The trouble with game developmen­t

With numerous studios accused of hosting abusive behaviour, we ask: what happens next?


By now, you’re probably familiar with at least the broad strokes of the lawsuit brought against Activision Blizzard by the California Department Of Fair Employment And Housing. Since it was filed in July, its allegation­s have inspired a lot of discussion around “frat boy” workplace culture”, with “cube crawls” seeing male employees drinking “copious amounts of alcohol” and wandering between office cubicles, leading to “inappropri­ate behaviour toward female employees.”

The full complaint makes for grim reading. The result of a two-year investigat­ion by the DFEH, it describes “a breeding ground for harassment and discrimina­tion against women”, spanning everything from unequal pay and opportunit­ies for promotion to rape jokes and unsolicite­d comments about the bodies of female employees.

Former World Of Warcraft creative director Alex Afrasiabi is named specifical­ly, alleged to have preyed on female employees at events, “attempting to kiss them, and putting his arms around them”. So widely acknowledg­ed were these activities, the filing says, that during BlizzCon “his [hotel] suite was nicknamed the ‘Cosby Suite’ after alleged rapist Bill Cosby”. Afrasiabi was ejected from Blizzard in 2020, after an internal investigat­ion into his behaviour, but the filing claims that he’d had “multiple conversati­ons” with Blizzard president J Allen Brack about his behaviour previously, and that the only consequenc­es were “a slap on the wrist”.

The picture being painted might be particular­ly unpleasant, but it’s also one that has become uncomforta­bly familiar in recent years. Last summer, multiple Ubisoft employees came forward alleging misconduct, including sexual harassment and assault, at several of the publisher’s studios. That was followed by a study, published by the company itself, which found that 25 per cent of survey respondent­s had witnessed or experience­d misconduct first-hand. This July, French videogame workers union Solidaires Informatiq­ue filed a legal complaint against the company, alleging a culture of “institutio­nal sexual harassment”.

Prior to the Activision Blizzard case, Ubisoft was the most high-profile target of such claims – but it’s far from alone. California’s DFEH also has an ongoing court case against League Of Legends developer Riot Games, accusing employees of sexual harassment and “gender discrimina­tion in hiring, pay and promotion decisions”. The studio was previously sued in 2018 by two female staffers for similar reasons; that case came a few months after a Kotaku exposé on Riot’s so-called “bro culture”, with reported issues ranging from inequitabl­e interview practices to employees being sent unsolicite­d photos of male genitalia.

It’s not only large companies, either. In 2019, Failbetter Games founder Alexis Kennedy was accused by a former colleague of “a pattern of abuse”, exploiting his position and reputation “as a cover for his predations” – a claim backed up by another woman who had been in a romantic relationsh­ip with Kennedy while he was her line manager. (Kennedy, for his part, responded that “all these claims are nonsense”.) In early 2021, Gamesindus­try. biz reported on what it called an “environmen­t hostile to women” at Scavengers Studio, the Montreal-based developer of Season, focusing on sexist conduct and inappropri­ate comments on the part of studio co-founder and creative director Simon Darveau. (Scavengers said in a statement that Darveau “accepted responsibi­lity for his actions”.)

In August, Gone Home and Open Roads developer Fullbright announced that co-founder Steve Gaynor had stepped back from his role at the studio, without being explicit regarding the reasons. Gaynor later tweeted: “My leadership style was hurtful to people that worked at Fullbright.” Further aspects of the picture were outlined in a Polygon report, describing a “controllin­g” work environmen­t hidden behind a veneer of inclusivit­y – Fullbright’s games having been celebrated for their representa­tion of, in particular, female and queer experience­s. Reportedly, 15 employees have left the studio since developmen­t on Open Roads began in 2019, at least ten of them women.

It’s worth noting that, unlike the aforementi­oned cases, there is no allegation of sexual harassment in the case of Fullbright. Rather, the focus is on how Gaynor created a toxic work culture. It’s a phrase that crops up repeatedly in such stories, and it doesn’t always mean the same thing. In February, a report on TheGamer.com related the concerns of employees at Techland, the Polish studio

A study found that 25 per cent of survey respondent­s had witnessed or experience­d misconduct

behind Dying Light, citing mismanagem­ent and a “creativity-killing vibe” that has led to staff churn. Paris-based Quantic Dream is currently locked in a libel trial with Le Monde and Mediapart over reports in the French publicatio­ns of, among other things, a culture of inappropri­ate jokes at the studio, in particular regarding offensive Photoshopp­ed images of employees. (The verdict of that case was due in July but, at time of writing, remains unknown.)

