Diversity at Activision Blizzard and Nintendo

The gaming industry is infamous for its long-standing struggle with sexism in the workplace and a chronic lack of diversity. In response to current social justice movements, Activision Blizzard and Nintendo have had to evaluate their existence within a DEI-centric Era of Inclusion.

Stakeholder demand has made the gaming industry level up their D&I initiatives by taking actionable steps to create a more safe and equitable workspace, and there have been costly consequences in response to Activision Blizzard’s lack of response with greater implications for digital gaming studio competitor Nintendo.

Let’s look at how these gaming platforms must adapt within the DEI landscape before stakeholder demand declares “game over!”

Gender Inequality in the Gaming Industry

On Sept. 27, 2021, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Activation Blizzard employees allegedly subjected to “sexual harassment that was severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment”. As a result, Activision Blizzard settled with EEOC for $18 million.

The company came under fire for promoting a “frat boy” workplace culture. The State of California is currently suing them for alleged discrimination against female employees, sexual harassment, and failing to take steps to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation. These claims reveal pervasive sexism and discrimination that permeate the company culture, from the HR department up to the ranks of senior management.

Nintendo has condemned the allegations claimed against Activision Blizzard but may have its own past and present to answer for if it wants to preserve its future presence and sustainability in the gaming industry.

Fast forward to 2022, Microsoft has purchased the company for $68.7 billion dollars making it the largest sale in the history of the video game industry; however, despite the promising profitability of the gaming industry’s future, Microsoft has also inherited an organization tarnished by a legacy of costly lawsuits, founded in claims of sexual harassment and discrimination.

In 2021, Jessica Gonzalez resigned as Senior Test Analyst with Activision Blizzard. She holds Activision Blizzard’s CEO, Bobby Kotick, directly responsible for the digital gaming studio’s demise stating his “inaction and refusal to take accountability is driving out great talent and the products will suffer until [he is] removed from [his] position as CEO.”

The company has been criticized for its inaction. Activision Blizard shares plummeted 6% after a report published allegations that CEO Bobby Kotick knew about sexual misconduct claims at the company but failed to take action. Bobby is expected to leave his position in mid-2023 after the deal is closed and Microsoft takes over Activision Blizzard completely.

Prior to her departure, Jen O’neal, co-lead at Activision Blizzard, resigned from her position after stating she felt female game developers were tokenized. She also was prompted to leave after discovering she was being compensated less for the same work as her male counterparts.

What is arguably the most tragic Activision Blizzard diversity failure happened in 2017, when an employee, Kerri Moynihan died by suicide. Her family sued the company for wrongful death, alleging workplace harassment was a “significant factor” that led to her suicide.

The lawsuits have led to a chain reaction of workforce retaliation; some employees are taking a stand by participating in collective walkouts and others are choosing to walk out without looking back. These incidents of workplace discrimination and harassment have caused Activision Blizzard to lose integral game development team members who were justifiably fired for their involvement.

A diminishing brand value threatens the sustainability of the gaming organization’s future, deterring qualified candidates from applying and resulting in losses due to negligence and years of self-sabotage for mishandling these apparent issues.

The outcome of this ripple effect puts the production quality of popular games like Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4 in a position vulnerable to the scrutiny of an increasingly diverse fanbase.

In 2020, the Entertainment Software Associate found that 64% of all American adults play video games and that 41% of gamers are women, making them significant stakeholders who want fair and human representation. Sexist gender portrayals of characters have become a prominent point of discussion in light of the #MeToo movement’s waking discourse. Not only are female videogame characters often portrayed as hypersexualized with grossly disproportionate figures, but they’re also often scantily clad, catering to misogynistic tropes.

It’s not just the lack of a response to change this is problematic, it’s the backlash women receive encouraged by dehumanizing portrayals of female characters. In 2010, a female World of Warcraft player called out the company during a panel interview at a yearly BlizzCon gaming convention. The female gamer called out the problematic depictions of some of the female characters, inquiring if the company would include characters that “don’t look like they just stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog” in the future.

Other female gamers rallied in comradery, praising her bravery, while male gamers booed her. One panelist jeeringly asked, “what catalog would you like them to step out of,” inciting more laughter from the mostly male crowd. The behavior of these Blizzard employees has all served as a prelude to a lawsuit filed by the California Department of Employment and Housing calling out a toxic workplace culture defined by sexual harassment and discrimination.

Nintendo has condemned the allegations claimed against Activision Blizzard but may have its own past and present to answer for if it wants to preserve its future presence and sustainability in the gaming industry.

Sexist practices have trickled down further. Recently, Animal Crossing, a children’s game, received a letter calling out game-makers Nintendo for perpetuating social inequities via a pink tax — the difference in price between products and services intended for women and those intended for men, to the detriment of female consumers — after a 7-year old girl wrote a letter condemning the price disparity between for the same outfit worn by male and female characters. In lieu of a PS, she ended the letter with a sentiment that rings true to other female gamers: “Plz: Fix this!”

In response, both companies have promised to take actionable steps to rectify their wrongs in the gaming industry. One of those initiatives has been to create greater gender parity at the executive level internally. As it stands currently, Activision’s gender diversity at the executive level falls slightly behind the industry average of 27% with 23.1% of its board being female.

Although it may feel like too little too late Activision Blizzard has cracked down on workplace sexual harassment with more than 30 workers “fired or pushed out” since July 2021, ahead of Microsoft’s acquisition.

Current Nintendo diversity data has revealed that only 23.7% of managers at the company are women globally and only 4.2% when you look specifically at Nintendo Co., Ltd’s diversity in Japan. This is notably problematic considering most of the company’s creative development and decision-making happens at its Kyoto headquarters. The company announced the appointment of its first female board member in May 2020.

