Activision Blizzard executives can't decide whether allegations of abuse are 'disturbing' or 'meritless'

Activision Blizzard executives
(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

Earlier this week, Activision Blizzard was sued by the state of California over widespread abuse and harassment of employees—specifically women and minorities. The news sparked outrage in Activision Blizzard gaming communities, where players and influencers are organizing in-game protests and cancelling promotional events. Many current and former employees are also speaking out on social media and sharing their own experiences or expressing solidarity with their coworkers.

With news of the lawsuit causing so much hurt and anger, key Activision Blizzard leaders have responded to the controversy with internal memos to employees. But these statements contain conflicting messages about whether the allegations are "irresponsible and meritless" or unacceptable behavior that the company needs to do more to protect employees from.

Sometime yesterday evening, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack sent out an internal email to employees. In that memo, Brack said the behavior described in the lawsuit was "completely unacceptable" and reiterated that harassment of any kind was not tolerated while affirming Blizzard's commitment to employee safety and right to speak out without fear of retaliation. Brack encouraged employees to contact him directly about their grievances and said he would be working to find a way for the company to move forward.

Activision president Rob Kostich also sent out an internal email yesterday, saying the allegations were "deeply disturbing" and that the "behaviors described are not reflective of our Activision company values."

While neither email corroborates the allegations from the lawsuit, both condemn the behavior it describes and reaffirm Activision and Blizzard's commitment to employee health and safety. Both sympathize with the hurt felt by employees and make a commitment to find a way forward.

Earlier today, however, another Activision Blizzard executive sent an internal email with a very different tone. In her email, Fran Townsend, Activision Blizzard's Chief Compliance Officer (and former Bush-era Homeland Security Advisor), immediately attacked the lawsuit, saying it "presented a distorted and untrue picture of [Activision Blizzard], including factually incorrect, old, and out of context stories—some from more than a decade ago."

As anecdotal evidence, Townsend then relates her own experience joining Activision Blizzard. "I was certain that I was joining a company where I would be valued, treated with respect, and provided opportunities equal to those afforded to the men of the company," she wrote. "For me, this has been true during my time."

Townsend, who has only been at the company for four months, then talks about Activision Blizzard's various diversity and inclusion initiatives and commitment to equal treatment of employees before tearing back into the lawsuit: "We cannot let the egregious actions of others, and a truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit, damage our culture of respect and equal opportunity for all employees."

In a tweet where he initially shared this email, Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier said Townsend's email has "some Blizzard employees fuming."

Townsend's email mirrors the statement Activision Blizzard gave to PC Gamer. Since the lawsuit was made public, Activision Blizzard's official stance has been one of vehement denial, going so far as to attack the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing as "unaccountable State bureaucrats." But the difference in tone between these three emails sends a very conflicting message about how Activision Blizzard's leadership feels about the widespread abuse and harassment detailed in the lawsuit. 

Townsend's email suggests Activision Blizzard's record of equal treatment and safety of employees is being grossly misrepresented by the lawsuit. That's a major contrast to the tone of Brack and Kostich's emails, which offer sympathetic promises to listen and improve. 

Townsend's email also glosses over the fact that since news of the lawsuit broke, many former Activision Blizzard employees have shared their own experiences of abuse and harassment. Over on the WoW subreddit, for example, players have made a list of over 20 former employees (some who only left the company this year) either corroborating the behavior described in the lawsuit or, in a few instances, confirming they were one of the victims. 

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.