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The video games industry is worth over $180 billion a year, more than the US film and sports industries combined. For decades though, it’s been plagued by a culture of misogyny, homophobia and racism.

The dark side of the games industry



The video games industry is worth over $180 billion a year, more than the US film and sports industries combined. For decades though, it’s been plagued by a culture of misogyny, homophobia and racism.

 

Right now, a reckoning is taking place at one of the biggest games developers in the world, Activision Blizzard, the publisher of some of the most popular games ever, including Candy Crush, Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.

 

This isn’t the first time sexism and harassment in gaming has made headlines, but could this be the long-awaited reckoning that the industry needs?

 

To help break down the lawsuit and why it matters, games reporter for Screenhub and regular games critic for The Saturday Paper, Jini Maxwell, joins The Culture this week.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

OSMAN:

Hey there, I'm Osman Faruqi and welcome to The Culture, a weekly show from Schwartz Media, where we take a deep dive into the latest in the world of pop culture, arts and entertainment.

 

Today on the show we’re going somewhere we haven’t gone before, we’re talking gaming. More specifically, the gaming industry.

It’s huge! It’s worth over $180 billion a year and now, partly thanks to the pandemic, is bigger than the American film and sports industries combined. But the industry also has a dark side. For decades, it’s been plagued by a culture of misogyny, homophobia and racism - amongst both gamers and creators.

 

Now a reckoning is taking place at one of the biggest games developers in the world, Activision Blizzard, the publisher of some of the most popular games ever made. Earlier this year, the State of California announced it was suing Activision Blizzard, following a two-year long investigation into what it says is gender-based harassment, discrimination and retaliation at the company.

 

Now this isn’t the first time sexism and harassment in the gaming industry has made headlines but it could be the long-awaited reckoning that the industry needs? Or maybe the one that finally brings about substantial change.

 

To find out if that could be the case and to help me break down the lawsuit and why it matters, I’m joined by Jini Maxwell, a games reporter for Screenhub, and a regular games critic for The Saturday Paper. Jini, thanks for joining me on The Culture today.

 

JINI:
Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

 

OSMAN:
So, Jini, there’s a lot I want to get stuck into, but first could you tell me a bit about how you find covering games, and the games industry?

 

JINI:
Complicated. I mean, I love it and I find it really rewarding, but I find it really interesting to kind of learn the contradictions, kind of inherent to the games industry, but also the lies that the games industry sort of tells itself, particularly I've noticed in Australian circles, there seems to be sort of equal weight placed on the idea that games are this marginalised, misunderstood, underfunded, undersupported art form in the same breath as people describe the games industry as a $160 billion international industry.

 

OSMAN:
OK, so Jini gaming definitely has a reputation of being a very male dominated space. That’s changing, at least in terms of who plays games, but in terms of who makes them and the people at the very top of those companies, that hasn’t really changed yet. How did we get to this point?

 

Archival Tape -- 80s Arcades Sounds:

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“Come on in! It’s almost another world here in the Video Arcades of America…”

 

JINI:
So in the 70s and 80s, in the kind of heyday of arcade games, arcades were social spaces filled with games that children, teenagers, adults; all kinds of people played.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Video games are the latest craze to sweep the country - and most of the world too - millions of people are addicted to hours of gazing at electronic images on games screens in arcades and in their own homes…”

JINI:
These games were usually made by a maximum of two people.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“This is the current craze game - Pacman”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“I like the little man - he’s really neat, eats up all the other things, y’know…”

JINI:
But as consoles and kind of home gaming in general, uh, was on the rise. Lots of developers tried to get into that market. And the result was a huge glut of relatively low-quality games that were quickly made, looking to make a quick buck. And as a result, the video game market crashed in the mid-80s.
 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“The video game E.T. for Atari was so bad the company tried to get rid of all the copies - it’s rumored truckloads of that game were buried in an Alamogordo landfill back in 1983…”
 

JINI:
In response to that, there were a few changes. Marketing executives decided to focus their resources on a particular demographic that they thought would have expendable income, collective sense of identity, and that was young men.

