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Broken Systems and Fan Juries: What the Activision Blizzard Scandal Can Tell Us About Accountability


Esports enthusiast Josh Neufeldt considers the fandom’s role in holding Activision Blizzard accountable, the parallels between gaming and adland’s harassment and bullying issue and the difficulty of actually sparking change

Broken Systems and Fan Juries: What the Activision Blizzard Scandal Can Tell Us About Accountability
Cynicism and gaming don’t belong together. Gaming is supposed to be this joyous adventure where you conquer mystical realms or fight off evil aliens or drive a race-car. 

What gaming isn’t supposed to be is actively debating whether or not you should play your favourite games - because the studio behind them proved to be filled with really subpar human beings. And in today’s hot seat is none other than Activision Blizzard. 

Being sued for widespread harassment of women really doesn’t do justice to what’s gone on behind the studio’s doors. It pains me to admit, but seeing stuff like this on the news has lost its shock value. It’s just incredibly disappointing. The fact that the studios are being sued by the state of California probably says a good amount about the severity of the situation. And if that still doesn’t convince you, I recommend just reading the Kotaku article

As someone who’s new to writing about marketing but a long-time gamer, I’ve been thinking about this from both perspectives. We’re told that fandoms wield power, but does that mean fans must shoulder responsibility too? Will the scandal damage the Activision Blizzard brand or swiftly disappear? And can there ever be any redemption?  

Speaking from personal experience, it’s forced me to reconsider how I spend my after-work hours. I love the video game ‘Overwatch’. I’ve met amazing people from around the world playing that game. I’ve made friends in real life because of that game. I’ve travelled across Canada to play at LANs because of that game. I’ve even made money playing that game. To say it’s been a serious part of my life would probably be an understatement. But the problem with ‘Overwatch’ is that it’s a Blizzard title. 

But it’s not just ‘Overwatch’. ‘Call of Duty’, ‘Hearthstone’ and ‘World of Warcraft’ are just a few examples of the titles owned by Activision Blizzard. To be specific, as of 2021’s first quarter, Activision Blizzard recorded 27 million monthly, active users. Now, all these people have to contend with whether or not they want to continue using, funding and giving a platform to a company that facilitates such a culture and ignores bullying. 

What should our response be? Where does our consumer responsibility lie? And even if there was a ‘correct’ answer for how consumers should respond, do these moral questions really shape consumers’ choices? We’ve been here before with Hollywood and the music industry, and bad behaviour doesn’t always equal boycott. 

Effectively, what ends up happening is that you split the consumer base into three groups. Those who say “love the art, not the artist,” those who want to entirely distance themselves from the brand and then those who either don’t know or don’t care. 

In the case of the former, the obvious drawback would be the fact that even if you don’t condone what a studio like Activision Blizzard is doing, you’re still continuing to consume their product and possibly spend money on things like skins or future content from the studio. There’s an ecosystem of streamers and creators on Twitch and YouTube whose audience has been built around Activision Blizzard content and whose livelihood depends on it. DDB co-founder Bill Bernbach famously said, “A principle is not a principle until it costs you money”. But he probably didn’t say it on rent day. 

Then, there’s the case of people who just distance themselves from the game. Morally, that’s great. No more supporting the bad company! But then you’re also sacrificing meaningful, social connections that have been fostered through shared experiences in the gaming world. Not only is this a lot easier said than done, but given the user base of Activision Blizzard, it would take an extraordinary number of people to quit before any significant impact was made.

And then of course there are the people who don’t care or simply don’t know. In the case of the former, this is probably the least defensible. There’s no reason not to care about what’s going on, but for the less engaged gamer, plenty of reason not to know. 

So. With a divided fanbase, heaps of negative PR and a heartbreaking death linked to endemic issues in the company, what can the studio do? And what will they do?  

