Activision Blizzard, the publisher behind World of Warcraft, Diablo and Call of Duty, is being sued by The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing following a two-year investigation into the company’s alleged discrimination against female employees.
The suit claims that Activision Blizzard fosters a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ culture”, with female employees at the company subjected to constant sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation, as well as lower pay and lower opportunity levels than their male peers.
Below, we’ve put together a timeline of the key developments since the Activision Blizzard lawsuit was filed, with most recent updates listed first, to help give you the full picture of the actions and statements of the publisher. We will update this timeline as more details emerge.
Content warning: the article below contains information that some readers may find upsetting including mentions of suicide, discrimination sexual harassment and assault.
July 29, 2021 – Shareholders investigate Activision Blizzard amidst lawsuit
In a note shared on BusinessWire, shareholder rights law firm Robbins LLP is investigating Activision Blizzard “to determine whether certain Activision officers and directors violated the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and breached their fiduciary duties to the company”.
Activision Blizzard shares have dropped by as much as 7% since the lawsuit was filed.
July 28, 2021- Kotaku’s “Cosby Suite” report
A Kotaku report shares further information on the “Cosby Suite” mentioned in the lawsuit. Based on photographs and Facebook posts obtained by the publication, the report claims that “people beyond Alex Afrasiabi were aware of the ‘Cosby Suite’ mentioned in the lawsuit”.
Kotaku reports that the “Cosby Suite” was the name given to Afrasiabi’s BlizzCon 2013 hotel room and that the suite was a “meeting place where many, including Afrasiabi, would pose with an actual portrait of Bill Cosby while smiling”.
According to Kotaku, the captions and comments on these social media images “are both written by and refer by name to other Blizzard employees”, with one ex-Blizzard source telling the publication that an HR representative is present in one of the hotel room images.
Another image obtained by Kotaku shows a screenshot from a 2013 group chat called the “BlizzCon Cosby Crew”.
“In it, former Blizzard designer David Kosak writes, “I am gathering the hot chixx for the Coz.”,” Kotaku reports. “‘Bring em,’ replies Afrasiabi. ‘You can’t marry ALL of them Alex,”’ Kosak writes. ‘I can, I’m middle eastern,’ responds Afrasiabi. Jesse McCree, currently a lead game designer at Blizzard, then writes, ‘You misspelled f***.’”
Kotaku reports that the images it obtained are part of “a series of screenshots depicting a wide array of Facebook posts by Afrasiabi, all under a 2013 photo album”.
When asked about the “Cosby Suite images” a spokesperson for Activision Blizzard tells Kotaku: “An employee brought these 2013 events to our attention in June 2020. We immediately conducted our own investigation and took corrective action. 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.”
Kotaku approached Afrasiabi for comment but did not receive a response. Riot Games’ Greg Street, one member of the group chat, released a statement.
I just shared this message with Riot and wanted to share with you all. pic.twitter.com/YRlawp7RokJuly 28, 2021
July 28, 2021- Ubisoft employees sign letter of support
Nearly 500 Ubisoft employees from 32 studios sign an open letter in support of the Activision Blizzard walkout.
The open letter was shared with Axios and establishes solidarity with Activision Blizzard employees while criticizing Ubisoft’s handling of the company’s own sexual misconduct allegations which were reported last year.
The letter calls for steps to be taken to prevent a “deeply ingrained culture of abusive behaviors within the industry”.
Here’s the letter in full. It doesn’t just stand with AB workers, doesn’t just criticize Ubisoft bosses. It calls for industry-wide action and change, with publishers and developers getting involved. pic.twitter.com/WMNmRHjrq0July 28, 2021
In response to the letter, a Ubisoft representative told Axios:
“We want to be very clear that we take this letter — and the issues it raises — very seriously.
“We absolutely stand behind these efforts and the positive impact they have had on our company culture while also recognizing that we must continue to engage with our employees to ensure we are creating a workplace where they feel valued, supported, and most importantly, safe.”
July 28, 2021 – Activision blizzard employees walk out and respond to CEO letter
Activision Blizzard employees walk out in protest of the lawsuit, with some protesting at the gates of the company’s Irvine headquarters. Employees’ demands are shared on social media with #ActiBlizzWalkout, with trends worldwide.
The protest organizers also released a statement in response to CEO Bobby Kotick’s email from the previous day claiming it “fails to address critical elements”.
Activision Blizzard walkout organizers just released a statement in response to CEO Bobby Kotick’s email to staff in which he described the company’s response as “tone deaf” pic.twitter.com/64D7w8PhOLJuly 28, 2021
July 27, 2021 – World of Warcraft team to “remove references that are not appropriate”
The World of Warcraft team publishes a post on the World of Warcraft forums announcing it will be removing “references that are not appropriate” from the game world.
