Wednesday, July 28, 2021

My Experiences at Blizzard Entertainment

Like many women either formerly or currently at Blizzard Entertainment, I had a fair share of bad experiences. While I immensely value my time there and have many great memories associated to being at Blizzard, it would be disingenuine to both myself and the other victims of abuse and gender discrimination that have come forward for me to not acknowledge the toxic environment for women, identify what was wrong, and bring light to it to help make sure it stops happening. 

Here are a few examples (that I haven't buried so far under trauma I can't recall them anymore) of what I experienced in that environment. While I am not a victim of (specifically) sexual abuse or assault, the issue is much more complex than that. The space there isn't safe or conducive to having women succeed and grow, and there are issues every employee faces that are heightened by gender stereotypes.

I'm going to put a lot out there, but I'm not going to name names. If you think you're someone who's responsible for one of the experiences I'm outlining here, there's no need to reach out to apologize to me about it. None of us can change the past. Just commit to doing better, and then actually do it. That's all I ask.

Because I have two different stretches of time spent at Blizzard (2.5 years in CS and 6.75 years in Community), I've broken them out into the primary departments I belonged to. This is going to be long. But here it is:
Customer Support 
  • There was an extremely heavy drinking and partying culture in CS (I learned later that this was pretty much everywhere at Blizzard), and we all quietly acknowledged it was because the job was both mentally draining and very poorly paid, thus making it an "okay way to blow off steam." This behavior was never dissuaded, and in some ways, actively encouraged. Any party I ever went to with coworkers was an extremely "frat-boy" environment. I learned to play beer pong at *Blizzard*, not in college. 
  • Furthermore, there was personal drama between managers that often reared its head to team members. Seniors (of both genders) would regularly make advances on their staff or coworkers. I had no recourse on how to report this. My manager wasn't a safe space (I was told he was interested in me, and there were others I couldn't go to for similar reasons), and I felt too "expendable" to raise any kind of concern. After all, I was grateful and "lucky" to be at Blizzard in the first place. 
  • While I was a contractor, I was recognized by my (female) management as being an excellent example of quality over quantity. I often exceeded expectations in quality and first-contact resolution results (meaning, I was very good at solving your problem the first time, so you wouldn't need to put in another ticket) while maintaining (and sometimes exceeding) the standard expectation of tickets completed per hour. However, metrics for CS tended to be very quantity driven, and this was often not celebrated at a team level. Instead, male peers whose metrics were entirely focused on how *much* they could get done would often be celebrated over the work I would do, even if their other scores were much lower by comparison. Those peers were generally looked at first for promotions or special projects. I think I was selected for one special project, ever, where the expectation was still quantity over quality.
  • Prior to the 2012 layoffs, I was put on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan, but really means "We're watching everything you do now, and if you don't do exactly as we say, you will lose your job) with no prior verbal or written warning for "browsing the internet" while I was working on the CS Forum team. My job, quite literally, was to browse the internet (including social media) to help users who posted proactively about their issues, but may not have submitted a ticket. I was often looked at as one of the best writers and communicators on my team by my peers, and this disingenuous punishment (that later had a very suspicious correlation to the impending layoffs) seriously devalued my work. My manager said and did nothing, even after I raised this concern. While he knew it was unfair and ridiculous, the punishment was doled out by his management, and he was powerless to do anything.
  • I was only promoted twice in my 6.5 year tenure in community, and both times were by my female managers as they were leaving the team. During the time in between these two promotions (which were 5 years apart from each other, with the first being a byproduct of an organizational restructure), I watched new, less experienced male peers on my teams and adjacent teams receive multiple promotions. I was also asked, with regularity by my peers, questions like "how are you still an associate?" or "I thought you lead that team?" Despite being viewed as a leader and excellent performer by many of my peers, I was not valued by (specifically male) management. 
  • When I brought the above concern to HR, I was told there was "nothing to be done" and that they would uphold my yearly review that detailed how I was "too emotional" and needed to be "more professional" in how I provided feedback and communicated with other teams. Again, I received nothing but glowing peer reviews in this regard; only the final manager review reflected this feedback.  
