Jeff Strain, a former Blizzard Entertainment developer and founder of Undead Labs, has called for unionization of the video games industry; after Activision Blizzard sexual harassment lawsuit.
Strain was previously the lead programmer on World of Warcraft, along with being a developer on StarCraft, Diablo, and Warcraft III. In 2009 he formed Undead Labs, who would go on to create the State of Decay series. Speaking to IGN, Strain has joined those calling for a video game developer’s union.
Sharing the letter (titled “It’s Time”) sent to his employees at his new company, Strain shared his experiences that led him to leave Activision Blizzard and co-found ArenaNet. He claims that while working at Blizzard Entertainment (starting 1996), he was planning to leave after two years.
This came “after a cataclysmic meeting with one of the founders over our objections to dismembered and impaled female body parts in the beta version of Diablo.” Strain notes him and his wife then began planning to leave the company, and was later joined by several like-minded colleagues.
Strain claims that the “hardcore gamers only” attitude at Blizzard was a smokescreen for “bro culture.” This lead to “fostering a sense of exceptionalism inhibits people from speaking up because they should just deal with it if they love the company and its games.” He also places the blame of the abuse at the feet of “passive leadership that turns a blind eye.”
As such, Strain had sought to create a “healthier, more decent, more supportive environment” at the studios he founded. Even so, he laments that indie studios cannot set the standards for the whole industry, that falling to the “giants” with the largest number og entry-level jobs, and largest, most profitable titles.
Strain further claims he has heard “hundreds of profoundly disturbing stories” from other developers across his 25 years in the industry; “I’ve also seen this cycle repeat itself numerous times, across multiple companies throughout our industry.”
Despite there being positive change and good faith to improve; Strain says they “can’t address the chronic issues in our industry systemically. In order to do that, game industry employees need advocacy and representation. We need unionization.”
“Unions were started in this country to protect workers from abusive, cruel, abhorrent, unacceptable and illegal treatment from companies. That’s their entire purpose. If this week does not show us that our industry colleagues — even the most entry-level QA tester — need true support and baseline protection, I can’t imagine how much worse it will have to get.
I’m an entrepreneur, and a veteran of three successful independent studio start ups. I’m highly familiar with the financial, legal, contractual, and organizational aspects of game development. I also know that I have nothing to fear from unionization, nor does any company that pays employees fairly and equitably, provides quality health insurance, models respect and civility for female, POC, LGBTQ+ employees, and supports a healthy, whole life. It seems simple, but we clearly need help with it. The giants of this industry have shown us this week that we cannot trust them to moderate and manage the wealth and power that players and fans have given them.”
Strain says he welcomes his employees unionizing, and would give his full endorsement; including to an industry-wide unions. He also encourages leaders in the industry “to join me in endorsing and advocating for unionization as a concrete, actionable step toward improving our industry.”
As previously reported, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing concluded a two year investigation. Their findings lead to a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard for “frat boy” style sexual harassment, which may have led to one woman who committed suicide on a company trip, and discrimination for women being paid less and promoted less frequently and after longer periods of time.
Activision Blizzard stated that while “there is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind,” they felt the Californian report “ includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.” An internal email from Activision executive Frances Townsend described the allegations as “factually incorrect, old and out of context.”
In response, almost 1,000 current and former Activision Blizzard employees signed an open letter condemning the response as “abhorrent and insulting.” It also called for official statements “that recognize the seriousness of these allegations and demonstrate compassion for victims of harassment and assault.”
Staff led a walkout on July 28th; listing demands including ending mandatory arbitration clauses in all employee contracts, adopting policies to improve representation at all levels of the company, publishing pay data to show women are paid and promoted fairly, and hiring a third party to audit the company’s executive and HR staff.
Sources claimed staff would not be punished for the walkout, and had paid time off. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick later stated that the company’s initial response was “tone deaf.”
Along with bringing in a law firm to conduct an immediate review of Activision Blizzard policies and procedures; Kotick stated the company would investigate all the claims, creating safe spaces for Listening Sessions organized by third parties, an immediate evaluation of managers and leaders, compliance resources for diverse hiring, and removing NPCs from World of Warcraft inspired by those named in the allegations.
The staff stated they were dissatisfied with Kotick’s response to the lawsuit; stating it did not address ending forced arbitration, workers involved in the oversight of hiring and promotion policies, greater pay transparency, or employee selection of a third party to audit the company processes and HR.
Further, almost 500 former and current Ubisoft employees announced their support for Activision Blizzard staff in an open letter; calling for new industry-wide rules and processes.
Image: State of Decay 2 (via Twitter)