Activision Blizzard's sexual harassment scandal is not a one-off for the gaming industry
A growing number of major digital gaming studios face allegations over their “frat boy” cultures. These aren’t isolated accusations. They reflect a culture of sexism and discrimination that senior management and human resources departments perpetuate and allow.
Activision Blizzard, maker of successful franchises like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, has been sued by the State of California for alleged discrimination against female employees, sexual harassment and failing to take steps to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
Employees staged a walkout and virtual protest. The president of Blizzard and the head of HR resigned.
Ubisoft, Riot Games
Last summer Ubisoft, maker of top games like Assassin’s Creed, also faced allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. Senior executives and the company’s global head of HR resigned.
And let’s not forget Riot Games, maker of League of Legends. Allegations of a sexist culture emerged in 2018. This led to a company walkout in 2019 and class-action lawsuits for gender discrimination. This January, Riot’s CEO was sued for allegedly creating a hostile work environment and making unwanted sexual advances.
Data from the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Developer Satisfaction Surveys show that these cases are not a one-off. There is a growing perception among the game developers surveyed that there’s no equity in the industry.
Survey respondents also regularly say that they have experienced inequities or witnessed them toward others.
In the 2021 Developer Satisfaction Survey, only 44 per cent had never experienced inequity and only 29 per cent had never witnessed an incident of inequity.
Companies are responsible for creating inclusive workplaces. The gaming industry is behind the curve in establishing and enforcing policies to prevent discrimination, harassment and exclusionary practices.
In the 2021 Developer Satisfaction Survey, eight per cent of respondents said that their companies had no equity, diversity or inclusion policies at all, and 22 per cent did not know if they did. Only one-quarter said that their companies had a safe space policy.
The numbers look better for policies on sexual harassment and general discrimination, but there is far from universal adoption. Worse, less than half of respondents said that there was a formal disciplinary process or a formal complaint procedure.
Crucially, only 41 per cent of respondents felt that these policies were adequately enforced. Almost half were not sure. These numbers are worse than in previous survey years.
This data helps to explain the concerns raised by developers in the recent gaming industry scandals. At best, issues are ignored or mishandled by senior management and HR. At worst, senior executives are complicit in misconduct and coverups. The Developer Satisfaction Survey data show an informal and often arbitrary environment where employees have limited leverage or recourse.
Ample evidence suggests companies won’t change on their own. Employees must keep up the pressure.
An Ubisoft developer quoted in Kotaku expressed demoralization:
“I’m so jaded at this point that, no matter what they do, it’ll feel like lip service to me.”
But others are speaking out. They are filing lawsuits, mobilizing their colleagues and, perhaps most importantly, unionizing. Unions give workers a voice and role in the regulation of their workplaces. The momentum for unions in the gaming industry is growing.
Not just talk, but action is needed
As #Metoo becomes part of our daily discourse, it’s easy to think that equity issues are finally being appropriately addressed.
Companies seem to publicly advocate for equity. In response to scandals, organizations like Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft and Riot hire consultants, issue public commitments to equity, diversity or inclusion policies and fire problematic staff.
But behind closed doors, there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve proper accountability at companies that are historically homogeneous in their demographic makeup and structures. Companies must realize that a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion on paper is worthless without real action and change.
Johanna Weststar has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the International Game Developers Association and the IGDA Foundation.