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Activision Blizzard's nasty frat-boy culture is an industry-wide ailment | Opinion

The roots of a culture enabling harassment and discrimination are found across the industry - and only structural change will dig them out

To say that companies in the games industry are generally pretty awful at handling reports and allegations of abuse, harassment or bigotry within their workplaces is a pretty strong candidate for understatement of the year.

Utterly botching the initial public response and having to backpedal furiously, as Activision Blizzard has done in the past few days, is the norm. The surfacing of these kinds of reports and allegations seem to drive most companies into a state of sheer wild-eyed panic that allows their initial knee-jerk reaction -- deny, deflect, distract, wave your hands wildly and hope people will look away -- to survive the strategy meetings and consultations where it ought to be knocked on the head. Activision Blizzard's knee-jerk response last week was an egregious example of the genre, managing to deeply alienate a large group of their own employees as well as making themselves look astonishingly bad in public -- but the genre itself, sadly, is well-established.

There's a risk, though, that we focus too much on how companies and executives fail in their responses to these kinds of allegations -- that the lesson the industry takes away from events like this becomes all about how to (or rather, how not to) handle the surfacing of allegations or filing of lawsuits. It's both noteworthy and troubling, for example, that Activision Blizzard's EVP of Corporate Affairs, Frances Townsend, has become one of the key lightning rods for public criticism: her statement in response to the lawsuit filed by California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing was certainly tone-deaf, ignorant and pretty flat-out awful, but it's nonetheless patently ridiculous to cast Townsend -- an executive who has only been at the company since March -- as the key villain of a story about a culture of harassment and abuse that goes back decades.

This culture always arises from the same poisoned well: people approaching management of a company like a place that doesn't need boring old rules and procedures, everyone's a gamer, and they're all friends and having great times together

So while yes, it's awful that Activision Blizzard has handled this situation so badly in the past week -- and by all means, write "don't try to gaslight your own goddamned staff" on your corporate whiteboard if you think it'll help at some point down the line -- that shouldn't occlude the real problem here, and the real lessons the rest of the industry should be seriously taking notes about: the awfulness of the company's handling of the actual harassment, abuse and discrimination that's documented in the state's lawsuit and in corroborating accounts from employees and former employees, and the ways in which it failed to address that over the course of years, if not decades.

What's described as happening at Blizzard both in the lawsuits and in the accounts of current and former staff members that have subsequently emerged may be an especially bad example, but the pattern of behaviour described here is one that will be uncomfortably familiar to many people who have worked in or around the industry in any capacity.

Here, too, there's a temptation to focus on the wrong things, and much commentary has obsessed over the most egregious aspects -- the "Cosby Suite" and the various documented chats and messages about it; the horrible and tragic allegation about the suicide of a female employee who had been subjected to sexual harassment including the passing around of pornographic pictures of her in the workplace -- while overlooking the much more common and familiar accounts of the "frat house" environment that allowed such things to happen, and the consistent, grinding discrimination against women in terms of hiring, pay and promotion opportunities.

As awful as they are, the high-profile incidents outlined in the lawsuit and elsewhere are in some ways easier for the rest of the industry to process and condemn -- because the rest of the iceberg hulking underneath the water, the lengthy details outlined in the DFEH lawsuit outside of the couple of lurid paragraphs that have seen so much attention, is a glove that wouldn't fit too badly in plenty of other companies and workplaces.

The Blizzard campus was the stage for staff walkouts earlier this week as employees protested against the company's response to the lawsuit

The cliqueish, fratboy behaviour, decrying requests for professionalism or basic workplace courtesy as the shrill haranguing of killjoys and bores; the "boys will be boys" treatment of sexual harassment, drunken or otherwise, dealt with informally with an "oh, we'll have a word" and no follow-up; the strong feeling that this was a workplace where the phrase "lighten up, can't you take a joke" might as well have been carved in stone over the entrance, and where the only real consequences -- social and career-wise -- are reserved for anyone who dares spoil the "fun" of the dominant clique. Those bells you hear ringing aren't just your tinnitus acting up.

