Will Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard finally bring scrutiny to the video game industry? | Akin Olla
MMicrosoft recently announced plans to buy Activision Blizzard – one of the world’s largest video game companies – for nearly $70 billion, making it the biggest technology acquisition to date. While big tech always seems to face some kind of public criticism – usually well-deserved – lately, the anger has mostly been centered on social media. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter executives have all had to testify before Congress about their platforms’ role in spreading false information and using them as tools to stage events like the Jan. 6 storming of the US Capitol. This all adds up to a history of alleged labor violations, including complaints that traumatized content moderators are being paid poverty wages and reports that black employees face racial discrimination.
Video game companies mirror many of social media’s alleged problems, but have long evaded accountability, aside from the occasional attempt to ban a violent video game. This is troubling given the staggering size of the gaming industry, which generates more revenue than the film and music industries combined and whose biggest hits bring in more money in days than most franchises. do not earn in their lifetime.
A series of recent controversies at Activision Blizzard highlight everything that’s wrong with the industry. The latest wave of shame began with a lawsuit filed in 2021 by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The lawsuit alleged that the company’s women were “assigned to lower pay and opportunity levels” and received lower wages than male employees for similar work. The lawsuit also alleged a “frat boy” work culture in which men got drunk at work and crawled into women’s cubicles to harass them. A woman committed suicide while on a business trip with a supervisor who brought sex toys and lube with him.
In early December, Raven Software workers staged walkouts to protest what they said were the arbitrary firings of a dozen contractors. The following day, at least 200 employees of Raven’s parent company, Activision Blizzard, replicated the protest. In response to the pressure, Activision Blizzard agreed to give contractors modest pay raises and paid time off. All this despite net income of $2 billion in the previous quarter and one of their games making the company an estimated $5 million in daily revenue.
In 2019, Activision Blizzard laid off 800 workers, about 8% of its entire workforce, despite record net revenue the previous year. November 2021 saw employee and shareholder rebellion after a Wall Street Journal investigation found Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick knew about and failed to respond to a large number of complaints. allegations of sexual misconduct, including rape, at the company. The Wall Street Journal also detailed “allegations of misconduct against Mr. Kotick, including [that] he threatened in a voice message to have an assistant killed”.
These are not isolated incidents within the industry. In 2019, more than 100 workers at Riot Games, a major video game company, walked off the job to protest an alleged environment of hostility and sexual harassment. In 2020, women began posting information on Twitter about harassment, discrimination, and sexual assault at video game industry businesses and events; an organizer kept a record of these stories, which grew to a few hundred. Ubisoft, the creators of Assassin’s Creed, have seen a wave of resignations and firings following stories of abuse, harassment and the normalization of sexism and burnout within their offices. In 2021, a report by the International Game Developers Association found that 71% of survey participants “perceived inequality towards others based on gender, age, ethnicity, ability or sexual orientation”.
This same survey revealed that about a third of the participants had experienced a “crisis”. Crunch refers to long, often unpaid overtime that requires employees and contractors to work 65 to 80 hours per week. A 2019 investigation by Polygon alleged a culture of fear at Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, where some employees reportedly worked 100-hour weeks.
The behavior of these companies is exacerbated by the same growing monopolization that plagues social media. There seem to be fewer and fewer mid-sized video game companies as the larger companies grow and absorb the competition. Activision Blizzard itself is a merger of two gaming giants. Last year, Microsoft’s games division, Xbox, acquired another major player, ZeniMax Media, the parent company of Elder Scrolls game developers.
This wave of consolidation, reports Bloomberg News, could “eventually lead to creative stagnation and other symptoms of monopolization, like limited choices and higher prices.” Electronic Arts, owner of the Madden franchise, is a prime example. The company can only put on such terrible football matches every year because it used its wealth to maintain an exclusive contract with the league, bankrupting all its current and potential rivals.
Steam, by far the biggest online store for PC games, has a grip on the market. By 2013, Steam had acquired 75% of the global digital PC gaming market. This near-monopoly allowed Steam to get away with the same kind of laissez-faire moderation that allowed white supremacists to fester on Facebook. An investigation by the Anti-Defamation League found hundreds of neo-Nazi Steam accounts and numerous posts directly referencing the Holocaust and celebrating famous fascists and mass killers. Despite Steam’s market dominance, it reportedly has a small paid moderation team supplemented by 13 volunteer moderators.
The video game industry may not yet have the power of the major tech behemoths, but the industry shouldn’t be ignored – especially as other titans such as Amazon, Facebook (Meta) and Google (Alphabet) have recently started entering the space.
There is another world in which video game employees are treated with respect and dignity, those who make the games we love control their workplaces and the products they make, and consumers play comfortably without the presence of Nazis. . To this day, the industry must be as scrutinized as its more dominant siblings in technology, and it must be regulated and broken up before it becomes a new kind of city.