It’s unclear what these references are but some World of Warcraft players have been calling for the removal of references to ex-Senior Creative Director Alex Afrasiabi, who is named in the lawsuit.
Afrasiabi has multiple characters and items named after him in World of Warcraft, including a quest-giver called Field Marshal Afrasiabi. It’s unclear if the statement refers to these references at present. The full statement reads:
“It was clear from our team conversations that we wanted to put forth a statement that was representative of the World of Warcraft team’s sentiments. We asked all members of our team to send us their suggestions and feedback on how best to address the community and this is the result.
“The past days have been a time of reflection for the World of Warcraft team, spent in conversation and contemplation, full of sadness, pain, and anger, but also hope and resolve.
“As we heed the brave women who have come forward to share their experiences, we stand committed to taking the actions necessary to ensure we are providing an inclusive, welcoming, and safe environment both for our team and for our players in Azeroth.
“Those of us in leadership understand that it is not our place to judge when we have achieved our goals, but rather for our team and our community to let us know when we still have more to do.
“While we turn to our team for guidance in our internal work to protect marginalized groups and hold accountable those who threaten them, we also want to take immediate action in Azeroth to remove references that are not appropriate for our world.
“This work has been underway, and you will be seeing several such changes to both Shadowlands and WoW Classic in the coming days.
“We know that in order to rebuild trust, we must earn it with our actions in the weeks and months to come. But we go forward knowing that we share the same vision as our community about creating a place where people of all genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and backgrounds can thrive and proudly call home.”
July 27, 2021- Activision CEO apologizes for “tone deaf” response
Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick issues a statement to employees apologizing for the company’s “tone deaf” response to the lawsuit and announces that WilmerHale has been hired to conduct a review into the company’s internal practices and policies. The full statement reads below:
“This has been a difficult and upsetting week.
“I want to recognize and thank all those who have come forward in the past and in recent days. I so appreciate your courage. Every voice matters – and we will do a better job of listening now, and in the future.
“Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf.
“It is imperative that we acknowledge all perspectives and experiences and respect the feelings of those who have been mistreated in any way. I am sorry that we did not provide the right empathy and understanding.
“Many of you have told us that active outreach comes from caring so deeply for the Company. That so many people have reached out and shared thoughts, suggestions, and highlighted opportunities for improvement is a powerful reflection of how you care for our communities of colleagues and players – and for each other. Ensuring that we have a safe and welcoming work environment is my highest priority. The leadership team has heard you loud and clear.
We are taking swift action to be the compassionate, caring company you came to work for and to ensure a safe environment. There is no place anywhere at our Company for discrimination, harassment, or unequal treatment of any kind.
“We will do everything possible to make sure that together, we improve and build the kind of inclusive workplace that is essential to foster creativity and inspiration.
“I have asked the law firm WilmerHale to conduct a review of our policies and procedures to ensure that we have and maintain best practices to promote a respectful and inclusive workplace. This work will begin immediately. The WilmerHale team will be led by Stephanie Avakian, who is a member of the management team at WilmerHale and was most recently the Director of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement.
We encourage anyone with an experience you believe violates our policies or in any way made you uncomfortable in the workplace to use any of our many existing channels for reporting or to reach out to Stephanie. She and her team at WilmerHale will be available to speak with you on a confidential basis and can be reached at ATVI@wilmerhale.com or 202-247-2725. Your outreach will be kept confidential. Of course, NO retaliation will be tolerated.
“We are committed to long-lasting change. Effective immediately, we will be taking the following actions:
“Employee Support. We will continue to investigate each and every claim and will not hesitate to take decisive action. To strengthen our capabilities in this area we are adding additional senior staff and other resources to both the Compliance team and the Employee Relations team.
Listening Sessions. We know many of you have inspired ideas on how to improve our culture. We will be creating safe spaces, moderated by third parties, for you to speak out and share areas for improvement.
“Personnel Changes. We are immediately evaluating managers and leaders across the Company. Anyone found to have impeded the integrity of our processes for evaluating claims and imposing appropriate consequences will be terminated.
“Hiring Practices. Earlier this year I sent an email requiring all hiring managers to ensure they have diverse candidate slates for all open positions. We will be adding compliance resources to ensure that our hiring managers are in fact adhering to this directive.
“In-game Changes. We have heard the input from employee and player communities that some of our in-game content is inappropriate. We are removing that content.
“Your well-being remains my priority and I will spare no company resource ensuring that our company has the most welcoming, comfortable, and safe culture possible.
