Interested in learning what's next for the gaming industry? Join gaming executives to discuss emerging parts of the industry this October at GamesBeat Summit Next. Learn more.
Former Blizzard Entertainment president and company cofounder Mike Morhaime issued an apology to the women of Blizzard who have suffered alleged sexual discrimination charged in a lawsuit by a California state agency this week. Blizzard company that makes games such as World of Warcraft and Overwatch.
Morhaime spent 28 years at the company, and he stepped down in early 2019. He has since gone on to start a new game company, Dreamhaven, with his wife, Amy. This week, the California Department of Fair Employment and housing sued parent firm Activision Blizzard for sex discrimination, and the details of the two-year investigation included explosive and ugly allegations about a “frat boy culture” at the game company, which owns both Activision (maker of Call of Duty) and Blizzard.
Morhaime’s comments were honest, powerful, and not defensive. He said he was ashamed.
“It feels like everything I thought I stood for has been washed away,” he wrote.
He said he had tried very hard to create an environment that was “safe and welcoming for people of all genders and backgrounds.” He said he knew it was not perfect, but “clearly, we were far from that goal.”
Here’s Morhaime’s words:
I have read the full complaint against Activision Blizzard and many of the other stories. It is all very disturbing and difficult to read. I am ashamed. It feels like everything I thought I stood for has been washed away. What’s worse but even more important, real people have been harmed, and some women had terrible experiences.
I was at Blizzard for 28 years. During that time, I tried very hard to create an environment that was safe and welcoming for people of all genders and backgrounds. I knew that it was not perfect, but clearly we were far from that goal. The fact that so many women were mistreated and were not supported means we let them down. In addition, we did not succeed in making it feel safe for people to tell their truth. It is no consolation that other companies have faced similar challenges. I wanted us to be different, better.
Harassment and discrimination exist. They are prevalent in our industry. It is the responsibility of leadership to keep all employees feeling safe, supported, and treated equitably, regardless of gender and background. It is the responsibility of leadership to stamp out toxicity and harassment in any form, across all levels of the company. To the Blizzard women who experienced any of these things, I am extremely sorry that I failed you.
I realize that these are just words, but I wanted to acknowledge the women who had awful experiences. I hear you, I believe you, and I am so sorry to have let you down. I want to hear your stories, if you are willing to share them. As a leader in our industry, I can and will use my influence to help drive positive change and to combat misogyny, discrimination, and harassment wherever I can. I believe we can do better, and I believe the gaming industry can be a place where women and minorities are welcomed, included, supported, recognized, rewarded, and ultimately unimpeded from the opportunity to make the types of contributions that all of us join this industry to make. I want the mark I leave on this industry to be something that we can all be proud of.
The post was heartfelt. But it did set Morhaime up for the inevitable question. How much of this happened on your watch? We don’t know the answer to that as the state agency wasn’t that specific in its allegations.
Cher Scarlett, a former Battle.net worker at Blizzard, pointed this out to Morhaime. Scarlett also spoke in a Clubhouse room where I was talking about the lawsuit, and she said working at Blizzard was her dream job, but it was unbearable once she arrived.
“Taking responsibility and apologizing for your role in this is paramount, Mike, and I really appreciate it,” she tweeted in a reply. “When things got really bad in bnet [Battle.net], many of us felt abandoned by you, and what’s worse, when I was threatened with physical harm and panic-cc’d you about it, I was later reprimanded for doing that, completely ignoring how terrified I was that my trying to save someone’s life had somehow put my job in jeopardy, and that I was going to be assaulted at a work event because of it.”
She added, “It felt like I was never given any grace, despite so many men in leadership being repeatedly excused for their behavior, and often being made to feel that the sexual harassment was totally normal and ‘not that bad,’ and even a compliment because of how normalized it was in bnet and WoW [World of Warcraft].”
Scarlett said she is willing to route affected women to the right authorities. She said that it took her a while to realize that while she loved the company, the company did not love her back. That reminds us of NBA head coach Doc Rivers quote during the height of the Black Lives Matter turmoil last year: “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
Morhaime’s contrition wasn’t too far different from a message from J. Allen Brack, the current Blizzard president. He sent an email to staff saying the allegations were “extremely troubling” and that he would hold a meeting to answer questions and discuss how to move forward.
And Rob Kostich, the president of Activision, also said in a memo to employees that the allegations in the lawsuit are deeply disturbing in a memo to employees. He said there is “zero tolerance for this type of behavior in our workplace, or frankly, in our society.”
He said they take every allegation serious and investigate all claims. When wrongdoing is found, those responsible are held accountable. He said the behaviors described are not reflective of Activision company values, and said that if anyone needs to talk to him they can do so. He said the behaviors described were completely unacceptable and he disdained “bro culture” and has spent his career fighting it.
But another message from Fran Townsend, Activision Blizzard’s chief compliance officer, expressed a lot of denial about the allegations. It made a lot of people angry, prompting a lot of negative messages in response.
