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At Blizzard, groping, free-flowing booze and fear of retaliation tainted ‘magical’ workplace

(The Washington Post illustration; Photo by David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

Cher Scarlett remembered the times when women at Blizzard Entertainment would meet in empty office rooms in the company’s Irvine, Calif., headquarters. There, they would commiserate over their experiences, sometimes to process raw emotions before heading back to work. In one such meeting about five years ago, Scarlett, a former software engineer at Blizzard, decided to share her experiences of being inappropriately touched by other co-workers. She learned she was not alone.

“A lot of women at Blizzard, we talked about this stuff happening. We would therapy session with each other about it,” Scarlett said. “None of us felt safe to report it and felt there [were] so many instances where if we told somebody outside of our group of friends that was having similar experiences, we got told [by other co-workers] that it was not a big deal, or that we were overreacting or that it was a compliment.”

Scarlett said that during her year at Blizzard from August 2015 to 2016, she had been underpaid, harassed and, on two separate occasions, groped at company events. She was later among a group of current and former Activision Blizzard employees who provided testimony to California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), which in turn launched an investigation into the company in October of 2018. Last month, the DFEH filed a gender-based discrimination, inequality and harassment lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, alleging the company had a “frat boy culture” that included excessive drinking and sexual harassment.

Activision Blizzard is one of the world’s biggest gaming companies, with 9,500 employees worldwide and a market capitalization of more than $60 billion, producing hit franchises like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. One of its largest subsidiaries, Blizzard Entertainment, founded in 1991, was named extensively in the lawsuit. The allegations in the lawsuit included one leveled specifically at J. Allen Brack, then the company’s president, claiming he was personally aware of multiple instances of harassment at the company and failed to mitigate the issues.

Embattled Blizzard president, J. Allen Brack, steps down

Brack, who did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story, stepped down from his post Aug. 3, leaving behind a company in turmoil. Blizzard employees staged a walkout on July 28 and took aim at their leaders over the allegations in the lawsuit, as well as the company’s response, both internally and externally, to the charges.

In interviews, 17 current and former Blizzard Entertainment employees across the United States and Europe shared accounts of a workplace that didn’t take complaints to human resources seriously and normalized misconduct. Many of them spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Many workers told The Post the lawsuit allegations did not surprise them and were reflective of a culture where victims feared retaliation for speaking up. According to employees interviewed for this story, the culture impacted not only women, but men and marginalized genders, too. Employees with diverse backgrounds told The Post they had faced harassment and misconduct from co-workers and reported it to human resources, but it led to no punishment nor produced any change.

“Blizzard had this promise, that was kind of this Camelot promise, of this really fun place to work in, and you’re working on some of the world’s best games, and you’ve got this really creative bunch of people,” said one former male employee who held a senior leadership position. “But underlying all that was this unspoken part of the company, that there were all these bad things happening and getting either swept under the rug or ignored. And I think a lot of people are trying to process that.”

In response to questions from The Post about the allegations made in the lawsuit and by employees, an Activision Blizzard spokesman wrote: “We take every allegation seriously and will investigate all claims. We will not tolerate anyone found to have impeded the integrity of our processes for evaluating claims and imposing appropriate consequences. If employees have any concerns about how Human Resources handled claims, including those related to retaliation, we have other reporting options, including anonymous ones.”

Activision Blizzard employees stage walkout over company’s handling of discrimination, sexual harassment suit

The effects of the suit have rippled through the video game industry. Over the past three years, several other video game publishing companies have faced allegations of sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination and claims of human resource departments failing to adequately address complaints. A week after news of the Activision Blizzard lawsuit surfaced, employees of Ubisoft, another major video game publisher based in Paris, authored an open letter in solidarity with Activision Blizzard employees, sending it to Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot. Ubisoft ousted several executives in 2020 following reports of workplace harassment and toxicity and has vowed to reform its culture.

“The current movement to hold the gaming industry accountable to a higher standard of behavior is something we at Ubisoft embrace,” a spokeswoman for the company wrote to The Post following the release of the open letter. “There is still more work to be done and our leadership team, as well as our teams around the world, are committed to these efforts and the positive impact they bring.”