 

Archival Tape -- Atari Commercial

 

JINI:
One example of this is the release of the Gameboy.

 

Archival Tape -- Gameboy Commercial

 

JINI:
When the previous Nintendo handheld console had been called the Game & Watch, which is obviously a much more gender neutral term

 

Archival Tape -- Game & Watch Commercial

 

JINI:
Historically, this is framed not as a kind of gatekeeping decision or an ethical decision, but as a financial one. But yeah, that's the bizarre history of how games, uh, became primarily marketed towards men.

Archival Tape -- Gameboy Commercial
 

JINI:
I think it's, like, really compounded this sense that including women in the game space is kind of more of a favour than as a natural normal thing. And from there, sort of the echo chamber creates this effect where men play games with men and they work with men - men in the games industry, that is - to the point where they just simply don't see the need to engage with women as people, let alone as players or as colleagues.

 

OSMAN:
Hmm. So, those decisions basically laid the groundwork for who would be running the games industry right now today. And now we’re seeing the repercussions of that in terms of toxic workforce culture, and a power imbalance, particularly at the company at the centre of this current lawsuit, Activision Blizzard. Before we get into the specifics of exactly what's going on at the company, can you give us a sense of just how big, how powerful it is? Most people might not recognise the name but they probably, almost definitely, know the games the company makes, right?

 

JINI:
So Activision Blizzard is the holding company that controls five different video game companies, each of those different companies owns several studios that each employs 100’s of people around the world. The companies that they own include King Digital Entertainment, who make Candy Crush Saga. 

 

Archival Tape -- Candy Crush Gameplay

 

JINI:
When they bought King Digital Entertainment in 2016, they paid $5.9billion for the company. Activision Publishing and Blizzard Entertainment, who are the two companies at the centre of the Activision Blizzard lawsuit. They are slightly separate from Activision Blizzard, which can be a bit confusing. But, uh, Activision Publishing publishes and develops the Call of Duty franchise

 

Archival Tape -- Call of Duty Gameplay
 

JINI:
Which currently has 400 million players in their premium games and 100 million alone in their freemium game Call of Duty Warzone. 

 

Archival Tape -- Call of Duty Warzone Trailer

 

JINI:
Blizzard Entertainment has developed household names like World of Warcraft and Overwatch

 

Archival Tape -- World of Warcraft Trailer

 

JINI:
So these games generate billions of dollars. They employ thousands of people and they're played by hundreds of millions, if not billions of people worldwide.

 

OSMAN:
Yeah, wow. I mean, the games you're talking about are, without a doubt, the biggest in the world. I mean, even if you're just a more casual mobile gamer, Candy Crush is something that absolutely dominates the scene. And then you've got games like Call of Duty, which I’ve played, and, and World of Warcraft, which is enormously popular and has been for years. So we're talking about some heavy hitters here.

That company, Activision Blizzard, is at the centre of a workplace harassment issue that’s been running for a couple of years now, but it really exploded in July when the State of California launched this high profile lawsuit. Can you tell me a bit about the legal action? Who is involved and why does it matter?
 

JINI:
So I definitely want to get back to the fact that this lawsuit is so long running, because I think that's really significant, or at least the investigation and allegations go back for so long. But essentially, Activision Blizzard Inc are currently being sued in civil litigation by the state of California for, following a two year investigation into workplace harassment and discrimination and retaliation against whistleblowers on that discrimination and harassment.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“A frat boy culture, that is how Activision Blizzard is now being described here and this new lawsuit filed by the California department of fair employment and housing…”

 

JINI:
The complaint singles out Activision Publishing, who like I said, developed Call of Duty, and Blizzard Entertainment, who develop Overwatch and World of Warcraft, for having, and I quote, a pervasive frat boy workplace culture. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“The state agency alleges that female employees they are subjected to sex discrimination, unlawful sexual harrassment, retaliation and unequal pay.”

