Activision Blizzard staff have stated they were dissatisfied with CEO Bobby Kotick’s response to the sexual harassment lawsuit; while Ubisoft staff have called for industry-wide changes.
As previously reported, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing concluded a two year investigation. Their findings lead to them issuing 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 Cosby Suite
The final point is in regards to Alex Afrasibabi, the former Senior Creative Director of World of Warcraft. He was accused of hitting on female employees, attempting to kiss them, and put his arms around them. Other male employees and supervisors intervened to pull him off female employees.
The lawsuit also claimed staff refereed to Afrasibabi’s hotel room during BlizzCon 2013 was dubbed the Cosby Suite, after Bill Cosby. At least three sources speaking to Kotaku note that the Cosby Suite nickname came from Cosby’s sweaters and the hotel rooms looking dated. Others said it was a reference to an ugly boardroom at Blizzard’s main office featuring patterns akin to the sweaters.
However, in photos obtained by Kotaku from BlizzCon 2013 they note “the walls were largely white and blank and the decor was nondescript.” The rug, while patterned, also did not look anything akin to a Cosby sweater.
The photos, now deleted from Afrasibabi’s Facebook, shows the room with a large amount of alcohol and drinks (seemingly brought by Afrasibabi), and staff and others posing around a portrait of Bill Cosby.
A screencap of the Facebook photo also shows Afrasibabi using the Cosby Suite nickname, while one ex-Blizzard source speaking to Kotaku claimed that a HR representative was one of the people in the photo around the portrait.
Another image from Facebook shows a group chat dubbed “the BlizzCon Cosby Crew;” where Blizzard staff joke about bringing “hot chixx,” and how Afrasibabi “can’t marry all of them.” “I can, I’m middle eastern.” Afrasiabi replied. Another staff member replied “You misspelled fuck.”
In an unpublished photo obtained by Kotaku, they claim it shows “a group of women are sitting on a bed in the room with the Cosby portrait. One of the women appears to have a hand on another’s breast, which is cheered on by the men in the comments.”
Greg Street, former Lead Systems Designer on World of Warcraft, tweeted that suite was treated as a green room during BlizzCon, with staff using it to take a break and relax. While there was drinking, Street says he never saw or experienced any of the allegations mentioned.
Street also notes he was embarrassed by the room’s nickname now, and at the time was “nothing more to me than a silly reference to an old flea-market portrait.” Allegations against Bill Cosby had occurred between 1965 to 1996, and 2000 to 2006. Cosby’s convictions were overturned on June 30th.
Sources speaking to Kotaku noted that the jokes were an innocent play on the room’s nickname, and did not know the room belong to Afrasiabi. One source, former Blizzard employee Joshua Mosqueira, later made their statement public. He states the suite was named as the carpet reminded staff of Cosby’s sweaters, and felt confident those in the photos had no knowledge of Cosby’s allegations.
Mosqueira also notes that after he had made that statement to Kotaku, he learned the suite was named because a previous party during GDC 2013. Other sources speaking to Kotaku stated that Cosby’s negative reputation was exactly why the men had gathered around his portrait, being seen as funny by the “boys club.”
While Afrasiabi left Blizzard in 2020, this is now revealed to have been his termination. “An employee brought these 2013 events to our attention in June 2020,” an Activison Blizzard spokesperson told Kotaku.
“We immediately conducted our own investigation and took corrective action. At the time of the report, we had already conducted a separate investigation of Alex Afrasiabi and terminated him for his misconduct in his treatment of other employees.”
Staff Not Satisfied with Kotick’s Response
Despite Kotick’s proposals, it seems Activision Blizzard staff are not satisfied. In a joint statement shared with IGN; employees state that Activision Blizzard 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.
The walkout was also promised to not be a one-time event, while still hoping to maintain constructive dialogue. “This is the beginning of an enduring movement in favor of better labor conditions for all employees, especially women, in particular women of color and transgender women, nonbinary people, and other marginalized groups.”
Ubisoft Staff Join the Fray
Ubisoft employees had also previously claimed numerous sexual misconduct allegations, along with several high-level individuals accused of racist or homophobic comments, as well as close friends of executives being promoted over women [1, 2]. Multiple Ubisoft executives stood down during internal investigations, or were later fired [1, 2] or placed on administrative leave.
Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot later stated changes to introduce safeguards, and improve diversity and inclusivity at the company; along with the company’s support of Black Lives Matter.
The open letter states that “it is clear, from the frequency of these reports, that there is a widespread and deeply ingrained culture of abusive behaviors within the industry.” The letter then turns from supporting Activision Blizzard Staff, to Ubisoft management failing to make amends or improvements.
“We have seen nothing more than a year of kind words, empty promises, and an inability or unwillingness to remove known offenders. We no longer trust your commitment to address these issues at their core. You need to do more.”
The open letter condemns training sessions as being ignored “by the people who need them more,” and re-assurances and kind words being ineffective. They also claim only the most public offenders were fired, as they “let the rest either resign or worse, promoted them, moved them from studio to studio, team to team, giving them second chance after second chance with no repercussions.”
Ubisoft employees demand “a seat at the table” in deciding how the company will progress from here; and the removal of offenders and those “who were complicit or willfully ignorant of the actions of others.”
The open letter calls for an industry-wide effort to create new rules and processes to handle sexual assault allegations; with involvement of non-management employees and union representatives.
“To this end, we propose that ActivisionBlizzard, Ubisoft and other industry-leading publishers and developers collaborate and agree to a set of rules and processes for handling reports of these offences. This collaboration must heavily involve employees in non-management positions and union representatives. This is essential to ensure that those who are directly affected by these behaviours are leading the change.”
We shall keep you informed as we learn more.