For the most part, the games industry is not unionized, with the exception of some companies in Europe and South Korea, and many employees are focused on keeping their jobs or remaining in the super competitive industry, believing that outing bad actors or raising concerns about instances of toxicity could cost them their career.

While Blizzard had a reputation for being a magical place to create video games, employees said it also had a pervasive drinking culture with easy access to liquor at the office; a Human Resources department that employees believe ignored complaints; and men in leadership positions who harassed women at company events. Much of this came to light through the DFEH investigation and was alleged in the July 20 lawsuit.

“In my experience, you just stopped going to HR,” said a female former longtime Blizzard employee. “They were almost like a gang that would ruin your career if you reported certain individuals.”

‘Almost every single woman ... has at least one of these stories.’

The DFEH lawsuit contained multiple allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Blizzard managers, claims that were echoed by current and former Blizzard employees in separate interviews with The Post.

From 2018 to 2020, three senior leaders were removed from Blizzard after being reported to human resources and company leadership multiple times for harassment or other toxic behavior, according to the lawsuit and employee accounts to The Post. The company never announced the reason for their departures to employees, they told The Post. Only through whisper networks did many learn of what happened, and only after the lawsuit was filed on July 20 of this year did Blizzard offer official public statements.

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Among the employees terminated by the company during that time period was Alex Afrasiabi. Afrasiabi, a former World of Warcraft senior creative director, was named by the DFEH in its court filing, alleging he “would hit on female employees, telling [them] he wanted to marry them, attempting to kiss them, and putting his arms around them.” Multiple current and former Blizzard employees told The Post they witnessed or were involved with incidents like those alleged against Afrasiabi in the lawsuit.

Activision Blizzard said in June 2020 that an employee reported an incident involving Afrasiabi at a 2013 company event. He was fired the same month as the employee report following an internal investigation, according to the company.

“We immediately conducted our own investigation and took corrective action,” an Activision Blizzard spokesman wrote in a statement given to The Post and other media outlets. “At the time of the report, we had already conducted a separate investigation of Alex Afrasiabi and terminated him for his misconduct in his treatment of other employees.”

Calls to Afrasiabi from The Post seeking comment were not returned. Activision Blizzard said that Afrasiabi is no longer employed at Blizzard but declined to further comment.

Following the news of the DFEH lawsuit, Anne Armstrong, a former manager at the now-defunct competitive gaming brand FXOpen Esports, posted on social media about a 2012 experience with Afrasiabi. In her posting and in a subsequent interview with The Post, Armstrong recounted an incident during a Blizzard holiday party at the Disneyland Hotel in which she says Afrasiabi kissed her in front of a group of Blizzard employees, including then Blizzard CEO and President Mike Morhaime. That incident was corroborated by a witness who spoke to The Post.

Armstrong, who said she was considering beginning a relationship with Afrasiabi at the time, also stated that later at the party he groped her breast, and when Afrasiabi’s sister offered to give Armstrong a ride to her car after the party, a drunken Alex followed her into the back seat and stuck his hand under her dress.

“I was shocked,” Armstrong said in the interview. “And I knew that he had no respect for me, he obviously didn’t value me as a person. But I noticed that some people were commenting about [in replies to the post on Twitter], why would I get in the car with him? ... You don’t exactly expect anything bad to happen to you just getting into a car with someone.”

Afrasiabi was not alone in generating multiple complaints over his conduct with women. Multiple current and former employees said former chief technology officer Ben Kilgore, who was mentioned by title but not by name in the DFEH suit, was fired for a pattern of misconduct, including groping inebriated women at company events. According to his profile on LinkedIn, he left the company in August 2018. Kilgore did not respond to an email request for comment.

The DFEH suit alleges that the former CTO was “observed by employees groping inebriated female employees at company events and was known for making hiring decisions based on female applicants’ looks.” The company said Kilgore is no longer employed at Blizzard and declined further comment.

In October 2018, the company also parted ways with Tyler Rosen, a former business leader for Blizzard’s esports group. By Rosen’s admission more than a year and a half later on social media, the reason for the departure was tied to inappropriate conduct.

In response to an allegation of sexual assault from a female esports employee, who accused him of putting his hand on her butt while sleeping after at a 2014 industry event, Rosen tweeted in June 2020 that at the event, he and four others shared a single hotel room, including the employee. The alleged incident occurred when Rosen and two other employees were sharing a bed to sleep, according to his Twitter posting. He added that a separate instance of unprofessional behavior led to his departure from Blizzard in 2018.

