Content warning: the following article contains mentions of violent sexual assault and sexual abuse.
About a month ago, the state of California filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard for repeated cases of workplace harassment and sexual discrimination against women in the company. The lawsuit follows a two-year investigation which found that Activision Blizzard promoted a “frat boy” workplace environment, where male employees “joked with each other about r*pe,” executives made unwanted advances on female employees and company “cube crawl” events featured a drunken band of male workers, crawling from cubicle to cubicle on a mission to harass their female colleagues.
Going as far back as 2013, the creative director of World of Warcraft, Alex Afrasiabi reportedly hosted a number of women at a hotel room nicknamed the “Cosby Suite” during BlizzCon. Activision quietly terminated Afrasiabi around June 2020 to avoid backlash for the poor image he brought the company, but he wasn’t the only one at fault. Other developers could be seen holding up a picture of Bill Cosby in the hotel room, and were aware of Afrasiabi’s inappropriate behavior around female employees.
To be blunt, these findings are shocking, and are unfortunately only a few of the details uncovered from a decade of misconduct at the billion-dollar frat house. However, California’s lawsuit does not just concern Activision Blizzard, but implicates the greater video game industry as well.
The problem of sexual harassment and discrimination in the industry has run rampant for years; Activision is just the flag bearer. Recently, there have been resignations among senior members at Ubisoft as a result of sexual assault allegations and the California fair employment agency has gone after Riot Games for the same issues. Hopefully, the traction of these lawsuits will be enough to cause a major turning point for harassment in the industry.
But many fear that all this press and legal action might still not be enough. After all, these problems have been known for some time, and internal fixes in the companies have not shown results in the past. While it’s no excuse for harassment and negligence, the truth of the matter is that women have a small voice in the gaming industry, as they only make up about 20% of the workforce. Their complaints have historically been dismissed and their words given little weight. It is clear that what these women face is a persistent culture of sexism that seems to have never gone away.
However, the real truth doesn’t concern workforce numbers, or a disregard for formal complaints — it’s much darker than that. The real truth lies with an underlying attitude of sexism in the industry that exploded around August 2014, and has continued to sway thought in not just the industry, but the video game community as well. It evolved into a movement that was not random, but organized, resulting in a storm of malicious targeting against women in the community. Some might recognize it as #GamerGate.
In short, following a disparaging blog about video game developer Zoe Quinn and her perceived infidelity and unethical business practices, like-minded male members of the gaming community launched attacks consisting of hate-speech, death threats and doxxing against developer Quinn and numerous other female voices in the community. One Youtuber, Anita Sarkeesian, a gaming critic and feminist, had to cancel a speech at Utah State University following a graphic death threat. Another woman, developer Brianna Wu, was forced to leave home after her personal information was released and she was sent threats. And at the center of it all was developer Zoe Quinn.
And while some had thought Gamergate would eventually die down and be forgotten a few years later, it continues to persist in the form of online harassment against women.
Some media theorists believe Gamergate had a direct impact on political events in America — among them, the storming of the Capitol. Whether or not this is true, I can’t say — but the implications Gamergate continues to have for the gaming industry are quite heavy. Ultimately, the movement succeeded in its goal.
Gamergate cemented a culture of aggression and discrimination against women throughout the gaming community. Young gamers casually adopted sexist attitudes from their peers, and those who already shared such attitudes were emboldened. Whether you have heard firsthand accounts of online harassment against women in games, or you are just now reading articles about the systemic and intentional mistreatment of female developers, it becomes clear that we have been living in the midst of a powerful resurgence of sexism. While I wouldn’t dream of arguing that sexism against women ever really disappeared, the scope and intensity of what we have seen in recent years is something I never would have imagined. It’s sickening, and the content of Gamergate as well as the current lawsuits merit more discussion than I can possibly fit or hope to fully cover in this single article.
Ultimately, what we are seeing in the industry today is not a legal issue, but a cultural one. And as a result, it will take much more than lawsuits to completely correct. Maybe I’m naive, but I do have faith that internal reforms will solve the majority of discrimination and harassment occurrences in the developers’ workplace. However, the more difficult task at hand is reversing the effects of Gamergate and sexism in the online community. Like any other issue, change will only happen if it’s under a magnifying glass. So if you care, keep your eyes peeled — it does make a difference.
Matthew Kassorla is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].