Recent news about Activision Blizzard’s workplace harassment has triggered broader conversations about female treatment in the video game industry. While Microsoft’s plan to acquire Activision Blizzard could lead to improvements, sexist gender stereotypes have long plagued the gaming industry.
Part of the culture stems from the lack of female video game developers as well as a lack of representation at the executive levels of gaming companies. A report released by Activision showed that only 25% of its employees were women. At the executive levels, that number was significantly lower.
In video games, female characters are often portrayed as objects of male desire. They are disproportionately scantily clad or helpless individuals waiting to be rescued. The perpetuation of these stereotypes is partly due to the lack of female video game developers and decisionmakers.
The Activision scandal exposed that Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision Blizzard, had known about the sexual misconduct allegations for many years. Despite his awareness of severe misbehavior, including rape allegations, Mr. Kotick did not inform the board of directors. News sources state employees filed over 700 complaint reports, although Activision disputes this number.
As a result of investor, employee, and business partner pressure, Activision Blizzard recently fired and disciplined dozens of employees for female harassment.
Amid the negative media coverage, Microsoft announced its plans to acquire Activision Blizzard in a $75 billion transaction. The would be a record setting all cash deal. If the deal withstands antitrust scrutiny, it will be the largest ever all cash acquisition of a U.S. company.
Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft’s gaming division, had discussed a potential deal with Bobby Kotick. Many of Activision’s games already appear on Microsoft’s Xbox console. There are many synergies between the companies. Microsoft has a strong talent pipeline and advanced machine learning technologies that could aid video game development.
Microsoft’s gaming division has faced its fair share of media attention for scandalous behavior. In 2016, Microsoft faced backlash for hosting a company party with scantily clad women dancing on platforms. The company quickly apologies and vowed to create a more inclusive workplace environment.
Female Video Game Characters
As the maker of popular games such as Candy Crush, World of Warcraft, and Call of Duty, Activision impacts the gaming industry’s cultural tone. Despite its influential platform, Activision’s games have largely followed a playbook that features superficial looking female figures or damsels in distress.
An incident at a video game conference nearly a decade ago highlights the industry’s deep-rooted cultural issues. During an audience Q&A following a panel discussion, a woman asked, “I love the fact you have a lot of very strong female characters. However, I was wondering if we can have some that don’t look like they stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.” After brief applause, the audience began to boo her. The all-male panel responded with ridicule. One panelist teasingly asked, “What catalog would you like them to come out of then?”
Games with strong female characters have demonstrated market success. In 2017, Sony released Horizon Zero Dawn. The action role-playing game was a huge success. The plot follows Aloy, a female character who does not resemble a supermodel and who fights dinosaurs and enemy forces. Developers explained she was designed to a “believable and inspirational hero for everyone.”
A sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, will be released in the first half of 2022. It is anticipated to be another blockbuster and to court more female gamers. Despite positive reception, deep-pocketed developers have been reluctant to include strong female characters like Aloy in video games.
Sparking Industry-Wide Change
The industry’s culture will likely evolve as more women have a voice in game design decisions. Activision pledges to hire many more women over the next few years. Cleaning up video game content will require more diverse industry participants as well as an awareness of the implications of sexualized female characters in video games. Particularly for children who play video games from a young age, exposure to stereotypical depictions of women can shape their cultural attitudes in harmful ways.
Perhaps Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard will contribute to industry-wide changes. Microsoft is reviewing the allegations as part of the acquisition due diligence process and developing internal controls procedures to prevent future mismanagement of these issues.