Solidarity and tension on display during employee walkout at Blizzard HQ

At the employee walkout at Blizzard's Headquarters in Irvine, CA we saw equal amounts of solidarity and exhaustion among participating employees.

Today Activision Blizzard employees gathered in front of Blizzard Entertainment’s headquarters in Irvine, CA. The gathered employees had returned to their offices not to resume work after the pandemic, but to protest the company’s response to a lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Dozens of employees gathered alongside Blizzard’s gates, voicing anger at the company’s dismissal last week that the State of California’s lawsuit was “meritless.”

They also had gathered to make four demands of Activision Blizzard management: An end to mandatory arbitration clauses, the adoption and improvement of recruiting, interviewing, and hiring candidates of diverse backgrounds, publication of salary data, and the formation of a company-wide Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion task force to audit Activision Blizzard’s abuse reporting structures.

With thousands of current and former employees expressing support online for Activision Blizzard employees, I took time to drop by Blizzard’s campus to get a sense of how employees felt after a week of ground-shaking updates to this story (including some that continued during the protest).

The first impressions of the crowd were one of solidarity—with each other and with game industry workers at large. It became obvious that for many Blizzard employees, this was the first time they’d had physical contact with each other since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While carrying signs and cheering at cars honking in support, they were catching up with each other, swapping development stories, and discussing the world’s response to the lawsuit. Employees brought their dogs and gathered as friends. It occasionally felt like what you see whenever you find yourself in the employee-centered areas of BlizzCon.

The above protestor gave permission for us to include her image in this story.

But this protest was not a spontaneous event. A careful eye would notice the food, water and sunscreen distribution by protest organizers—organizers who were going to incredible lengths to support their colleagues at the event, while keeping a nervous eye on management’s response to their gathering.

I connected with several of the organizers at a location slightly removed from the main gates. Here, journalists were asked not to press individual employees for questions. The protest’s organizers expressed concern that if employees were spotted talking to the press, they (or we) could face retaliation from higher-ups.

It seemed like a valid concern, given that both the State of California’s lawsuit and stories shared by current and former Blizzard employees describe a culture of retaliation. The tools of reproach might be subtle—stonewalling in promotions, denial of profit-sharing benefits or a sudden cold shoulder from your colleagues are all the very tools of control being put under a microscope by regulators and the assembled employees.

Two representatives from the protest organizers agreed to speak with Gamasutra, requesting anonymity to prevent backlash on them or their colleagues. They described themselves as employees who “contribute to the creation of the games that we love in a variety of ways.”

Our conversation took place after Blizzard announced that it would provide paid time off for employees participating in the walkout, and after Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick walked back the company’s response to the lawsuit, describing it as inappropriate.

The organizers I spoke to were not entirely satisfied by these two concessions. “We are very encouraged that Activision Blizzard is taking our response seriously, but our demands…are not represented by the promises that [Kotick] makes,” one of them said.

“Kotick’s letter does not enact the changes that we were hoping to see,” the other said, referring to the four demands made by employees yesterday. “I think a lot of us would have been here, with or without PTO.”

The pair of organizers championed the slogan “nothing about us without us” during our conversation. It’s a reference both to the demands they’ve enacted that would involve employees more in fixes to the company’s structure, and a direct pushback against Activision Blizzard’s initial defense against the lawsuit.

“Right now, leadership has not been consulting with employees when they’ve been putting out these statements,” the second organizer said. “It’s very much a case of us wanting to have our voices heard, we want to work with them to improve conditions at the company that we so love.”

Above: Messages to management and fellow employees were written on blue hearts and strung along trees in front of the Blizzard campus.

When quizzed about emotions inside the company during the last week, the pair’s response was tempered by a recognition that they couldn’t speak for every single employee when talking to the press. They explained there’ve been different responses across the company to the continuously breaking news.

“The people around us, for the most part, have been supportive,” the second organizer explained. “But…leadership isn’t a monolith. There are the people who seem to be not really understanding where we’re coming from. There are people who believe that [the actions described in the lawsuit] don’t happen in their specific scope.”

“It’s difficult, because there’s a wide spectrum of responses.”

They did describe the group assembled outside of Blizzard HQ as “massive,” in terms of representing sentiment inside the company, and that it included leaders from different areas of the facility. “When support has been coming, it’s been loud and sonorous, and we’ve felt much closer for it.”

With Activision Blizzard not making any public acknowledgement of the group’s demands today, it seems like the organized employees will be organizing within the company for the weeks and months to come. Discussions with organizers included mention of trying to keep pressure on management for as far out as the next few years, until improvements are made.

Observing the whole protest process, today’s gathering felt like a execution of rapidly assembled infrastructure over the last week, with employees using skills normally used to run BlizzCon or other company gatherings learning how to create a space where their fellow workers could express solidarity for each other.

But tension—fueled by the specter of retaliation from management—did hang in the air. In small interactions, it was clear that there was concern about the tide of change shifting if public and internal pressure didn’t hold, and some of that pressure might be nudged by just documenting which employees chose to speak publicly about their experiences at Blizzard.

Still, the protest organizers chose optimism when asked what they wanted to say to game developers around the world. “Know that you’re not alone,” our second contact said. “These experiences can feel extremely isolating.”

“And know that whatever your story is, there is a space for you. There are people around you who will hear you, who will advocate for you, because you are not alone.”

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