The video game studio behind the hit franchises Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush is facing a civil lawsuit in California over allegations of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and potential violations of the state's equal pay law.
A complaint, filed by the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Wednesday, alleges that Activision Blizzard Inc. "fostered a sexist culture" where women were paid less than men and subjected to ongoing sexual harassment including groping. (Activision and Blizzard Entertainment merged in 2008.)
Officials at the gaming company knew about the harassment and not only failed to stop it but retaliated against women who spoke up, the complaint also alleges.
Years after the online harassment campaign known as Gamergate targeted women in the video game world, the California lawsuit depicts an industry that can still be unwelcoming and even hostile to female employees.
"All employers should ensure that their employees are being paid equally and take all steps to prevent discrimination, harassment, and retaliation," said DFEH Director Kevin Kish. "This is especially important for employers in male-dominated industries, such as technology and gaming."
In a statement provided to NPR, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said the company had worked to improve its company culture in recent years and accused the DFEH of not adequately trying to resolve the claims against it before resorting to a lawsuit.
"The DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard's past," the statement read. "The picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today."
Women employees were paid less and assigned lower-level jobs, the complaint says
The lawsuit alleges that Activision Blizzard's female workers who spoke to investigators "almost universally confirmed" that their time at the company was "akin to working in a frat house."
Male employees drank on the job and came to work hungover, the lawsuit said. The alleged sexual harassment ranged from comments about women's bodies and jokes about rape to the unwanted touching of female employees by their male peers.
The complaint, which was the result of a two-year investigation by DFEH, claims that the unequal treatment of women went beyond company culture to the more formal parts of their jobs.
Women were allegedly paid less than men, both when they were hired and during the course of their employment. They were also assigned to lower-level positions and passed over for promotions, despite doing more work than their male peers in some cases, according to the lawsuit. One woman said her manager told her she wouldn't be promoted because "she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much."
The sex discrimination was even worse for women of color, the suit claims. At least two African-American women reported being singled out and micromanaged.
Some of the women who came forward with complaints of discrimination or harassment faced involuntary transfers, were selected for layoffs or were denied certain opportunities, the suit said.
Activision Blizzard says it doesn't tolerate sexual misconduct
Activision Blizzard, in its statement, said it did not tolerate sexual misconduct or harassment and noted that investigated all claims, adding that it was making it easier for employees to report violations.
The company also said it strives to pay its employees "fairly for equal or substantially similar work" and ensure that pay is driven by "non-discriminatory factors," such as performance.
"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," the spokesperson said. "It is a shame that the DFEH did not want to engage with us on what they thought they were seeing in their investigation."
But several former employees took to social media Wednesday after the lawsuit was filed to corroborate some of the allegations it contained.
"Blizzard has claimed that the DFEH report is false/misleading/irresponsible," former Blizzard Entertainment employee Cher Scarlett tweeted. "I can tell you that I knew what was going to be in this report before I read it because during my time there - for only a YEAR - I witnessed ALL OF THESE THINGS."