“I was a part of the problem that plagues Blizzard and the wider gaming industry,” Rosen wrote in an email to The Post. “I was given a final warning [in 2016] related to an incident in 2014 and fired in 2018 for a separate instance of harm and violation that I caused. Blizzard could not talk about my termination as a matter of policy, so I exited quietly which helped me avoid public accountability, perpetuated the culture of silence, and downplayed the experiences of survivors.”

Rosen was not named in the California lawsuit. Blizzard said Rosen is no longer employed at the company, but declined to further comment.

“Almost every woman I know of at Blizzard has a story of either actual, literal sexual assault that they were afraid to go to HR about, or a man with power over her, undermining her and taking credit for her work, dismissing her, talking over her, being the last person to get promoted, despite being eminently capable,” said Jennifer Klasing, a former World of Warcraft quest designer who left the company in October 2020. “Almost every single woman I know that’s been there longer than a year has at least one of these stories.”

A ‘healthy’ drinking culture

Multiple Blizzard employees said the company had an excessive drinking culture. In describing the office atmosphere at Blizzard’s Irvine headquarters, many of the workers pointed to the prevalence of alcohol. Employees said some teams had access to an abundance of liquor in the office, including full bottles and a frozen margarita machine that would get used weekly.

A number of Blizzard managers orchestrated what workers dubbed “cube crawls,” according to multiple employees. The “cube crawls” were also referenced in the DFEH lawsuit.

“A true cube crawl is literally a pub crawl. Just change out the word,” said a longtime female current employee.

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The original intention was to display some of the work they had done with each other, according to former employees familiar with the practices. Alcohol was free-flowing alongside food. The female longtime employee said that, in the past, people would enjoy drinking games and drink to excess at the crawls, a practice that continued until 2019.

“Some areas [in the office] had full on bars, a full long bar with taps. Drinking culture was, I’d say, healthy, meaning in terms of being allowed. It wasn’t until ... [2019] where there was the shift,” said a male former longtime Blizzard employee.

Blizzard employees told The Post that alcohol played an even larger role at company parties and events like BlizzCon, the annual gaming convention to celebrate Blizzard titles. The events were breeding grounds for misconduct, the employees told The Post.

According to employees and confirmed by an Activision Blizzard spokesperson, the company imposed a two-drink limit at events in 2019. Several current and former Blizzard employees cited a class-action lawsuit filed that year by female employees against another major video game publisher, Riot Games, along with the departure of Kilgore, who was accused by the DFEH and employees of groping inebriated women, for influencing company management to introduce the drink limit at company events. An Activision Blizzard spokesperson disputed that those factors played a role in the decision but declined further comment.

However, according to several employees, the two-drink policy was easily abused by those who would either print extra drink tickets or receive extra tickets from those who weren’t drinking.

“There was always a very clear two-drink maximum, because you would be given free tickets,” one former employee said. “And you know, maybe some people ended up with a few more from the proofs from the printer.”

When asked about these allegations an Activision Blizzard spokesman responded, “This conduct would not be acceptable at Blizzard. Reports of this nature will be investigated and appropriate action taken.”

According to a former employee who was present for the drinking policy discussions, some employees voiced concerns against the two-drink maximum, saying it could hurt employee morale and their ability to socialize.

“It was a classic case of an ineffective policy aimed at a symptom rather than the cause,” said a current employee who has been at Blizzard for nearly five years.

Failures of leadership

The suit from DFEH alleges that J. Allen Brack, Blizzard’s then-president, was made aware of Afrasiabi’s behavior but only offered verbal counseling during multiple conversations with him on the topic. Blizzard’s human resources department had fielded multiple misconduct complaints, according to the suit and confirmed to The Post by several former employees. On Aug. 3, the same day Brack stepped down as president, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson confirmed that Jesse Meschuk, the head of human resources for Blizzard, had left the company. Meschuk had worked in Blizzard’s human resources department since 2009 after he came over from Activision.

Meschuk did not reply when contacted by The Post.