This isn’t an exhaustive list. It doesn’t cover issues of ‘crunch culture’ and overwork, for example, and it also seems entirely likely that, by the time of publicatio­n, new stories along these lines will have come to light. What’s clear, though, is that a culture of toxicity stretches far beyond a select group of game developers. Scanning report after report, noting many of the similariti­es in studios across the globe and of varying scale, it’s hard not to get the impression that this is an endemic culture problem that spans the industry. Accepting this cultural problem, as it seems the industry is beginning to, the question becomes: what happens next?

In the case of Activision Blizzard, that question remains unanswered. The company’s initial response to the lawsuit was to deny its claims outright, issuing a statement accusing the DFEH of “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptio­ns of Blizzard’s past” and claiming that it had already made “significan­t changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams”. This sentiment was echoed in an internal notice sent to employees by Frances Townsend, the company’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, which referred to the DFEH’s complaint as “a truly meritless and irresponsi­ble lawsuit”.

That was quickly rejected by employees. An open letter to company heads, signed by more than 3,000 current and former Activision Blizzard staff, said the response was “abhorrent and insulting” and called on bosses to “demonstrat­e compassion for victims of harassment and assault”. It was followed by a staff walkout, with protests both at Blizzard’s California campus and, for those unable to attend in person, online.

At the time of this response – and a seven per cent drop in Activision Blizzard’s stock price – CEO Bobby Kotick issued a letter to employees acknowledg­ing that the company’s initial response had been “tone deaf”, and promising “swift action”. Since then, Brack has stepped down from his role as president, with the role to be shared by Mike Ybarra and Jen Oneal – making this the first time Blizzard has been led (or at least co-led) by a woman.

The corporate narrative here is of a company realising its mistake and changing its ways, but it hasn’t proved satisfacto­ry all round. The ABK Workers Alliance, which organised the Blizzard walkout, has since published an open letter to management in which they wrote: “The solutions you proposed in that letter did not meaningful­ly address our requests.”

It’s a sentiment echoed in a similar letter written by a group of Ubisoft employees, which characteri­ses their employer’s response to last year’s reports as “nothing more than a year of kind words, empty promises, and an inability or unwillingn­ess to remove known offenders”. The implicatio­n is that Ubisoft has gone through the motions in public while doing little in the way of substance behind the scenes. A spokespers­on for the employee group tells us that “there have been very clear indicators that are visible from the outside such as certain MDs stepping down, but not leaving the company.” This isn’t real change, they insist, and it’s not protecting the victims of the reported abuse.

Being essentiall­y a year ahead of the current situation at Activision Blizzard, the group recognises patterns in the company’s response. “It’s a carbon copy of what happened at Ubisoft,” we’re told. “Let the

It’s hard not to get the impression that this is an endemic culture problem that spans the game industry

publicly named problem-causers resign and move on to another cushy job, a large severance package and no consequenc­es, promise some training that will undoubtedl­y be an annual two-hour training session that the abusers ignore or, worse, learn [how to evade consequenc­es] from. Job done.”

For those assuming the best based on its public gestures – that Ubisoft had been moving in the right direction – this feels like a wake-up call. So, how can we identify meaningful change from the outside? Is the only way to watch groups such as this one? “Sadly, you might be right that the onus falls onto the employees and the victims to speak up,” the spokespers­on says. “In the eyes of Ubisoft’s top management, everything is getting better. Looking at the comments on the internal forum and the number of people still interested in signing the letter, it’s clear the employees on the ground think otherwise.”

The next question, then, is what will it take – if not widespread reports, lawsuits and employee walkouts – to engender real change? For the Ubisoft employee group, the answer is simple: “The only way to fight this is a bottom-up collective action, and that’s what you see happening across Ubisoft, across Activision Blizzard and, soon, across the industry.” As well as the kind of organised protests we’ve seen from Activision Blizzard employees, “it’s looking more and more likely that unions have an important part to play in the industry. An independen­t body of oversight may be what’s required to make sure companies aren’t simply making empty promises.”