    • One specific manager is mostly at fault here; every one that succeeded him listened to my concerns, and were blocked out of promoting me because they "didn't have enough time as my manager to evaluate my skills." Shuffling management around on a team every year is going to result in people getting lost between the cracks. I was one of them.
  • Several of my yearly reviews focused on language around my "emotional" state. I was either never "professional" enough, "too emotional," or needed to better leverage my "business acumen" to improve my performance. Male peers with similar levels of frustration in getting player voices heard were told they were "too passionate" or "needed to tone it back a bit." Community Management is, largely, a qualitative job. Our function is to take the thoughts and feelings of our communities and pass them on to those who can use that feedback for meaningful change. Anyone who tells you otherwise (A) doesn't know what a community manager actually does or (B) doesn't actually care about what their communities think in the first place. 
  • One of my primary tasks was communicating community sentiment and feedback to the development team(s). I always needed to work harder to present said feedback, told on multiple occasions that I needed "numerical evidence" for what was often qualitative information, and eventually passed those duties on to my male peers because they rarely had to spend as much time "proving their point." In some cases, I still wrote the reports, but had my male counterparts do the presenting. I effectively relegated myself to the "secretary" note-taking job, both because it wouldn't get done otherwise, but also because there was no point in my speaking up. 
  • There is one very vivid incident I had providing feedback from the community about a class set being introduced into Diablo III. 
    • The feedback was on Delsere's Magnum Opus, and how the initial version of the chest piece for the female model was difficult to see from the isometric view because it was a thin vest. Players actually thought the item was bugged and not displaying anything upon equip. 
    • I stressed heavily about providing this feedback because I worried it wouldn't be well received, and I was correct—when I presented it, I was told the artist who made it was "very angry" about the complaints of "how sexualized" the set was, that this was "always the vision and tone for Diablo III as a mature game," and that "it was fine because the male version had an open chest." Literally none of these were concerns ever mentioned in the feedback I provided. Words were put in my mouth, in front of other coworkers, and I was forced to navigate a room full of men with heightened emotions as the only female and ultimately the one who would be viewed as "the emotional one." 
    • The only saving grace to this experience was A SINGLE DESIGNER calling out this bullshit, supporting my feedback, and pushing back on their art coworker. The set received some visual changes as a result (some of which were far more than what was asked, but let's recognize there was some weird projecting going on here already). While he didn't speak up until it was both private and after the fact (an area that could be improved), I am still forever grateful to that designer to this day.
  • After the "no alcohol on campus" rule went into effect, we learned someone from one of the development teams was stashing beer in the fridge in the quiet room, a facility primarily meant for nursing mothers. There's no excuse for this. As far as I know, nothing was ever actually done about it, and I heard several men grumbling about how the "fun" was being taken away from Blizzard. 
  • After leaving Blizzard, I realized how wildly underpaid I was. I had always suspected it to be the case, watching male peers in similar roles be able to purchase houses in Southern California on what should be the same salary while I actively accumulated further debt in a 3-person rental in order to survive my day to day. For many, surviving at Blizzard required either an extremely long commute (think roughly 2 hours in traffic one-way) for affordable housing or sharing a rental with multiple roommates. Most are wildly underpaid at Blizzard, but women in particular cannot survive on their salary or even begin to think about having children in that environment. It was a major component in the discussion with my now-husband as to why we never wanted kids (though ultimately we also decided it wasn't for us). My profession simply didn't pay enough to take care of myself, let alone another human being.  
  • During my time as a Community Manager, I was very vocal about women not being left alone at events, regardless of if they were an employee or otherwise. I heavily advocated for a buddy system at events we travelled to, regularly disseminated information publicly on how to protect yourself at events, and pushed to make sure our female invitees to BlizzCon were provided a +1 ticket, always. Women do not feel safe at industry events, and for good reason. There were coworkers who would push back on this "special treatment." I noticed that, after I was drugged and went to to the emergency room during a party at PAX West, suddenly they were a lot less vocal about pushing back on this. It shouldn't require sharing my personal trauma to show that these situations are real threats.