 

JINI:
The complaint describes a work environment where women were sexually harassed, underpaid, overworked, stymied in their careers, laid off at a much higher rate than men. And all of these practises had been taking place for years. I will also say the complaint notes that Black women and women of colour in the organisation experience these issues at a much, much, much higher rate than their white counterparts, even though this isn't something that a lot of media outlets have, kind of, pointed to specifically.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“According to the complaint, female employees make up around 20% of the company's workforce. The agency is saying it seeks, among other remedies, pay adjustments, backpay, lost wages and benefits for those female employees, in an amount to be proven at trial.”

 

JINI:
So not only are women being paid less, uh, from starting salaries, to bonuses, to stock options and being retained less frequently, but to quote the lawsuit, “female employees are subjected to constant sexual harassment, including having to continually fend off unwanted sexual comments and advances by their male co-workers and supervisors, being groped at cube crawls and other company events. High ranking executives and creators engaged in blatant sexual harassment without repercussions”. So essentially there's been no accountability or recourse for this kind of predatory behaviour because it's been occurring at every level of the company. Kind of, the most shocking and tragic example of this harassment is the death of a woman who was employed by Activision Publishing, uh, who died by suicide while on a company trip with her male supervisor, who she was in a sexual relationship. The complaint described pretty unrelenting and extensive workplace sexual harassment in the lead up to her death.
 

OSMAN:
Jini, these stories are extraordinarily horrific and you can absolutely see why the state of California has decided to take this kind of action. But I wonder, you know what? I don't think a lot of people would be shocked to hear of a culture of misogyny within gaming more broadly, but generally that's focussed on the fans, uh, the people that play games. 

 

I mean, I can even think about when I played first person shooters like Call of Duty and Counterstrike as a teenager, it was an extremely aggressive environment dominated by young teenage boys. Every time someone jumped on who was identifiable in a non-male way through their voice, they were just subject to relentless abuse and harassment. It makes sense that that culture amongst fans was also reflected in the industry itself. But how long have people known about this kind of toxic and pervasive culture of misogyny in these companies in particular?

 

JINI:
Oh, it's widely acknowledged amongst game developers that games is a very, very difficult, uh, industry for women to work in. Stories like these, um, to see them laid out this clearly is shocking and is new. But I've heard stories like these from a huge number of game developers from different companies and studios around the world. I don't think, sadly, anybody was totally shocked to hear these allegations. 

 

But within Activision Publishing and Blizzard Entertainment, something I found really, really striking about the lawsuit are those charges of failure to prevent discrimination and retaliation. Because the extent of time that this lawsuit, this lawsuit covers is immense. Many of the charges relate to events that happened several years ago. The investigation itself took two years. There were several internal reports of workplace discrimination and harassment that went either ignored or actively buried. There was a mediation attempt by the state of California before litigation began. And since litigation has commenced, Blizzard Entertainment have come under fire for shredding HR and employment documents related to the lawsuit. The thing that I find so mind-blowing is the extent to which these companies seem to see themselves as genuinely being above the law.
 

OSMAN:
We’ll be back after this short break

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OSMAN:
Jini, it sounds like the issues at Activision Blizzard aren’t actually new - it’s more a case of something that’s been going on behind the scenes for a long time now finally being taken seriously, in this instance by the government. Is that how it seems to you?

 

JINI:
Absolutely. I mean, you mentioned, you mentioned having experience playing some, like, online shooters, including Call of Duty and kind of experiencing...you know, they're renowned for being pretty toxic and kind of, homophobic, transphobic, racist, misogynist language being freely used over voice chat. But that's not an accident. Those platforms are almost entirely unmoderated, despite involving hundreds of millions of players by design

 

Archival Tape -- Montage of Gamers (laughing, yelling and swearing).

 

JINI:
If you, if you kind of go back to basics and consider how a person who cared about or had ever experienced discrimination or harassment would design a social game, the, the very fundamentals are completely different, so I think these things, kind of, do mirror each other.