The reality is that all too often the harasser or abuser is a senior figure, and are part of a clique that appears to protect them

In every workplace that's been marred by this kind of hostile, unpleasant environment, the source is the same, because this culture always arises from the same poisoned well: people approaching the management of a company or studio with the notion that this won't be like a normal company or a normal job, that this is a place that doesn't need boring old rules and procedures because everyone's on board, everyone's a gamer, and they're all friends and having great times together. Who needs a properly trained and functional HR department, running around sticking their noses into things and ruining everyone's fun? It's a creative environment, you can't have it being all strict and boring; just have fun and laughs and make games; how hard can it be?

That's the attitude comes steaming out of every pore of the stories now circulating regarding Blizzard's internal conduct problems and the way its inner clique closed ranks around abusive colleagues and conspired to keep colleagues who didn't appreciate their antics out of senior roles. This isn't "something that happened back then and is being fixed", it's something that's still happening right now; there are plenty of workplaces that are right now making exactly the same mistakes -- creating a hostile environment for women and minorities, tolerating sexual harassment and bullying, failing to create or follow proper HR procedures for these situations -- and for exactly the same reason -- because the founders, however exceptionally talented they may have been in some other regards, ultimately imagine themselves running a treehouse for their mates to play in, rather than a proper company where people's careers and livelihoods are invested.

It's said over and over again when these stories break, as they do with such depressing regularity, but it bears repeating nonetheless -- ultimately for this industry or any industry to actually fix these problems will take more than people being horrified when the stories appear years later, and more than people simply to listening to and believing victims, as important as that is. It's vital that people find the guts to stand up to abusers, even when they're friends -- especially when they're friends -- but that too isn't enough.

The reality is that all too often the harasser or abuser is a senior figure, and are part of a clique that appears to protect them; which means that the best intentions in the world won't mean a damn thing unless the company itself is properly structured -- and has a properly trained, empowered and motivated HR department that's actually competent to deal with this kind of situation, and not just in the business of sticking fig leaves over the senior staff's bad behaviour.

The takeaway can't just be about Activision Blizzard's failings -- it has to be about the changes that need to be made across the industry to put an end to this kind of culture for good

Even as one of the industry's most respected stalwarts sees its name and reputation dragged through the kind of mud that will stick to it for years -- wrecking its once-golden image with many consumers and making it even more difficult than usual to attract talented staff -- it remains the case that the merit of establishing a good HR department is a hard sell to company founders in this kind of creative industry.

To a founder, putting in place a really independent and well-run HR function in your company is effectively putting a set of shackles on yourself, imposing restrictions in regards to some things about how you deal with your staff. It doesn't help that for a founder from a creative or tech background, it can seem like a pretty wishy-washy soft-skill sort of division at best, and a buzz-kill at worst; cool treehouses and fun parties don't have HR divisions, after all.

But that's the structural change that's going to be needed -- proper HR, proper procedures, proper training and all the rest of it -- if companies want to avoid the alternative, which is exactly the situation the world is recoiling from this week; the clique, the closed ranks, the boys-will-be-boys harassment, the workplace made hostile and untenable by people determined to have their fun and laughs without having the basic human empathy or regard for their co-workers required to understand that their fun can be someone else's misery, their laughs are all too often at someone else's expense -- and that the environment they're creating is one in which actual predators can thrive and feel protected.

That, ultimately, has a knock-on effect on a company's ability to function effectively and creatively -- and on a personal level, all the "how could I have known what was happening in front of my eyes" hand-wringing statements in the world won't erase the reputational stain on founders and senior staff who enabled and encouraged these environments.

HR offices and training and procedures and the enforcement of standards of workplace professionalism are boring. Nobody got into the games industry with dreams of spending their days drawing up codes of conduct for the workplace, I know. But the absence of those things -- the insistence that games companies can eschew basic workplace standards and just be a fun treehouse forever -- has left a portion of the people who work in this industry alienated, excluded, discriminated against, harassed, and downright unsafe, in favour of enabling and protecting predators and encouraging the fratboy antics of the cliquey few.

This week it's Activision Blizzard in the spotlight, but the takeaway can't just be about their specific failings -- it has to be about the changes that need to be made across the industry to put an end to this kind of culture for good.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.