. An example needs to be set, the axe needs to fall.
Cut off the head of the snake and the body will die. It’s one of the oldest, truest statements out there. But the history of controversy within the video game industry shows that there is no singular snake. Defining a company as a snake would be wrong. They’re more like the Hydra out of Greek legend. Cut off one head of a many headed snake and another grows in its place. Only by sealing the thrashing, spewing stump with fire can the regrowth be stopped. That’s what needs to happen here.
Maybe I’ve gone too deep into metaphor but you get the idea. Bobby Kotick isn’t the root of the problem he was simply a powerful man, one of many, that oversaw and participated in it. Getting rid of Kotick will set the example that no one is untouchable but it won’t solve the systemic rot that’s been left to fester since video game companies started to become multi-million dollar investment opportunities in the early 2000s. Accountability has finally come to the video games industry and perhaps with this dreadnought of a case the US government has brought to bear on Activision-Blizzard smaller victories can be won too.
Everything has its breaking point and maybe for video games workers this is the last straw. Unionization has been a key issue over the last several years with protection from such behaviours being described as one of the keystones of union contracts. Along with severance pay and job security it is possible to make the industry safer and healthier for the hundreds of thousands that work in it. But for that to happen people like Kotick need to go. Too long have business-people with shady dealings and worse pasts – like Activision-Blizzard’s own personal war criminal Fran Townsend – run the American video games industry. Why should it be run by sub-standard Metal Gear Solid villains? At least Hideo Kojima had the good grace to put himself in his own games as a helpless NPC.
There are few things more upsetting as a video game fan than seeing how the passionate people that make these games are treated by those that employ them. From art to level design to music to then making it all work together developing video games is a hard job and it should be the development company’s responsibility to ensure that their employees feel healthy, happy and safe at work. The only real way to do this is through unionization that way workers have a safety net and companies have a permanent watchdog eyeing them up and licking its chops should they put a foot wrong. We have not yet reached the end of this downward spiral but once we do there’s nowhere to go but up.