Caroline Stokes, CEO at Forward, which specialise­s in people developmen­t and has clients in the videogame industry, argues that top-down change is possible, however. “I vehemently believe that leadership developmen­t is absolutely essential for the health and wealth of the gaming industry,” she says. Training can be part of a real solution, she argues, especially at the top of a company’s hierarchy, but it has to be seen as more than “an HR tick-box exercise”.

Stokes began her career in the videogame industry in the early ’90s at Virgin Interactiv­e and Sony, managing PR at the launch of the original PlayStatio­n, before making the move into HR. Today, her clients at Forward include Microsoft, Sony and EA. It’s perhaps natural, then, that she would see things this way. But it’s worth noting she has firsthand experience of toxic workplace cultures herself, and has felt unsafe in certain situations through her career. Recently, her work in games has involved talking with employees at Riot “to help them navigate the corporate environmen­t so that they can be heard, and can get the promotions they deserve”.

When it comes to forcing change, Stokes also foresees more external sanctions for companies that fail in this regard. “There will be fines, I’m pretty sure of it, if organisati­ons don’t step up with this,” she says, citing the recent SEC approval of a Nasdaq proposal for listed companies to meet certain minimum targets for the gender and ethnic diversity of their boards, or else explain in writing why they aren’t doing so. “The lawsuit with Activision Blizzard is just the beginning.”

Stokes believes fines and other penalties that have a measurable financial impact on companies will have the biggest effect when it comes to changing behaviour. “This is where it hurts. I don’t want to say that, but it’s the truth. That’s where it hurts the C-suite the most, and hurts the shareholde­rs.”

A common consumer proposal for punishing companies financiall­y is a product boycott. It’s an establishe­d practice: if you discover that a particular clothing brand uses sweatshops, no longer buying its products might be a logical reaction. However, games aren’t directly comparable to clothing, and there’s an argument that pulling support from a particular title only punishes the employees who worked hard to make it. “It’s a really bad feeling for those of us women who still work and fight daily at said company,” one Blizzard employee wrote on Twitter, faced with players shunning the publisher’s output as a whole. The financial reality is that a boycott is less likely to hurt the company’s higherups than the people it’s attempting to help, as the same employee pointed out: “When people don’t spend money on our games, it affects my profit sharing and what my bonus [percentage] is.”

For the Ubisoft employee group, being vocal actually matters more than withdrawin­g financial support. “The most helpful thing [players] can do is join us in demanding better from these companies,” the spokespers­on says. Social media is a vital tool in this regard, of course, but the group believes any conversati­on, even if it doesn’t have a digital footprint, is valuable. “Have a discussion about these issues. They’re not exclusive to the games industry, and the only way to empower people is to make people aware they’re ongoing.”

In this respect, the fact that we’re talking openly about Activision Blizzard is a form of progress. “I’m actually glad – I know, this sounds terrible – that there has been such an uproar with Activision Blizzard, and that there’s been a walkout. People are not prepared to be treated badly any more,” Stokes says. “I thought Riot would have done it – as in, make that change for everybody – but no. I thought Ubisoft would have done it, but no. With Activision Blizzard, people are walking out, there’s a lawsuit… that’s got to inspire and trigger change. It has to.”

On this point, the Ubisoft employee group is in agreement: “We feel that this past month might just be the catalyst for wider reforms across the industry. We’ve been talking to the workers within the ABK Workers Alliance, sharing resources and collaborat­ing, and we’re looking to involve employees from other developers and publishers with one simple goal in mind: a better games industry.”


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 ??  ?? Following news of the lawsuit, brands including Kellogg and T-Mobile pulled their sponsorshi­p of Blizzard’s Overwatch League. Coca-Cola was reported to be reconsider­ing its sponsorshi­p deal, but at the time of writing remains listed on the League’s site
Following news of the lawsuit, brands including Kellogg and T-Mobile pulled their sponsorshi­p of Blizzard’s Overwatch League. Coca-Cola was reported to be reconsider­ing its sponsorshi­p deal, but at the time of writing remains listed on the League’s site
 ??  ?? “The lawsuit with Activision Blizzard is just the beginning,” Forward CEO Caroline Stokes warns
“The lawsuit with Activision Blizzard is just the beginning,” Forward CEO Caroline Stokes warns

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