The legal filings read like something out of a lurid, legal thriller penned by John Grisham or Scott Turow – the high (low?) lights being: systemic patterns of abuse across the board, naked pictures bandied about without knowledge or consent at, of all places, a company Christmas party, an alcohol-soaked party suite dedicated to the disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, buttplugs and lube stashed away in a suitcase, and, yes, even a tragic death that could have been averted.
And no, this very real life story isn’t set in some small, southern U.S. town where corruption lurks around every corner – this is the state of California (the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, actually) bringing all of its legal guns to bear against one of the biggest video game companies in the world: Activision/Blizzard.
It seems the Golden State’s harassment case centers around one Alex Afrasiabi, the former Senior Creative Director of one of Activision/Blizzard’s flagship titles, the venerable MMO World of Warcraft (WoW). It is purported by the state (and also by several other reports online) that Mr. Afrasiabi ran his department at Activision/Blizzard like “a frat house.” Being privy to a wide swath of fraternity shenanigans during my college years, I can tell you first hand: there is no way in hell that anything good and/or constructive ever gets done in a frat house.
All of these “toxic workplace” allegations are both shocking and sad for the millions that still clog the WoW severs on a daily basis so they can return to their digital home of Azeroth, but I didn’t realize just how shocking and sad they were until I recently spoke with my son, a long-time denizen of Azeroth, about all of this regrettable hurly-burly.
Azeroth, my former home
My son, Kyle, has been playing WoW since 2004. I bought the game for him that Christmas and he was instantly entranced by it as he spent almost every waking hour of that Christmas vacation playing it. He tried to get me into the game as well, but it was too slow and grindy, especially at the outset, for my liking. So, I threw in the WoW towel early on, but he continued on and on and on… until the present day. He estimates that his main and/or first character alone, Cilran, (a name he borrowed from my very first Dungeons & Dragons character that I created around the same age,13, as he was when he started playing WoW) has “well over 75 days… probably closer to 100” played.
While talking with Kyle last week, I knew something was up with him, as parents often do. He admitted that his energy was low and that he was bummed out stating, “This whole Blizzard situation hasn't helped. It puts a stain on so many memories and experiences. It’s like, I'm 13 lost in a whole new world. Meanwhile, my money and time are being used by some gross f*ckers to abuse women and men to the point where one killed herself”.
I just let him talk. It was clear this was something he desperately needed to unload, “I've been waiting for the next big MMO, but I could always take a rest in Azeroth. Not anymore. I’d been disappointed by the game recently, but all this just kinda kills it. My subscription ran out before it I was going to cancel and uninstall”.
He paused, choosing his next words carefully: “They’re just spineless f*cking scumbags. It’s so dumb, but it honestly makes me want to cry”.
“I understand. That game is and/or was a big part of your life,” was all consolation I could muster in that moment.
“Yeah, like you said in the past, you've never played one game for so long… And maybe that's for the best”.
The overall dejection and palpable anger in Kyle’s tone reminded me of the powerful scene in the 1994 film, Forrest Gump, where Jenny angrily hurls rocks at her abusive childhood home upon returning to it decades later. Here was my son doing almost the same thing – casting dispersions at the virtual world of Azeroth he used to call home, but now it had been irrevocably tainted in his mind, and no further calls home would be heeded.
“It’s hard to give up”
This emotive exchange with my son piqued my curiosity though. As I mentioned previously, there are still millions of people that play WoW on a daily basis – I wonder how many of them shared my son’s despondency with WoW and, by extension, Activision/Blizzard? To test these waters, I reached out on social media to various World of Warcraft groups and/or pages.
*Responses to my social media queries have been edited for both clarity and length.
The answers I received are as follows:
“Default86” from reddit has been playing since 2005, and has several characters with over 100 days of play time. They estimate that they’ve been logged in for “something like two or three years of play time.” They found the news “very upsetting.” And “if there was a game I enjoyed more out there I would definitely switch. But there isn't. WoW brings me a lot of joy and it's hard to give that up.”
They continued, “I'm hoping that Blizzard cleans house and brings in much better people. I would love for them to fix this. But I am not sure they will. If things don't improve I may slowly move away from the game over the next several months. It's hard to say for sure. I would love for Activision to sell Blizzard. The company was at its best, gameplay-wise, when they were independent. I'm not sure how these incidents line up with the Activision purchase, but it would definitely change the narrative if Blizzard left Activision, and the shake-up would hopefully lead to a new culture. Hopefully, a positive one.”
38-year-old Mike tweeted at me that he’s played for about 10 years, had about 400 hours played and had the tops in achievement points on his server when he recently stopped. He elaborated, “The recent news makes me glad I left and have no interest of ever going back. And Azeroth will always hold a special place in me even if I don’t plan to ever go back.”
35-year-old “Deathinus” from the Thrall WoW server has also been playing for a decade, and their total time played is “embarrassingly high…probably few years game time.” Deathinus continues, “As for whether or not I plan to play WoW due to recent Blizzard actions…yes, probably. I am playing some New World these days, but I have invested too much in WoW, I guess. So, realistically, I will probably keep playing both MMO’s. And yes, Azeroth is a place where I have many amazing memories of my early gaming days. It still feels like home despite all of the recent drama.”
