Activision Blizzard sued by California over 'frat boy' workplace culture

Women at the gaming giant are subject to widespread workplace discrimination and sexual harassment, according to a lawsuit filing by the state.

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Daniel Van Boom
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A "frat boy" environment rife with sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. That's what the state of California is accusing Activision Blizzard of via a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

The DFEH's suit accuses Activision Blizzard of workplace discrimination. It alleges that women are not only compensated unfairly, but also subject to considerable harassment. The agency called Activision Blizzard a "breeding ground for harassment and discrimination," in which women are subject to regular sexual advances by men, often high-ranking, who largely go unpunished.

"Women and girls now make up almost half of gamers in America, but the gaming industry continues to cater to men," the suit reads. "Activision-Blizzard's double-digit percentage growth, ten-figure annual revenues, and recent diversity marketing campaigns have unfortunately changed little."

Activision Blizzard, which publishes titles including Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, and last year had revenues of over $8 billion, is the latest in a line of gaming giants to face criticisms over workplace culture. The CEO of Riot Games, the company behind the hugely popular League of Legends, was accused of sexual harassment in February by a former employee -- just a year after it paid $10 million to over 1,000 women to settle a discrimination lawsuit. Last year dozens of accusations of sexual harassment at Ubisoft, which publishes Assassin's Creed, led to the resignation of three executives.

Illustrative of the claims DFEH is making against Activision is an office ritual referred to as "cube crawls," in which men allegedly drink "copious" alcohol, crawl through the office cubicles and engage in "inappropriate behavior" that includes groping. The lawsuit describes incidents including allegations that a female employee died by suicide during a business trip as a result of a toxic relationship with a supervisor.  

Activision-Blizzard firmly rejected the suit in a statement released to media. "The DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard's past," it said, accusing the state department of filing a rushed and inaccurate report. The company said it was "sickened" by the inclusion of "the tragic suicide of an employee whose passing has no bearing whatsoever" on the case.

"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. 

Beyond workplace harassment, the DFEH lawsuit also alleges systematic discrimination against women. Women are paid less for the same work, the lawsuit alleges, and are subject to a greater level of scrutiny. The department criticized Activision-Blizzard for employing fewer women than men -- it said 20% of the company's employees were women -- and for its exclusively white, male "top leadership." Of the 12 leadership positions listed on the firm's website, three are filled by women.