 

OSMAN:
Yeah, and certainly a lot of those things you’re talking about - the misogyny and racism in the online gaming space, particularly when it comes to those first person shooters like Call of Duty - are a big part of why I don’t play them anymore. I remember trying to get back into that during the start of the pandemic last year when we had nothing to do, and I just found it so grating and felt like everything that we’d moved forward on as a society in the last decade or decade and a half just hadn’t happened in those gaming spaces. 

 

But I guess there's an element to this, as I'm hearing you talk about this, that clearly extends beyond just the gaming industry. I mean, when we're talking about bullying and misogyny in corporate cultures that goes throughout every industry and even more specifically on the tech side of things, we've seen this emerge around conversations to do with social media companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, where people who create those products are often, not even often, overwhelmingly not the people that receive the kinds of toxic harassment and abuse on those platforms. But I think what stands out to me about this story is gaming did have another moment of reckoning like this back in 2014, specifically around a culture of misogyny within the games industry. 

 

That was, of course, GamerGate, which felt like it could have been a watershed moment for the games industry. And judging by what you're talking to me about today, it kind of wasn't that. But before we unpack it, can you just tell me a little bit about GamerGate, what led to it, and what the discussion around it was?

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“The topic of discussion today is GamerGate”

 

Archival Tape -- Montage of GamerGate news reports.

 

JINI:
So essentially, GamerGate was a harassment campaign that particularly targeted women and trans people in games media and in the games industry. It began with the suggestion that a developer had only had their game reviewed because they had slept with someone at a games publication, and spiralled out into a campaign of violent threats, rape threats and death threats against a huge number of women and trans people in the games industry.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“What happened during GamerGate is you saw a lot of factions of different types of game consumers band together, sometimes in really toxic and abusive ways, against people that were perceived as destroying the gaming culture.”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“From the beginning, GamerGate supporters have claimed that this is about journalistic ethics and about supposed corruption in the gaming industry, but it has originated as and continued to be about undermining women in the gaming industry.”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“GamerGate organised on the same underground message boards that would later lead to the QAnon cult. They sent their fans to attack developers like Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and others like them…”

 

OSMAN:
And so, did it lead to any kind of broader conversation amongst gamers, the media, the industry themselves, about the culture that I guess had been festering for so long and had now bubbled to the surface?

 

JINI:
I think on a surface level, yes, there was some battle lines drawn and I think to some degree, you know, there were particular games, publications, for example, that released statements decrying GamerGate, stating that they supported women, that they, you know, supported marginalised people in the game space. But I have a somewhat cynical view that GamerGate really proves to a lot of abusive and harassing men that they could really just get away with saying anything online, regardless of any basis of fact, if they wanted to hurt someone and that there would be no repercussions. So I horribly have a, yeah, much more cynical view.

 

OSMAN:
I mean, I think you say it's cynical, but I think the fact that seven years on from that moment we are now seeing this lawsuit suggests that it wasn't quite the tipping point, that a lot of people maybe thought that it would be, right?

JINI:
Yeah, I agree. I think it's really unhealthy to, or maybe unrealistic to, to hope for tipping points, because I don't think these big moments, I think that's often not where the big change is happening or can happen.

OSMAN:
We’ll be back after a short break.
 

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OSMAN:
Jini, what do you think the outcome of this particular lawsuit could mean for the wider games industry? Are there any clues based on the response to it so far? Blizzard Activision have publicly refuted some of the allegations contained in the lawsuit, and they’ve said that they aren’t reflective of the company’s current culture but the case is still ongoing right?

 

JINI:
I am very hopeful that the Department of Justice will get involved in the coming months or years, given that there seems to be pretty significant obstruction of justice occurring or alleged through, you know, tampering with and destruction of evidence. But I think there have been some pretty high profile firings in Blizzard Entertainment in particular.

 

OSMAN:
And who are some of those key figures that have left as a result of all this?