Activision Blizzard executive Fran Townsend, who was the Homeland Security Advisor to George W. Bush from 2004-2007 and joined Activision in March, sent out a very different kind of email that has some Blizzard employees fuming. pic.twitter.com/BxGeMTuRYF
— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) July 23, 2021
She said that the lawsuit presented a “distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories — some from more than a decade ago.” She said the Activision companies of today are great companies with good values. She said the company takes a hardline approach to inappropriate or hostile work environments and sexual harassment issues. She described what the company has done to make it easier to report violations and how it investigates them. But she also said, “We cannot let egregious actions of others, and a truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit, damage our culture of respect and equal opportunity to all employees.”
Belief and evidence
At this moment in a case, it’s telling to discover who is assuming that the allegations are true, and who is assuming they are false. Townsend, whose job it is to investigate these matters internally, seems to be saying she doesn’t believe the allegations, even though she doesn’t know exactly who has complained. And Morhaime is suggesting he believes the allegations, as do many outsiders.
For the moment, Townsend seemed to ignore that the investigation took two years, and it has appears to have reports from many of those employees that say they have been treated unfairly. Clearly, the company is trying to protect itself from a legal perspective, as any admission of guilt would expose it to private lawsuits and more. Perhaps Activision Blizzard’s ultimate defense may be that it might have had some bad apples in the past, but it has put in a system that gets rid of those bad people and it is a different company today.
“The picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today. Over the past several years and continuing since the initial investigation started, we’ve made significant changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams,” the company said in its response to the lawsuit.
In the meantime, there were immediate ramifications on social media. In response to Townsend’s aggressive stance, a number of publications said they were going to boycott Activision Blizzard products. Gaming outlets Switch Player, Ninty Fresh, [lock-on], Cinelinx, The Gamer, Prima Games, GameXplain, and others said they will not cover Activision Blizzard or Ubisoft titles until further notice, following the reports of discrimination and abuse against women. Streamers also said they would boycott. @CharlieIntel, which covers Call of Duty news, called for both Brack and Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick to step down.
Chris Metzen, a former Blizzard executive behind many of the company’s most popular games, also issued his own apology.
This is later than it should have been. Here’s my response. pic.twitter.com/0h8iF6a1JR
— Chris Metzen (@ChrisMetzen) July 24, 2021
Companies outside of the dispute also weighed in. Bungie, which makes Destiny and was previously partnered with Activision, issued a series of tweets saying it also has a zero-tolerance policy for environments that support toxic culture, and it said that while this week’s news was difficult to read, Bungie said it hopes they will lead to justice, awareness, and accountability.
Oh god, I'd not seen this before. It's heartbreaking.
Here's a 2010 Blizzcon panel in which a fan was brave enough to ask a panel full of men, including J. Allen Brack (left) & Alex Afrasiabi (right) whether there's scope for some of WoW's female characters to be less sexualised pic.twitter.com/Elaf3K7KVc
— Chris Bratt (@chrisbratt) July 23, 2021
The legal grounds
Sean Kane, a longtime attorney for the game industry at Frankfurt Kurnit, noted in an interview with GamesBeat that a new law enabled the state agency to file a lawsuit against the company over pay inequity. He said complaints are always written in one-side ways and the agency doesn’t have to back up all of the allegations in the filing itself. Later on, they will have to back it up with evidence. And so it is hard to tell if the case will be a strong one that ultimately prevails in a court.
“It’s never the best idea to treat a complaint as fact,” he warned. “As of right now, all of these things are allegations. They haven’t been proven. They will need to be proven in front of the court.”
The lawsuit’s allegations are about an amorphous culture without detailed description of specific instances, dates and times, names of victims and perpetrators, or details about the number of people interviewed by the investigators.
Perhaps the department did not want to tip its hand about what witnesses it will bring to the case. It also appears that the agency is also collecting more testimony, now that the case is out in the open.
One thing I would like to know more about are analytics. Proving that a company has a bad culture is not easy, with so many different people in the company. Things like pay inequity should be easier to figure out, though there are nuances such as someone who gets a raise because they got a job offer from someone else. One external measure is Glassdoor, the recruiting and reporting web site. Right now, Activision Blizzard has a 58% approval rating, while Kotick has a 53% approval rating, as given by employees.
The company recently described itself and its diversity efforts in its recent report on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) commitments. In that report, Activision Blizzard said that, since 2016, there has been a two-times increase of women in game development leadership roles. And promotion rates for minorities and non-minorities are equal, and the promotion rate for women is slightly higher than the rate for men.
If it’s a company with 9,630 people, it has to have analytical systems in place to examine things like whether there is pay inequity among female employees. We know that women are 24% of the staff. Such analytics are a double-edged sword. They can alert the company to problems that it can proactively change. But they could also serve as evidence in a trial, and they could be especially damaging if the company is aware of imbalances through the analytics and does nothing about them.
Ultimately, the executives in place will also be judged not only on whether they directly participated in bad behavior, but also about whether they did anything when they were in charge. If Morhaime seems to be haunted, this is probably the reason. But clearly his sentiments appear more contrite and sincere than the company’s right now.
GamesBeat's creed when covering the game industry is "where passion meets business." What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you -- not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Learn more about membership.