In the lawsuit, the DFEH alleges that “multiple employees also noted that their complaints were not kept confidential” and that “in retaliation for complaints they made regarding harassment and discrimination, female employees experienced retaliation by Defendants that included involuntary transfers, selection for layoffs, and denial of projects and other opportunities.”

“I know for a fact HR was aware,” said the male former Blizzard senior leader, referencing the harassment complaints leveled by other employees and referenced in the lawsuit. “I know that each group within Blizzard, whether it’s the Battlenet group [which manages Blizzard’s online gaming platform], or the marketing group, or each development team, had an HR representative who sat in their area and was assigned to be that person to keep an eye on what was happening and be that advocate for employees.”

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Human resources ultimately reported to the CEO. Mike Morhaime was Brack’s predecessor as CEO and president of Blizzard until he stepped down in October 2018. He stayed on as co-founder until he left the company in early 2019. Multiple employees confirmed to The Post that Morhaime was present at some of the company events where women alleged misconduct took place, though he is not named in the suit. Several employees at Blizzard expressed uncertainty whether Morhaime knew of everything that went on or whether he was too trusting of his co-workers.

In the wake of the DFEH lawsuit, Morhaime tweeted an apology post that read in part, “I am ashamed. It feels like everything I thought I stood for has been washed away. ... To the Blizzard women who experienced any of these things, I am extremely sorry that I failed you.”

Morhaime’s statement was one in a series of social media posts, corporate statements and internal emails that have rankled Activision Blizzard employees, who staged a walkout on July 28 in protest of the company’s handling of harassment and discrimination claims.

An internal email from Activision Blizzard chief compliance officer Frances Townsend, who served under President George W. Bush as Homeland Security Advisor from 2004 to 2008, called the lawsuit claims “a distorted and untrue picture of our company.” Townsend joined Activision in March and served as the executive sponsor of the Activision-Blizzard-King Women’s Network. A number of employees interpreted Townsend’s response as casting doubt on those who experienced harassment and shared their stories. Townsend did not reply to a request for comment from The Post.

Following her email, Townsend held a listening session on a recorded Zoom call with the women at Blizzard to hear their stories. On the call, she defended her email, saying she had followed legal counsel’s guidance on language, and that the end result no longer sounded much like her voice, according to two current employees. The call, held July 23, reached the maximum number of participants — 500 — and for those who could not attend, management said it would share a recording afterward. Five days later, Blizzard women received an update that the company was “unable to send/share a recording of the Friday Women’s Network call at this time” and that it was not appropriate to share personal concerns voiced by employees.

Townsend stepped down from the women’s network July 23, according to an Activision Blizzard spokesman, the same day as the call.

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick responded to the lawsuit and employee reactions in an email on July 27, calling the company’s initial responses, “quite frankly, tone deaf.” He said that the company had hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct a review of Activision Blizzard’s policies and hear from employees about uncomfortable or inappropriate experiences in the workplace. His message was shared on the company’s investor relations website.

Kotick added that the company would add additional staff and allocate resources toward investigating claims and check that hiring managers are considering diverse candidates for open positions. He also added that any leaders who “impeded the integrity of our process” when resolving complaints would be terminated.

A female current esports employee with Activision Blizzard said Kotick’s response “deflects from the actual demands that we as employees have laid out and communicated to leadership. I find his response patronizing, and I find each of his proposed responses to be problematic.” She pointed out that victims would have to relive their trauma to participate in Kotick’s suggested listening sessions, and that Activision Blizzard did not give employees the chance to select the third-party firm that would audit the company.

On July 22, 12 days before Brack would step down as Blizzard’s president, he told employees in an email that discrimination and harassment is “completely unacceptable,” and that they can talk to any manager, human resources person, legal team member or connect to an integrity line, called Way2Play, to share their experiences.

The longtime female current employee expressed frustration over the email, noting that these problems lingered at the company because reporting sexual misconduct to human resources or to the confidential telephone line often doesn’t work.

“I just wanted to kick my monitor,” she said of when she saw Brack’s email. “Because I’m like, that is literally part of the problem. And that’s something that we are trying to tell you. And so that, to me, feels more like someone who’s not really listening.”

Inside the Activision Blizzard lawsuit

On July 20, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against video game publisher Activision Blizzard, alleging widespread, gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment. Here’s what you need to know:

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