“You have my unwavering commitment that we will improve our company together, and we will be the most inspiring, inclusive entertainment company in the world.”
July 27, 2021- Activision Blizzard employees organize a walkout
In support of the lawsuit, Activision Blizzard employees announce they’re conducting a walkout (both physical and virtual) on July 28. The organizers released a full statement to Polygon:
“Given last week’s statements from Activision Blizzard, Inc. and their legal counsel regarding the DFEH lawsuit, as well as the subsequent internal statement from Frances Townsend, and the many stories shared by current and former employees of Activision Blizzard since, we believe that our values as employees are not being accurately reflected in the words and actions of our leadership.
“As current Activision Blizzard employees, we are holding a walkout to call on the executive leadership team to work with us on the following demands, in order to improve conditions for employees at the company, especially women, and in particular women of color and transgender women, nonbinary people, and other marginalized groups.
“1. An end to mandatory arbitration clauses in all employee contracts, current and future. Arbitration clauses protect abusers and limit the ability of victims to seek restitution.
“2. The adoption of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and promotion policies designed to improve representation among employees at all levels, agreed upon by employees in a company-wide Diversity, Equity & Inclusion organization. Current practices have led to women, in particular women of color and transgender women, nonbinary people, and other marginalized groups that are vulnerable to gender discrimination not being hired fairly for new roles when compared to men.
“3. Publication of data on relative compensation (including equity grants and profit sharing), promotion rates, and salary ranges for employees of all genders and ethnicities at the company. Current practices have led to aforementioned groups not being paid or promoted fairly.
“4. Empower a company-wide Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion task force to hire a third party to audit ABK’s reporting structure, HR department, and executive staff. It is imperative to identify how current systems have failed to prevent employee harassment, and to propose new solutions to address these issues.”
July 26, 2021- Activision Blizzard employees sign an open letter supporting lawsuit
Bloomberg reports that more than 2,000 current and former Activision Blizzard employees have signed an open letter calling the company’s responses to the lawsuit “abhorrent and insulting”.
The full letter reads as follows:
“To the Leaders of Activision Blizzard,
“We, the undersigned, agree that the statements from Activision Blizzard, Inc. and their legal counsel regarding the DFEH lawsuit, as well as the subsequent internal statement from Frances Townsend, are abhorrent and insulting to all that we believe our company should stand for. To put it clearly and unequivocally, our values as employees are not accurately reflected in the words and actions of our leadership.
“We believe these statements have damaged our ongoing quest for equality inside and outside of our industry. Categorizing the claims that have been made as “distorted, and in many cases false” creates a company atmosphere that disbelieves victims. It also casts doubt on our organizations’ ability to hold abusers accountable for their actions and foster a safe environment for victims to come forward in the future. These statements make it clear that our leadership is not putting our values first. Immediate corrections are needed from the highest level of our organization.
“Our company executives have claimed that actions will be taken to protect us, but in the face of legal action — and the troubling official responses that followed — we no longer trust that our leaders will place employee safety above their own interests. To claim this is a “truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit,” while seeing so many current and former employees speak out about their own experiences regarding harassment and abuse, is simply unacceptable.
“We call for official statements that recognize the seriousness of these allegations and demonstrate compassion for victims of harassment and assault. We call on Frances Townsend to stand by her word to step down as Executive Sponsor of the ABK Employee Women’s Network as a result of the damaging nature of her statement. We call on the executive leadership team to work with us on new and meaningful efforts that ensure employees — as well as our community — have a safe place to speak out and come forward.
“We stand with all our friends, teammates, and colleagues, as well as the members of our dedicated community, who have experienced mistreatment or harassment of any kind. We will not be silenced, we will not stand aside, and we will not give up until the company we love is a workplace we can all feel proud to be a part of again. We will be the change.”
July 25, 2021 – Work on WoW stops
World of Warcraft Senior System Designer Jeff Hamilton tweets that production on World of Warcraft has stopped as a result of the Activision Blizzard lawsuit.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t have all the answers. I can tell you, almost no work is being done on World of Warcraft right now while this obscenity plays out. And that benefits nobody – not the players, not the developers, not the shareholders.July 25, 2021
July 22, 2021- Blizzard Activision President emails staff
Blizzard President J. Allen Brack sends out an email to Activision Blizzard staff addressing the allegations from the lawsuit. It is obtained by Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier who publishes it on July 23.
Blizzard president J. Allen Brack sent out an email to staff last night addressing the allegations from this week’s explosive lawsuit, calling them “extremely troubling” and saying that he’d be “meeting with many of you to answer questions and discuss how we can move forward.” pic.twitter.com/NsMV6CNdTEJuly 23, 2021
July 22, 2021- Blizzard Activision executive emails staff
Activision Blizzard executive Fran Townsend also sends out an internal email to Activision Blizzard staff, which is again obtained by Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier and published on July 23.