 

JINI:
Uh, well, Overwatch level designer Jesse McCree - for whom the Overwatch character McCree is named - has been fired due to harassment allegations against him, which is also, as a side note, has a really interesting effect on the game itself.

 

OSMAN:
Have they changed the name of that character?

 

JINI:
They have. They've just announced they're changing the name of the character, which means they need every character to rerecord their voice lines that mention McCree's name. 

 

Alex Afrasiabi, who was a senior creative director on World of Warcraft - every year Blizzard Entertainment have an event called BlizzCon, which is sort of a big social, company party - At BlizzCon, he had a hotel room that he called ‘The Cosby Room’, that had a big picture of Bill Cosby in it, uh, where it is alleged that he would bring women in order to harass or assault them

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“And even HR team members apparently were part of a self-made group called the BlizzCon Cosby Crew. Basically, every BlizzCon they would get a room together and call it the Cosby Suite and they would basically go there to drink and party…”

 

JINI:
There are actually photos on several senior Blizzard executives’ social media accounts of them in this room in front of the portrait

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“From his facebook, we see a particularly odd group chat…”

 

JINI:
So it's undeniable that the room existed and that the portrait was there. Afrasiabi has since been let go from the company, but not for years. So that juxtaposition is interesting, right? We see historically a total failure to act on allegations of discrimination and harassment, versus now there is finally some movement. Do I think it's mostly saving face? Absolutely. But I would say that a few years ago, huge PR teams that oversee these things wouldn't have seen that as a necessary step. And so I suppose it's a difference that they do now.

 

OSMAN:
Yeah I think you’re right, it sounds like all of this is stepping in the right direction, but even though, it’s 2021 it feels like we need more than a couple of steps. These issues, this idea of video games being created by boys, for boys, seems to be so fundamentally baked into the DNA of, at least, mainstream gaming culture. 

 

You also cover the indie gaming scene a lot, which does seem, from my layperson perspective, to be more diverse and inclusive, both in terms of the creators and the players. Do you think that’s ultimately what it will take, people just building up new institutions rather than reforming the old ones?
 

JINI:
I guess fundamentally, I'm not sure if any corporate entity, which is what Activision Blizzard is, can be, I don't know if there's any hope for a corporate entity of that scale. To me, it kind of seems like asking if Amazon could suddenly become, you know, a cooperative organisation. I think I definitely take a bit of a ‘billionaire's should not exist’ approach to these big companies, I don't think...um, I'm not sure what it would take for the culture to change in a fundamental way. Blizzard Entertainment shredding documents doesn't give me a lot of hope for any big change any time soon. I would say that the indie game space has created opportunities for a wider range of people to make that reflects them, and that they care about, and that will speak to a wider range of people. But that's not to say at all that indies and, you know, what is indie games even? That's a huge spectrum in itself, from totally non-commercial art projects to, you know, Among Us, which made $86 million last year, but it's still only a game made by, I think, 12 people. I don't think, you know, indies in broad strokes are going to save the world, but I do think there's more, there's more variety in how games are made and there are more opportunities for people to approach the work differently.

 

OSMAN:
Jini, thank you so much for talking to me about this really, really, I think important issue given how big not just the games industry is and how many people take part in it, but even if you don't, I think it's important for us to understand and engage with what is now one of the biggest cultural pillars in our society. So thanks for taking the time.

 
JINI:
Thanks so much for having me. It's been really fun. And I think you're right to say, you know, I spoke earlier about that sort of tension between games being this billion dollar industry or this, you know, misunderstood art form. Either way you see it, it's hugely culturally significant. These games affect how people see the world. And so I'm really glad we can talk about things like this.

 

OSMAN:
The Culture is a weekly show from Schwartz Media.

 

It's produced by Bez Zewdie and Atticus Bastow. Our editor-in-chief is Erik Jensen, and our theme music is by Hermitude.

 

I’m Osman Faruqi, see ya next week.

 

Host

Osman Faruqi is a journalist and the editor of 7am, Schwartz Media’s daily news podcast.

Guest

Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.