The video game industry faces another reckoning over sexism

Accusations of harassment, discrimination and contempt for women at video game developer Activision Blizzard are now in the open, but many say they are just the tip of the iceberg in an industry still dominated by men

Blizzard employees demand better working conditions at a protest in Irvine, California in July.
Blizzard employees demand better working conditions at a protest in Irvine, California in July.Jeff Gritchen (AP)

Sexual harassment. Wage discrimination. Public humiliation. Rape jokes… then retaliation for speaking out. Being a woman at Activision Blizzard, one of the most famous video game developers in the world, had become a nightmare. Female employees worked in a sexist environment that pervaded every corner of the organization, according to a complaint filed on July 20 by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), after a two-year investigation and three attempts at mediation with the company. “There is a pervasive frat boy workplace culture,” the legal document baldly states.

The scenes described by the lawsuit include women being kicked out of breastfeeding rooms so that men could hold meetings, and “cube crawls,” where male employees would “drink copious amounts of alcohol as they crawl their way through various cubicles in the office and often engage in inappropriate behavior toward female employees.” Alex Afrasabi, former creative director of “World of Warcraft,” one of the company’s flagship titles, was known to harass female employees in a hotel room he called the Cosby Suite, in reference to the actor Bill Cosby, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail for drugging and raping Andrea Constand at his home before the conviction was overturned. The employees who did dare to speak out expressed their fear of doing so and say they conducted group therapy among themselves to cope with the day-to-day onslaught. When the employees complained, the company turned a deaf ear, the lawsuit states.

In 2020 it was the turn of French developer Ubisoft to field multiple complaints of male harassment against employees, with vague promises to do better

The Activision Blizzard scandal is just the most recent ignominious episode to haunt the video game sector. In 2014, GamerGate broke into the open, a campaign of online harassment by gamers against the developer Zoe Quinn for issues relating to her personal life. Then in 2019, Riot Games was ordered to pay $10 million to its female workers for gender discrimination. In January of this year, the courts began investigating its CEO, Nicolo Laurent, over allegations of sexual harassment against him. He was finally acquitted. In 2020 it was the turn of French developer Ubisoft to field multiple complaints of male harassment against employees, with vague promises to do better.

“In Spain discrimination exists, although I can’t say if it’s at the same level as at Blizzard. The companies [here] have not investigated it enough to reveal what we suffer,” said Gisela Vaquero, founder of WIGES (Women in Games Spain), an organization representing women in the country’s video game industry. The basic problem, Vaquero said, is the lack of representation in an industry where women make up only 18.5% of employees. The lack of role models perpetuates the same gender balance in an industry where women do not see themselves reflected. “If society maintains the image that games are not for girls, it means that they are facing a discriminatory environment. It’s very hostile, as though they put out a “Not Welcome” sign,” Vaquero argued.

According to a recent EU study, 50% of Spanish women have suffered harassment at some point in their lives, a percentage that rises to 60% when they have a university education or hold positions of responsibility. Miguel Lorente, a professor at the University of Granada and former government delegate on gender violence, said these data are even more serious in sectors such as video games, where men feel enabled in their harassment due to a hyper-masculine environment. “Traditionally it is content developed by and for them. Women are given a minor role. This reinforces the idea of the space women have to occupy,” he said.

Sexism at video game developers can remain more or less hidden. But in the increasingly popular world of video game streaming, discrimination and harassment happen in public. While playing in front of the camera, men and women are not treated equally by anonymous spectators, as women are judged by their physical appearance and usually endure sexist comments. The female streamer @mery_soldier complained on Twitter: “For a few months now the harassment hasn’t stopped, no matter what I do. I don’t pick on anyone, I don’t get involved in sensitive topics... it’s exhausting. I don’t understand where this hatred comes from.” A few months ago, Murmaider, another woman and gamer, complained in similar terms: “I am back playing #Valorant and I have found the same bunch of backward people as always... I’m TIRED of coming across people with this mentality.”

Twitch, the most popular platform used by streamers, allows the blocking of users and instant deletion of messages. But with another email address harassers can quickly take on a new identity. “Sexism is culture, not behavior. Hate speech on networks or chats like Twitch feeds a historical misogynistic hatred. They think of you as more of a man when you behave like that [toward women]. In the end, women are always harassed, abused and murdered,” said Lorente.

Esports, a sector that grew out of competitive video gaming, is not free from discrimination either. According to a study published in 2020 by EsportsWatch, there is only one woman among the 500 highest-paid players in the world. As Aidy García, a professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) player explained a couple of years ago, she played in a championship in Paris where women could take home €4,000 in prize money while men were offered €20,000.

“Esports are dominated by men. There is obvious sexism. Team managers would laugh at the idea of having a woman in their ranks. They would rather hire a guy with worse skills than a girl with superior abilities,” Maria Creveling explained to EL PAÍS by email in 2019. Better known as Remilia, Creveling was the first woman to reach the Esports League Championship Series competition in the United States, and died at Christmas the same year. Despite her talent, and shortly after debuting as a professional in 2016, she had to drop out due to online harassment from the community.

Stark reality

The events at Activision Blizzard have led to the resignation of its president, J. Allen Brack, along with a human resources manager. A good number of advertisers such as Coca-Cola and Kellogg have also pulled the plug, which is likely to shake the industry. Companies must expand their responsibility to combat sexism, Vaquero believes. “They should know how women are faring in their companies. Implement equality plans. Analyze why the female presence is so scarce and why they are discriminated against. They barely even try to do that,” she lamented.

The video game industry has only just begun to reckon with gender discrimination, and the Activision Blizzard scandal shows the stark reality, hidden underneath the fun that the business supposedly represents. It is hard to know how many women will finally raise their voices or how many organizations will start to say “game over” to sexism. Even so, something is changing in gaming. “Feminism is moving forward, but there is a lack of strategy. Individual actions that are incapable of creating a culture change are not enough. We need more integrated and comprehensive measures,” concluded Lorente.

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