Activision Blizzard executive Fran Townsend, who was the Homeland Security Advisor to George W. Bush from 2004-2007 and joined Activision in March, sent out a very different kind of email that has some Blizzard employees fuming. pic.twitter.com/BxGeMTuRYFJuly 23, 2021
July 21, 2021- Bloomberg report and Activision Blizzard statement
Bloomberg Law reports that Activision Blizzard is being sued by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Activision Blizzard releases a statement on the lawsuit to Bloomberg Law and other publications. The statement reads as follows:
“We value diversity and strive to foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone. 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.
“The DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past. We have been extremely cooperative with the DFEH throughout their investigation, including providing them with extensive data and ample documentation, but they refused to inform us what issues they perceived.
“They were required by law to adequately investigate and to have good faith discussions with us to better understand and to resolve any claims or concerns before going to litigation, but they failed to do so. Instead, they rushed to file an inaccurate complaint, as we will demonstrate in court.
“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.
“While we find this behavior to be disgraceful and unprofessional, it is, unfortunately, an example of how they have conducted themselves throughout the course of their investigation. It is this type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.
“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.
“We’ve amplified internal programs and channels for employees to report violations, including the “ASK List” with a confidential integrity hotline, and introduced an Employee Relations team dedicated to investigating employee concerns.
“We have strengthened our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and combined our Employee Networks at a global level, to provide additional support. Employees must also undergo regular anti-harassment training and have done so for many years.
“We put tremendous effort in creating fair and rewarding compensation packages and policies that reflect our culture and business, and we strive to pay all employees fairly for equal or substantially similar work.
“We take a variety of proactive steps to ensure that pay is driven by non-discriminatory factors. For example, we reward and compensate employees based on their performance, and we conduct extensive anti-discrimination trainings including for those who are part of the compensation process.
“We are confident in our ability to demonstrate our practices as an equal opportunity employer that fosters a supportive, diverse, and inclusive workplace for our people, and we are committed to continuing this effort in the years to come.
“It is a shame that the DFEH did not want to engage with us on what they thought they were seeing in their investigation.”
July 20, 2021 – Lawsuit filed
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing files a lawsuit against Activision Inc following a two-year investigation into the company’s alleged discrimination against female employees.
The suit claims that Activision Blizzard fosters a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ culture”, with female employees at the company subjected to constant sexual harassment and retaliation, as well as lower pay and lower opportunity levels than their male peers, forcing “many women” to leave the company.
The suit describes so-called “cube crawls” in which male employees drink “copious amounts of alcohol” and then proceed to “crawl” through various office cubicles, allegedly often engaging in “inappropriate behavior” towards female employees.
The suit also claims that male employees often come into work hungover and play video games, delegating their work to female employees while engaging in banter about their sexual encounters, talking openly about female bodies and joking about rape.
The suit claims that this “frat boy culture” is a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women”, with female Activision Blizzard employees continually having to fend off sexual advancements and comments made by their co-workers and superiors and being groped at the aforementioned “cube crawls”, citing high-ranking executives and creators allegedly engage in this sexual harassment without repercussion.
The suit uses the example of a female employee who committed suicide on a business trip with a male colleague, following intense sexual harassment at the company – which included having nude photos of her passed around at a company party.
According to the suit, Activision Blizzard did not take steps to prevent harassment, discrimination or retaliation. The suit claims that female employees were discouraged from reporting issues to HR as human resource personnel were allegedly close to the perpetrators and so complaints were dismissed and not kept confidential.
As a result of these complaints, the suit claims that female employees faced retaliation from perpetrators that included being transferred to different units, deprived from work projects and selected for layoffs.
In another example of sexual harassment, the suit claims that Alex Afrasiabi, former Senior Creative Director at World of Warcraft, was permitted to engage in “blatant sexual harassment” with no repercussions.
Afrasiabi allegedly made unwanted advances to female employees, tried to kiss them and would tell them he wanted to marry them. The suit also claims that Afrasiabi was “so known to engage in harassment of females” that his suite at BlizzCon was dubbed the “Cosby Suite” after the disgraced Bill Cosby (whose conviction of sexual assault has since been overturned).
Other allegations in the suit include women being denied promotion in case they became pregnant, derogatory name-calling, being criticized for collecting children from child care, and being kicked out of lactation rooms so male colleagues could have meetings.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is demanding a jury trial and is seeking an injunction forcing compliance with workplace protections, as well as unpaid wages, pay adjustments, back pay, and lost wages and benefits for female employees.