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Slow Views

Care about #MeToo? Then pay attention to these video games

Tuesday 14 September 2021

One of the biggest games studios in the world, Blizzard Entertainment, faces a reckoning. Could it become one of the few corporate casualties of the movement against sexual harassment?


Let’s start, appropriately enough, with a game. A particularly disheartening game. How many people can you name who have been brought down – or at least brought to book – by the #MeToo movement? There’s Harvey Weinstein, of course. Kevin Spacey. James Franco. Louis C.K. Mark Halperin. Al Franken. Charlie Rose. John Lasseter. Matt Lauer. Bryan Singer. The Morgans Spurlock and Freeman…

The list goes on, although it’s never going to be long enough, given how many more men have evaded – and continue to evade – their just deserts for similar allegations.

But now, for round two of the game, another question: how many big companies can you name that have been similarly affected? There’s The Weinstein Company, the movie studio set up by Harvey and his brother Bob, although that’s rather a special case. Then there’s… erm, hang on, help me out here, any ideas?

The truth is that there’s barely even the start of a list for companies. And no wonder: since #MeToo became a corporate concern in 2017, big businesses have tended to air their dirtiest laundry in private, quietly retiring people who might cause them embarrassment (or worse), and avoiding any greater ramifications as a result.

Which is why, over the past couple of months, the case of Blizzard Entertainment has stood out. This company might not, in the end, be swept aside by #MeToo, but the brush is getting pretty darn close – and it’s already eradicated some dirt in the meantime.

If you haven’t heard of Blizzard Entertainment, you may have heard of its wares. They’re the video games studio behind World of Warcraft, the online kingdom of dwarves and orcs and lithe, purple elves that, at its height, had almost 50 million occupants – which is to say, players – a month. They’re part of the umbrella organisation Activision Blizzard, which is also responsible for the all-guns-blazing Call of Duty series and the mobile swipe-a-thon Candy Crush.

Big games and, to quote Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker, big swinging dicks. Over the summer, thanks to both testimony from employees and reporting by the likes of Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier, Blizzard Entertainment has been revealed to be culturally, priapically rotten. As with many gaming companies, a proportionally small number of women have been hired by Blizzard over the years – and many of those have been subjected to terrible sexual advances. The stories tell of high-testosterone drinking parties, men abusing power dynamics, awkward attempts to cultivate “groupies” at company events, as well as all the usual attendant problems, such as unequal pay.

Several hundred Activision Blizzard employees stage a walkout

Happily, there has been a fightback. In July, after a two-year investigation, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Activision Blizzard over its “frat boy” culture – although that culture does seem to have been concentrated in the Blizzard part. Soon after, hundreds of Activision Blizzard employees went on strike to protest against both the company’s treatment of women and its response to the allegations so far. Various high-ups at Blizzard, including the company president, J. Allen Brack, have since either stood down from their roles or been fired.

Yet, despite this belated action, the metric that many investors will be most interested in – Activision Blizzard’s share price – has continued going down. It has now lost a quarter of its value after an early-year high that was mostly brought about by more people playing games during the pandemic. 

It’s interesting that this has happened at a video games studio. Tech companies in general have had a problem with “bro culture” for decades, and a number of them – including Google, as my colleagues Alexi Mostrous and Luke Gbedemah have reported – are now facing their own #MeToo moments. But games companies can be the bro-iest of the bro-iest. Many have clung to the old vision of gaming, that it is for teenage boys and teenagerish men in their sweat-stained rooms, even as gaming itself has matured to encompass many more people and different types of people. This puts those companies at the centre of a very particular and hard-fought culture war.        

But this isn’t just about the gaming industry. Far from it. Gaming is so prevalent and – crucially – pervasive now that its paroxysms are felt elsewhere. Another of the medium’s recent cultural inflection points, the Gamergate controversy in 2014, fuelled the alt-right movement that subsequently fuelled Donald Trump’s passage to the White House. Even if you don’t play games, it pays to pay attention to them. 

So let’s pay attention, starting with two upcoming game releases that could point to Blizzard’s future – and to its prospects for survival.

The first is the remastered version of one of Blizzard’s most popular classics, Diablo II, updated for modern consoles and modern expectations, and coming out on 23 September. Already, the prelash has begun. David Brevik, the creator of the original Diablo II who left Blizzard years ago, has tweeted about the remaster in unequivocal terms: “Sorry, but I’m not supporting Blizzard right now — including anything [Diablo II: Resurrected] related. I will not be buying or streaming D2R and my interactions/questions about D2R will be very limited.” Many others, on social media at least, have said that they will also boycott the release. So what happens if they do, and Diablo II: Resurrected bombs?

Except this is where the story starts to get knottier. It wasn’t entirely Blizzard who worked on Diablo II: Resurrected, but also another studio within the Activision group, called Vicarious Visions, which has come to specialise in remastered titles. Should the work of Vicarious Visions be thrown aside because of the awfulness of Blizzard? And even if this had been a Blizzard-only joint, what about the work of its good employees, including its female employees? The multiplicity of companies is perhaps one of the few good reasons why so few have been toppled by #MeToo.

The second release to keep an eye on is actually by another company entirely. It is the latest expansion, Endwalker, to Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV, and it’s out on 23 November. Final Fantasy XIV isn’t just a competitor to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft – in recent months, it has become the competitor. Tens of thousands of new players have migrated to its pastures, many of them from WoW’s realm of Azeroth, which is felt to have become stagnant after almost two decades of digital existence and increasingly sporadic updates. A new expansion for Final Fantasy XIV could be just the thing to accelerate this great upheaval.  

Which, in truth, makes things knottier still. World of Warcraft’s downwards trajectory began well before the recent allegations against Blizzard: their games collectively, though War of Warcraft predominantly, have shed some 20 million monthly users over the past four years. If that trend continues, are players rebelling against the game or the company? Do they really care about the treatment of women in the workplace, or are they just kicking some bastards while they’re down? 

Or perhaps the answers to those questions don’t matter. Perhaps it’s simply about the higher-order effects: if Blizzard’s products continue to slump, then so too will Blizzard. A number of tensions can make a company reach its breaking point.

What’s striking about this case is that, for once, it doesn’t seem silly to be using those words in relation to a company and #MeToo: breaking point. Blizzard is still one of the biggest players in the biggest form of mass entertainment in the world, so its chances of survival are huge, but its chances of death – or some corporate restructuring equivalent of death – do not appear to be zero. Whatever happens, we are about to learn something about the state of the games industry, about the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace, and about the culture itself.