“Shadowfel_Archivist” also from reddit is in their late 20’s and has been playing for 13-14 years – almost every day anywhere between 3-12 hours. They say, “I've always seen WoW as a game world, and Blizzard as a company, as two separate things. While I think the events that transpired to be rather bad, they won't affect my feelings about Azeroth. Azeroth is a place where I escape the dread of my everyday life, so I don't like to mix it with real world too much. And I haven't been paying WoW ever since they introduced the WoW token (an in-game item that allows players to simply and securely exchange gold and game time between each other – ed. note.), so I'm not directly funding Blizzard's corporate shenanigans.”
Another redditor, 26-year-old Jay had this to say:
I’ve been playing on and off since probably 2004. I would estimate I probably have somewhere around 10 years of subscription time. Obviously, I haven’t played every single day of the subscription, but have definitely logged hundreds of hours. In light of recent events, it won’t stop me from playing or paying for WoW. Not that I am ignorant to the situation, and I think the stories coming out are actually horrible. For me, it comes down to the fact that I enjoy playing WoW. It’s a nice way for me to zone out, hang out with some friends/guildmates, and just relax for a few hours when I play.
I’m not naive/silly enough to believe that me, on my own, not playing or paying for WoW is going to make a difference. There are plenty of other companies out in the world that have less than stellar work environments and treatment of their workers. And I’m not going to act like I am some saint, and shame corporations/famous people for their s*itty actions while being a hypocrite. There are other companies, like Ubisoft, that had reports of sexual harassment come out yet plenty of people still play their games. The way I see it, if I am going to stop playing a game, it will be because I got bored of the game, it has become literally unplayable for me (i.e., say, my computer stopped working), or some shiny new game has come out.”
I’ve also never really looked at Azeroth/WoW as being a home. Not to make it sound like I ever felt uncomfortable there; I’ve just always looked at video games as a way to relax and not worry as much about what is going on outside the game.
From the land of Facebook, 27-year-old “Caloren” who has been playing WoW since August of 2008 shares sentiments similar to Jay’s, but has more of a concrete, familial reason to keep playing:
If I evaluated a game company by their management practices, my hobby wouldn’t be playing games – it would be cyber-stalking to figure out the ‘ethical’ way to live, which may very well change the next day, making these efforts fruitless. Similarly, there are cases at both Riot and Ubisoft. Other companies have a more discriminative nature which creates a greater monoculture inside the office. That being said, unless I see a significant change in the people, I doubt I make any significant changes. I play WoW with my wife, my siblings, and others. It’s a way of keeping in touch with people I’ve spent hundreds of hours with, fighting imaginary monsters.
My wife has maybe a tenth of my game time and only really started playing in sometime in 2012. Her opinion on this has been that there’s no sense to stop playing a game we love to punish those that are still there. If the company does right by this suit, the toxicity is weeded out and only those who didn’t do anything wrong remain, it would be silly to punish those who had nothing to do with the hostilities. Her view is: this is a baby and the bathwater analogy, rather than a few bad apples ruin the bunch.
I hope this frames our decision making clearly on why we will continue to play World of Warcraft at this moment in time. We are continually evaluating the situation and if it reaches new level of unacceptable, we‘ll go from there, I guess.
In terms of calling WoW a home, I wouldn’t label it like that. It’s more like a neighborhood bar you meet your friends at. Breaking a habit of going there is going to take more than just one bad night. And I wouldn’t say that I live at this bar, but I’m certainly a regular.
So, you read all this, all these varying opinions on a sad state of affairs, and you can’t help but shake your head, wondering, “Does evil truly spread when good people stand by and do nothing?”
To combat this spread (and maybe answer some of the larger questions posed by this suit), Activision/Blizzard employees staged a walkout last week, and the company has promised sweeping changes, already ousting President J. Allen Brack and HR exec, Jesse Meschuk.
And while both of those actions are an excellent beginning to righting the wrongs at the core of this company, this tale of interactive entertainment woe is far from over… And one can’t help but also wonder if any of this would really be happening if the details of the suit itself weren’t made public and/or weren’t so sensational?
The sobering answer I continually come back to is: No… no way in hell.
Regardless, for people like my son, the 16 or so years he spent in Azeroth have come to an ignominious end, and I applaud him for being principled… Being able to walk away from something that clearly meant so much to him for so long. Others though stay on, still paying their $15 per month to continue living their lives inside a virtual world that, it seems, was built on abuse, harassment, and lies.
Typically, I have little issue saying, “To each, their own” and letting people go about their business. Especially when that business has almost nothing to do with my own but, in this case, I can’t help but read some of these quibbling, hair-splitting responses as something akin to what an addict would say when on the hunt for that ever-elusive “last hit.”
Sad, but true.
Jerry Bonner | Gamepressure.com