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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On YouTube and Twitch, the Activision Blizzard harassment lawsuit leaves creators reeling

(The Washington Post)
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When Asmongold speaks, people listen. And speak he does, for hours every day. The popular streamer boasts an audience of 2.3 million followers on the live-streaming platform Twitch, and 763,000 people subscribe to his YouTube channel, which posts breakout clips from his streams. For many years, his on-stream game of choice has been “World of Warcraft.” But after a dramatic July 20 lawsuit by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging sexual discrimination and harassment of female employees at Activision Blizzard, which publishes “World of Warcraft,” the tenor of Asmongold’s daily monologues has changed.

“To know that the hours of enjoyment you’ve shared over the years were at the expense of real lives, in such a despicable way, diminishes that enjoyment,” wrote Asmongold, who declined to provide his full name due to safety concerns, in a Twitter message to The Post.

Activision Blizzard franchises — which include World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and Overwatch, among many others — are played by more than 150 million combined monthly active users. Now, many of the content creators who have built followings playing those games and franchises have chosen to use their platforms to respond to the explosive allegations. Asmongold’s streams, for example, now include updates on the lawsuit laced with sharp critiques of Activision Blizzard.

Creators who focus on a particular game or franchise are often seen as the public faces of those media properties. Ordinarily, they deliver news about in-game updates or explain game mechanics and lore, acting as a kind of daily bridge between developers and their communities. The lawsuit compelled many to speak out. But that choice hasn’t been an easy one, and bigger questions — especially around how to proceed — still linger.

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Two days after the lawsuit was filed, Allie “Alliestrasza” Macpherson, a prominent streamer of Blizzard’s card game “Hearthstone,” planned to debut exclusive details about an in-game card given to her in advance of an update by the developer. It was a prestigious opportunity, and Macpherson had built a large following by producing lighthearted videos about the card reveals and other features she liked within the game.

That work was shelved, and in its place Macpherson released a video explaining that she would not reveal the card in solidarity with the Activision Blizzard employees who were victimized, according to the lawsuit. The two-minute, confessional-style video drew praise; many viewers told her they first learned about the lawsuit through her video. It also exposed her to criticism.

“Doing that causes me a ton of anxiety, and I feel like it’s the right thing to do,” Macpherson told The Post. “But having Reddit posts where people are writing terrible things about you even though you are sticking up for something you believe in is not really an experience I enjoy.”

In addition to public scrutiny, creators who speak up risk damaging their relationship with the company to whom they are locked in a financial symbiosis. Content creation, especially around popular titles, can be a lucrative niche. But many influencers have no formal partnership with a publisher or developer, and are not paid directly to promote a game or franchise. That makes the threat of blacklisting or exclusion from events impossible to ignore. To this point, however, none of the creators who spoke with The Post have been retaliated against for statements made about the lawsuit; their audiences, too, have been mostly receptive.

“What was the point of all of this if, at the end of it, I’m still a slave to public opinion or worse, a company I don’t even work for?” wrote Asmongold about this decision to speak up.

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As influencers attempt to navigate the uncomfortable position in which they now find themselves — wondering what action to take, if any — guidance has come from other creators. After Macpherson canceled her card reveal, several other “Hearthstone” content creators felt empowered to follow suit, prompting a supportive response from “Hearthstone” community managers.

Similarly, when Activision Blizzard employees staged a walkout over the company’s response to the lawsuit, dozens of big-name creators opted to avoid Activision Blizzard-related content for the day. Widespread adoption of the boycott, which gained momentum on social media around the hashtag #ActBlizzWalkout, amplified its impact and limited any one person’s risk of potential retaliation.

Some creators and players have opted to boycott Activision Blizzard’s products permanently. In the “World of Warcraft” community, those who were already dissatisfied with the product, like longtime “World of Warcraft” stalwart Mike “Preach” Lamb, found the lawsuit to be the last straw. On July 28, Lamb announced that he would be ending his regular coverage of the game. (A video of Asmongold reacting to Lamb quitting “World of Warcraft” netted just shy of 1 million views on YouTube.)

Still, creators who have built their audiences around a single game are often hesitant to change course, fearing that pushback from viewers and content algorithms could cost them the progress they’ve made. Streamers who go dark or stop giving audiences their preferred content often worry they’ll face dips in subscriptions and viewership, and, by extension, revenue.

“They go to another game, their stream is going to be f---ing dead,” said Asmongold in a widely shared video. “And I don’t think that it’s fair to ask or expect somebody to throw away their career because of something that they had nothing to f---ing do with.”

No single video, statement or day of boycotting would fix deep-rooted, systemic problems in the gaming industry, most content creators understood. But as the proceedings around the lawsuit play out, many are unclear about how best to proceed.

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Tom Stewart, known as “Stylosa” in the “Overwatch” community, studied the names mentioned in California’s lawsuit, scanning for Activision Blizzard employees he had met during visits to the company’s campus or at events around the world. He didn’t find any he recognized. Still, the experience made him reflect on the fact that all the main developers of the game he’d spoken to had been males.

“Surely that shouldn’t be the case,” he said in a 56-minute monologue posted to his YouTube channel as he scrutinized the lawsuit and the company’s responses. He posted another lengthy diatribe on Tuesday after the resignation of J. Allen Brack as president of Blizzard Entertainment, a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard.

“I know I am synonymous with the game in a lot of ways,” Stewart told The Post. “My community is connected to a title, right, and if the publisher of that title is having problems, it’s almost like you sort of have to do something.”

Stewart has received early access to “Overwatch” content for several years, a perk that he said he enjoys but doesn’t find crucial to running his channel if the opportunity was suddenly revoked.

“The question is, like, what do I do now,” said Stewart. “If I’m being totally honest with you now, I have lost a bit of steam for content production. … It’s almost like you’ve had the wind knocked out of your sails.”

Alanah Pearce, who works in game development by day and is a popular content creator on the side, told The Post she’d been subjected to treatment similar to that outlined in the Activision Blizzard lawsuit, which she described as “suffocatingly common.” Pearce’s status as a widely followed female creator makes her feel pressured to speak up about every sexism issue in gaming, she told The Post. It’s a responsibility she calls “emotionally exhausting.”

In 2017, while working at gaming website IGN, she took part in an employee walkout over sexual harassment claims. Still, she wouldn’t have wanted readers to boycott the site, she said.

“I loved writing about games for the audience. Losing that would make an already bad situation feel worse,” Pearce told The Post.

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She expanded on this idea in a 16-minute video posted to her YouTube channel Wednesday, saying she had contacted 12 game developers and gotten unanimous agreement. Hitting Activision Blizzard’s bottom line by boycotting might feel like justice, but it could hurt developers who have sales incentives tied to their compensation and take away the reward of success for their hard work.

Pearce emphasized that any action — or inaction — taken by a creator is valid. They shouldn’t feel responsible for misbehaving employees. But she recommended adding a disclaimer acknowledging the problems of the company before presenting any Activision Blizzard content, and encouraged creators to continue to call out sexual assault with this message:

“Please, tell your audiences that harassing women isn’t cool, or brave, and it doesn’t make you look powerful or desirable,” she said. “It just makes you an a--hole”

Matt Craig is a journalist based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Esquire, and Business Insider. Follow him on Twitter @MrMattCraig.

Shannon Liao contributed to this report.