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Popular Game Company Activision Blizzard Sued For Sexual Inequality And Harassment

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The maker of popular video games "World Of Warcraft," "Call Of Duty" and "Candy Crush" is in a crisis. Hundreds of workers at the company known as Activision Blizzard walked off their jobs this week. This followed a lawsuit from California regulators that allege the company's male employees had mistreated their female colleagues for years, and leadership looked the other way. NPR's Bobby Allyn joins us. Bobby, thanks so much for being with us.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: You got it, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us more about this lawsuit, if you could, please.

ALLYN: Yeah. So California regulators say inside this Southern California company is just a really toxic work environment. The suit describes so-called frat-boy workplace culture where men would regularly make sexual comments about women. They held these so-called cube crawls where men would drink copious amounts of alcohol and grope female employees. And on top of all of these unsettling allegations, Scott, you know, California officials say women were just paid less. And they were denied promotions over their male colleagues. I spoke to an engineer at Blizzard, Valentine Powell, about this.

VALENTINE POWELL: At least at this point, 10 women that I valued and respected and saw as mentors and loved and cherished at this company have left because they don't believe it would get better. And I don't blame them.

ALLYN: And that's why Powell is one of the hundreds who walked off the job this week.

SIMON: What are they demanding?

ALLYN: Yeah. They're demanding changes to the culture and pay inequities. You know, this company is 80% male. And workers have said when sexual harassment claims were brought to HR, they weren't taken seriously. And California regulators found this, too, in their investigation that high-ranking executives even engaged in their own blatant sexual harassment and that HR officials were close to the alleged harassers. Now, Powell told me women at the company felt like they were being penalized for their gender.

POWELL: Women who take time off from work for pregnancy are not supported when they get back. And when they do get back, they find that their careers have been set back by years.

ALLYN: Powell there is talking about women getting demoted and pushed into less technical roles and just watching harassers in the office go unpunished.

SIMON: These are certainly some very damning accusations. And I wonder how the company's responded.

ALLYN: Yeah. So Bobby Kotick, Blizzard's CEO, has apologized to employees and says the company's initial response to the lawsuit where they were fighting back was, quote, "tone deaf." The company has brought in an outside law firm to investigate the company's policies. There's a manager who was named in the lawsuit as being a harasser. That person has been fired. You know, Kotick says he's committed to long-lasting change and wants to make sure that Blizzard is a more safe and inclusive place to work.

SIMON: And Blizzard has an avid base of fans around the world who certainly love the video games that it produces and presents. How have they reacted?

ALLYN: Yeah, they sure do. So, you know - but there's been a problem with sexual harassment in the video game world for a very long time, Scott, I mean, going back at least to the Gamergate scandal. These days, gamers are increasingly speaking out against abuse, though. And some now are boycotting Blizzard games and turning to social media and video game streaming site Twitch to say, you know what? We've had it with this company.

Liz Tippett, a University of Oregon law professor who studies the #MeToo movement, told me this could be a watershed moment for the video game industry.

LIZ TIPPETT: Customers saying they don't want to play the games, workers walking out, Twitch streamers saying they don't want to stream Activision Blizzard games - those things actually could really affect their bottom line. Those are the things that gets executives' attention.

ALLYN: You know, Tippett says the troubling accusations have created a PR nightmare for the company, to say the least. And executives are definitely in damage-control mode and now vowing to address some of these issues. And workers right now feel like they have some power to actually hold this company accountable and make some changes to the system.

SIMON: NPR's Bobby Allyn, thanks so much for being with us.

ALLYN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.