Wednesday morning, hundreds of Blizzard employees rallied outside the company’s main campus in Irvine, California to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment and discrimination charges. They’re asking the gaming studio to agree to four demands, including ending mandatory arbitration in all employment contracts. “Until these demands are met, we won’t stop fighting,” a walkout representative tells The Verge.
The move comes after the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sued Activision Blizzard on July 20th, alleging the company had a pervasive “frat boy” culture where female employees were constantly harassed, discriminated against, and underpaid.
The lawsuit alleged a male employee nicknamed his BlizzCon 2013 hotel room the “Cosby Suite.” A Kotaku investigation later found that multiple other employees were aware of the name. “We’re really glad to see these stories are being told and appreciate the journalists who are telling these stories,” a walkout representative tells The Verge. “We stand by the victims and are appalled by what we read. This only makes us more committed to our task.”
At the protest, employees stood shoulder to shoulder across two city blocks, holding signs that read “send the frat boys back to school” and “women in the video game industry deserve a safe place to work.” The energy was hopeful, almost light, despite the 80-degree heat. There were no protest chants, just chatter among colleagues. Around the corner, organizers had erected a tent for protestors, complete with water and snacks.
Employees say the lawsuit was a watershed moment for the company, which previously isolated victims of sexual harassment. “There was validation, and there was education,” a walkout representative says. “It was a way for people to realize that if they experienced something like this they were not an isolated case. And there was an opportunity for folks who maybe did partake in this but did not realize that it’s toxic behavior to learn that it’s toxic behavior.”
Journalists were instructed not to speak directly with protestors, for fear footage of the conversations would out sources.
These anxieties aren’t entirely unfounded. During its two-year investigation, DFEH found numerous instances of retaliation.
Activision Blizzard initially denied the allegations, with chief compliance officer Frances Townsend saying, “we cannot let egregious actions of others, and a truly meritless lawsuit, damage our culture of respect and equal opportunity for all employees,” . Townsend previously served as homeland security advisor to George W. Bush. She joined Activision Blizzard in January.
On Tuesday, CEO Bobby Kotick wrote a public letter calling the initial response “tone deaf.” He noted the company was engaging WilmerHale, an outside law firm, to audit its “policies and procedures.” Last year, Pinterest hired WilmerHale to investigate its company culture after two prominent Black women who’d worked at the company went public with allegations of racism and discrimination.
Activision Blizzard employees say the latest note from executives — while encouraging — does not go far enough. “Right now they aren’t listening to us,” a walkout representative says. “They’ve made that very clear.”
In addition to taking forced arbitration out of employment contracts, employees want the company to overhaul its hiring and promotion processes, publish salary and promotion data, and hire an outside firm to audit the executive team.
They say that ending mandatory arbitration is particularly important so employees who’ve experienced harassment can come together to push for change. Doing so would “remove the feeling of isolation and allow for more solidarity with one another,” a walkout representative says. “In addition to that, it helps mitigate the risk of retaliation — that is huge.”
Employees won’t say what actions they have planned next. When asked if staff plans to unionize, organizers simply said, “no comment.” Still, they made it clear the walkout is not the end. “We’re taking something that has existed and permeated through the gaming industry for decades and beginning to build a movement,” a spokesperson says. “So it’s important to remember where we came from with our demands, what the end goal is and not lose sight of it.”