Moreover, Doug Bowser, Nintendo of America President, has responded to the distressing sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit allegations, stating these incidents run counter to his values as well as Nintendo’s beliefs, values, and policies. As a result, Nintendo has updated its Corporate Governance document with a commitment to “increase the proportion of women in managerial positions” across the company.

All in all, digital media gaming platforms that want to stay relevant must prioritize DEI at the core of their programming and not just as an optional feature.

Ethnic And Racial Inequities in the Gaming Industry 

Racial and ethnic diversity in the gaming industry is evaluated by stakeholders beyond headquarters in a globalized context. Gamers are diverse and they want to see themselves in the games they play. The internal composition of leadership has implications for decisions made at the top. It’s not just about who has a seat at the table– having a voice at the table matters equally.

In 2013, Nintendo headquarters included only men of Japanese nationality. Then in 2016, Nintendo achieved a 33% increase in diverse board representation. In 2018, Nintendo made a public apology for offensive imagery from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate depicting a racist portrayal of Native Americans from a 1980’s throwback to Game and Watch. Interestingly, it was found that certain racist portrayals were present in the Japanese version of the game. This incident highlights why it is imperative for leadership teams making executive decisions to have diverse perspectives before releasing content to fans.

At Activision Blizzard, executive racial and ethnic diversity sits at 0% compared to an already dismal industry average of 13.2%.

In 2018, former Latinx Blizzard employee, Julian Murillo-Cuellar, resigned after suffering racial discrimination and bullying from another employee. Although Murillo-Cuellar attempted to resolve his encounters with racism in the workplace through supervisors and HR, the matter went largely unresolved. Furthermore, he experienced negative performance reviews claiming he was unwilling to be a team player as a form of retaliation. He had never received a negative review prior to making his experience with racism at Blizzard a point of concern.

A culmination of exclusionary and malicious responses at the workplace led to severe mental health issues, from major depression to anxiety attacks and eventually suicidal thoughts, causing him to have a nervous breakdown at work in November 2017. As a last resort, Murillo-Cuellar reached out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) but became disheartened when he found out his case for discrimination would be dismissed without substantial evidence to support his claim. Julian would eventually go public with his experience, after feeling triggered by Blizzard claiming to promote a diverse and inclusive workplace because Overwatch’s Soldier 76  came out as an LGBTQ+ character. His story shows us that doing DEI isn’t just checking off boxes, but looking at the intersection of diversity on an individual and organizational level. The people making decisions at the top matter.

Actionable Steps to Take

The drive for internal and external change within these gaming platforms has shifted in alignment according to more values-based consumer demand. From employee resource groups to diversity education, here are some of the steps these game-makers have taken to level up their DEI initiatives:

  • Setting a Diversity Culture Standard. Both organizations have come out in support of inclusive workplace culture, particularly in recognition of the variety of skill sets and talents that can be leveraged under a collaborative, diverse workforce. Nintendo recognizes their results are better when their teams represent our potential consumers and fans. Similarly, Activision Blizzard aims to create a diverse culture that embraces differences to promote a thriving and innovative workplace where employees can contribute from a place of authenticity.
  • Creating employee resources. Nintendo has implemented Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for its Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, female, and disabled communities. Activision Blizzard is expanding its Employee Network groups to create opportunities for cultural awareness, professional development, networking, community involvement, and player connections.
  • Leading by example. Looking ahead to the future, Satya Nadella, chairman and CEO of Microsoft has stated, “We’re investing deeply in world-class content, community, and the cloud to usher in a new era of gaming that puts players and creators first and makes gaming safe, inclusive and accessible to all.” Leadership at Activision Blizzard
  • Providing differentiated diversity training. DEI is an organic process. The ever-shifting DEI landscape is a continuous journey towards better tolerance. Employees should have access to a variety of diverse educational experiences and training opportunities. For instance, Nintendo has offered virtual courses like “Disrupting Everyday Bias” and hosted special forums intended to expose employees to a number of perspectives and conversations to help deepen their awareness and appreciation for different life experiences.
  • Releasing reporting benchmarks. Transparently releasing diversity reporting data garners stakeholder trust by holding them accountable to ensure DEI policies go beyond lip service to actionable steps with tangible results. Activision Blizzard has made their 2020 ESG report available online, revealing what they have accomplished and how far they still have to come.
  • Teaming up with expert consultants. Unbiased third-party experts make doing DEI easier for HR teams and D&I leaders by offering an outside perspective and encouraging employee participation.

Game On! How to Level Up Your DEI Initiatives in the Workplace

The gaming industry would not be what it is today without converging diverse perspectives creating products that encapsulate our imaginations. But as an industry, its DEI best practices need an upgrade that reflects the fans that make up its consumer base, workforce population, partners, and other invaluable stakeholders.

Just as outcomes in gaming track a player’s progress, an organization must be able to efficiently collect, evaluate and track its own DEI metrics. Diversio’s language-intelligence platform disaggregates diverse data sets accounting for a range of employee experiences using an anonymous pulse survey linked to six research-backed key performance indicators. Qualitative data is translated into ready-to-implement actionable recommendations conveniently accessible on our intuitive Dashboard Interface. Combined with our comprehensive certification programs, we make it easy for your organization to identify, assess and implement DEI best practices in the workplace.

Book a demo to find a solution to begin effectively implementing your organization’s DEI initiatives today.

Diversio DEI Expert
Diversio DEI Expert
Diversio's DEI expert shares everything about diversity that you need to know.
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