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California sues video game giant Activision Blizzard over ‘pervasive “frat boy” workplace culture’

This 2013 photo shows the Activision Blizzard booth during the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
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Labor regulators in California sued video game giant Activision Blizzard this week over allegations that the company systemically discriminated against female employees and failed to address a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ workplace culture” that led multiple women to quit and may have contributed to one worker’s suicide.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed the 29-page civil rights and equal pay act complaint on Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The lawsuit alleges that Activision Blizzard created a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination” by ignoring inappropriate workplace behavior and relegating women to low-ranking jobs with lower salaries than their male counterparts.

“Defendants have also fostered a pervasive ‘frat boy’ workplace culture that continues to thrive,” the lawsuit alleges.

Inside the highly successful video game company behind “World of Warcraft” and “Diablo,” women allegedly suffered relentless harassment and endured heavier scrutiny than their male colleagues. During “cube crawls,” a reference to pub crawls, male employees would drink “copious amounts of alcohol” and visit cubicle after cubicle while harassing the women they passed along the way, according to the lawsuit.

Men could “proudly come into work hungover” and play video games on the clock while women were scolded for taking quick walks during a break or leaving work briefly to pick up children from day care, the suit said. Male workers allegedly commandeered lactation rooms to hold meetings, kicking nursing mothers out of the designated spaces set aside for pumping breastmilk. And women had to listen to their male colleagues “engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies, and joke about rape,” according to the complaint.

Meanwhile, women were offered lower starting wages, fewer promotions and less access to top leadership roles, the suit alleged.

“Very few women ever reach top roles at the company,” the lawsuit said. “The women who do reach higher roles earn less salary, incentive pay and total compensation than their male peers.”

Activision Blizzard on Wednesday described the lawsuit’s claims as “distorted, and in many cases false.” The company said it was disappointed that state regulators had not worked with Activision Blizzard in a “good faith effort” to investigate and resolve complaints before resorting to a lawsuit.

“We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said in a statement shared with The Washington Post. “There is no place in our company or industry, or any industry, for sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind. We take every allegation seriously and investigate all claims. In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue.”

A spokesperson added that the company had recently amplified channels to report violations and introduced a new team dedicated to investigating complaints. Employees are also required to undergo regular anti-harassment training.

The lawsuit noted sexism has long plagued the video game industry. The issue gained national attention in 2014 following the “GamerGate” movement that led several women connected to the industry to be harassed and threatened online. Since then, an increasing number of women have been picking up controllers and playing games. Yet the industry that develops and publishes video games has remained a male-dominated sphere in many ways.

The court complaint against Activision Blizzard claims that Black women were “micromanaged” and forced to justify short breaks and requests for time off, while no other workers were required to do so. It also said Black women at the company were singled out for their “body language” and scolded for asking for help when other employees did not receive similar treatment. Regulators also accuse the company of making hiring decisions based on women’s looks.

The suit also recounts claims against one of the company’s former senior leaders who allegedly engaged in “blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions.” The suit alleges that the man made advances on women at a work event, told female employees that he wanted to marry them, attempted to kiss them and put his arms around them. According to the lawsuit, his suite in the office was nicknamed the “Cosby Suite,” in a reference to Bill Cosby, who was released from prison last month after a Pennsylvania court overturned his conviction for rape.

In one instance that the lawsuit describes as “particularly tragic,” a woman who worked for Blizzard killed herself while on a business trip with a male supervisor with whom she had been having a sexual relationship. The suit also claimed the woman’s male co-workers passed around photos of her naked body at a holiday party before her death.

An Activision Blizzard spokesperson said in a statement that the employee’s death was not relevant to the discrimination claims that California Department of Fair Employment and Housing regulators lay out in the complaint.

“We are sickened by the reprehensible conduct of the DFEH to drag into the complaint the tragic suicide of an employee whose passing has no bearing whatsoever on this case and with no regard for her grieving family,” the statement said.

Activision Blizzard said the state agency is mischaracterizing the company’s current work culture and overlooking several steps its leaders have taken to mitigate discrimination and sexual harassment within its ranks.

“The picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said. “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.”