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Opinion: The villainous absurdity of Bobby Kotick, game industry maverick

If The Wall Street Journal's damning report on Activision Blizzard's Bobby Kotick isn't enough to oust the chief executive or push him to a resignation then what is?

If The Wall Street Journal's damning report on Activision Blizzard's Bobby Kotick isn't enough to oust the chief executive or push him to a resignation then what is?

Clearly this organization is beyond shame at this point--an Activision rep all but confirms that in 2006 he left a voicemail to a former assistant threatening to have her killed. "Mr. Kotick quickly apologized 16 years ago for the obviously hyperbolic and inappropriate voicemail, and he deeply regrets the exaggeration and tone in his voicemail to this day," the rep said.

The response, phoned in from another universe where this kind of behavior is the norm and easily hand-waved away, would be riotously funny if only it were untrue, would be side-splittingly hilarious if not so painfully void of the basic empathy one finds in the average labrador retriever.

That 'I'll have you killed' anecdote is just one of many that would have any normal human being absolutely reeling with disgust. At this point in time we're familiar with the kind of toxicity that happens in the game industry, but Kotick and his enablers have created their own special brand of shit that starts at the very top and tumbles lumpily downhill.

Reports of rape allegations against an employee that Kotick kept hidden from the company's board of directors; an intervention by Kotick to keep a studio head employed who HR found to be a legit sexual harasser; an allegation that an employee committed suicide after a photo of her genitalia was passed around at a company party. And 500-plus reports since July this year of everything ranging from gender pay disparities to sexual assault.

Villainous absurdity

Any one of these individual pieces are repugnant and reportable individually, and there are even more stories. We don't need to revisit every sickening detail point by point. But let's revisit an outright stupid point, specifically about how Kotick drafted an email response to July's California lawsuit himself, attributed it to Frances Townsend (one of the few female executives at Activision Blizzard and primary Bush administration torture apologist), saw it blow up in his face, and then went on the record calling "her" response "tone-deaf."

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This kind of villainous absurdity is typical of industry mavericks whose main talents center on antisocial "it's just business" behavior. This degenerative, destructive silliness is further evidence that these people are not in fact evil masterminds. This is Montgomery Burns and Newman chasing a windswept dollar bill down a sidewalk, bonking their heads all along the way, with live grenades falling out of their pockets, blowing up pedestrians who are just out for a nice walk.

Masterminds no, but it's their incompetence and disregard for the destruction they leave in the wake of their ambition that make them more dangerous to everyone around them. And yeah, that's enough to make them evil. (Hyperbolic? Exaggerated? You decide.)

These newly-revealed stories about Kotick that date back to 2006 and the comments he made on-stage at DICE 2010 paint the picture of a lonely corporate monster who desperately wants to be adored, but is unable to rein in the ambition that forbids him the adoration that he seeks.

"I don't know how this happened, but all my life I was the rebel flying the Millennium Falcon or the X-Wing fighter and suddenly I wake up and I'm on board the Death Star," he said.

You can't act like Darth Vader and expect to be loved like Luke Skywalker.

The zero-tolerance policy begins [looks at watch] now

The response to the report from Activision Blizzard and Kotick himself is formulaic in the way a bully who faces reckoning contorts himself into a victim. "Anyone who doubts my conviction to be the most welcoming, inclusive workplace doesn’t really appreciate how important this is to me," Kotick told employees in a video. He's just misunderstood.

There's the predictable line that is a breath away from labeling this a "witch hunt": "There will, of course, be continued media attention about us and our industry over the next few months. In fact, there’s an article today that paints an inaccurate and misleading view of our company, of me personally, and my leadership."

You have to wonder which parts of the article are inaccurate or misleading--there was a lot of stuff in there, a compendium of Kotick's bad behavior. If a tenth of The WSJ's article is true, that behavior wouldn't be fitting of a leader. What details would have painted an accurate, more positive picture?


You can't act like Darth Vader and expect to be loved like Luke Skywalker.

Who needs exposés when Kotick goes on record with statements like this: "We are moving forward with a new zero tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior--and zero means zero. Any reprehensible conduct is simply unacceptable." Yet another weirdly-phrased line from which you can infer that starting now let's stop being terrible--or else! There's no indication of accountability for past actions, just denials and deflections.

The way he lumps himself in with his workers, the 'we're all in this together' tone where he places equal responsibility for positive change on the actual victims of the very toxicity he enables reeks of a tyrant who can see the guillotine being assembled in the courtyard: "Over the last few years our industry has had an uncomfortable spotlight that’s been illuminating opportunities for us to change. And we must all, including me, embrace this need for change, so we can bring our very best selves to the very best place to work."

And let's not ignore the hilarity of how he personally approves all high-level corporate messaging when we read the board's statement: "The board remains confident that Bobby Kotick appropriately addressed workplace issues brought to his attention." Kotick is on the board.

How can this company go on with him at the helm?

The demoralization you hear from people like Jen Oneal, who was co-lead at Blizzard for several months before realizing Activision Blizzard "would never prioritize our people the right way," and from employees who did an impromptu walk-out immediately after The WSJ report, is pervasive throughout. The actions of Kotick and the complicity of the board leave no opportunity for trust in leadership, no way to accountability, safety, and security among employees, and therefore no path forward for this company in its current state. There's also no real chance for workers to organize to even out the power dynamic.

Employees are calling for his ousting, as well as games media, and now shareholders. You can't fix decades of cultural virulence by simply getting rid of patient zero but it's a good first step. Does he need to go? Yeah he does, I think to most reasonable people that's obvious at this point. What's disturbing is how long it took for this to come to a head, the clandestine corporate efforts to keep accountability at bay, and how the game industry is still home to the little Koticks who've yet to be weeded out.

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