For a start, there’s a chance they just keep pushing forward. People will forget anything if it’s convenient for them. The Activision Blizzard case isn’t even a one-off in the gaming world. Just look at all the trouble fellow studio Riot Games have found themselves in. And yet their two flagship titles, ‘League of Legends’ and ‘Valorant’, are still immensely popular both with casual audiences and in esports, with gigantic player bases, millions doled out in prize money and company sponsorships from large scale businesses like Spotify. 

This bodes terribly for keeping social pressure on Activision Blizzard. Nobody wants to feel guilty for playing the game they like and so apparently we’ve collectively just decided to casually slide previous instances under the rug. 

There’s also just the fact that people are impatient. The rule of news is that people want interesting headlines and fast results. News sources can publish all the updates in the world, but if the Activision Blizzard case gets bogged down in court, there’s probably a good number of people who will lose interest and stop talking about it. 

As such, I’ll emphasise that going forward, it’s imperative that we do not forget what has happened. But you’ll forgive my skepticism if I say that I don’t really trust the gaming community to make that happen when the leaders of the gaming community are fair weather supporters on the best of days.

Consider what happened the day after the reports came out. Activision Blizzard employees went on strike and the gaming community rallied to show their solidarity by taking a day off from playing Activision Blizzard titles. It’s a nice gesture, but how much does it really mean if you just go back to their games the day after? 

Moreover, this was a wasted opportunity to educate people. While a good handful of content creators did link charities, it was not a majority action. As an avid fan of the Overwatch Twitch directory, it was disappointing to see how the game’s normally popular streamers simply did not act on the fact that they’re watched by hundreds or thousands of teens and young adults. Considering the willingness with which streamers are prepared to convince the same people to buy their sponsored products, I really can’t imagine that it would be difficult to take a brief moment to talk about the importance of taking a day off, tell the audience to donate to a charity instead of them, do a charity stream, or really do anything more meaningful than just playing a different game and acting like nothing happened. 

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the problem runs deeper at Activision Blizzard than just the perpetrators themselves. It demands the question of why they act the way they are. And the answer isn’t that they’re inherently bad humans. A baby isn’t born and goes “I’m going to grow up and make male employees drink alcohol while crawling around office cubicles and groping women.” It’s clearly systemic. 

HR and the executives still aren’t going to do anything about it and here’s the kicker. The employees can’t even work together to improve things. According to the latest news, their attempts to unionise and actually fight for themselves has been met by Blizzard hiring a union-busting firm. 

As such, the importance of emphasising proper values to the next generation is very important. Those discussions of what to look for in an employer, how to stand up for your colleagues and stand up to authority are more necessary than ever. But even so, feeding more young people into the machine isn’t going to solve the problem. If the issue is systemic, the entire system needs to be gutted. Sending people to the same old sensitivity training lessons they’ve ignored countless times before is probably not going to be different on the fifth attempt. 

Instead, Activision Blizzard needs to see its executive team gutted. It’s also its best chance of saving face. News reports have been trickling in and revealing the departures of several executive members in the past few days. But that on its own is inadequate. A healthy measure of scrutiny of the new team would probably be for the best, as there can be no tolerance for its prior culture or remnants of it.

But we also cannot allow people to forget what the studio has been responsible for. It’s important that not only does Activision Blizzard learn from its past wrongdoings, but other game studios who might potentially have the same issues behind their doors see this as a warning. (It would also be neat if they apologised and owned up to what’s been done. Maybe not the most realistic of expectations, but apologising to the victims, their families and all the disappointed fans wouldn’t be amiss.)

Like I mentioned up top, I’m new to the advertising and marketing industry but an old(ish) hand when it comes to gaming. Since I’ve been working at Little Black Book, I’ve seen the conversation around harassment and bullying in advertising flare up. Of course, ad agencies don’t have the same public face or fandoms as gaming studios but both are creative companies that have cowed employees with NDAs and the threat of losing a glamorous career. But perhaps now both will take this time to embrace accountability. 

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