  • The Diablo Immortal pushback was something that took a very deep, very personal toll on me. 
    • Some of you may remember the Future of Diablo video we released just prior to the Immortal announcement. I pitched and championed this video as well as wrote the original script, because I was extremely in tune with the community and confident as to what the reception would be. Every step of the way, this approach was questioned. Every step of the way, the script was changed until it was unrecognizable, because leadership (particularly Activision and their obsession with investors) did not want to "give up the surprise" that Diablo IV was being worked on. Nevermind the fact there were plenty of clues this was already the case, like "unannounced Diablo title" job listings on our website. Eventually, we landed on the video that went out, which just wasn't sufficient, and spokespeople like myself and the Immortal team were hung out to dry at BlizzCon. 
    • I can't speak for the experience of others, but in regards to myself - I went to therapy specifically from that BlizzCon experience. I handled the Q&A line that year. I was crowded and ganged up on by angry and upset fans. Security was not there to help me; I was on my own. Developers were able to exit safely via backstage; I was vulnerable on the show floor, amidst the crowd of attendees. I knew this reaction was coming and I deeply empathized with them, but still I hoped for the best and tried to be available to a very hurt and frustrated community. Instead, I was still harassed until I called in friends to escort me from the show floor. 
    • I retreated to our community HQ behind the scenes (a room where we work on all our social media for the show and can take breaks from the show floor) and cried for at least an hour. Then, I put myself back together, and walked out on the show floor to keep dealing with the same vitriol the rest of the weekend because that was my job. I needed to put on a smile and be there for the fans. 
    • There was no support for this entire situation. Nothing from HR. No benefits to call on. Nothing from leadership except "don't listen to the haters." I asked; there was no ownership of the fact we were made targets and then left to be harassed constantly. Immortal is legitimately a good game, and something the team working on it is extremely passionate about. They want to change the landscape of mobile gaming and show you can have an amazing, engaging experience in that space, and I still feel they're succeeding. It was agonizing for that game, myself, and its team to be the punching bag of not just the community, but much of the rest of the company. Immortal became the scapegoat for a year we just shouldn't have had a BlizzCon, because there honestly just wasn't enough that was ready to announce. All of us that suffered for that, men and women alike, were just expected to keep on as though nothing had happened.
  • After spending a lot of time in therapy reconciling the feelings of dismissal in my profession and as a person, I came to the determination that while I still wanted to work on Diablo, it was clear community (or at least, Blizzard's evolution of community) was not the right place for me to do so, especially as I had exhausted my personal path for progression without becoming a people manager. 
    • Let's talk about management as progression for a moment. Despite the fact I had been doing it in all the stints our team didn't have a manager, I had convinced myself I didn't want to become a manager. I was a creative. I was meant to be doing the meaningful work on the ground floor. In retrospect, I realize I had watched too many managers (sometimes, but not always, my own) be totally useless yes-men, and it's not that I didn't want to help my team succeed; it's that I thought I was already doing that by not being management in the first place. 
    • I began trying to explore other avenues to get onto Team 3; I had, for many years, expressed interest in eventually writing for Diablo. It's part of why I wrote a lot of community blogs aimed at lore; it let me network with designers, immerse myself in the canon, and remain a knowledgeable and credible source with the community. Several members of Team 3 whom I had grown close to over the years reinforced this was a good opportunity for me. "You'd be perfect for that!" "We could really use someone with your comprehensive knowledge!" "It'd be so great to have someone who really knows our audience!"
    • So I began trying. I applied for every opportunity that came up. I laid the groundwork with my management to pursue training and learning opportunities that would improve my chances. I asked for references and referrals. My first application, I received an immediate rejection. Not a "we've reviewed your application and we're not moving forward." Like, minutes after hitting submit, I received a rejection email. That was weird, especially given that in this instance I was asked to apply, so I pushed the issue, and eventually, got a single interview. 
    • When you're internally interviewed for a interdepartmental position, part of Blizzard's "Learn & Grow" philosophy is that you're supposed to receive action items on where you need to improve to try again. I never received this either; I had to, once again, push to ask why I didn't make the cut and how I could improve my chances. I was told I needed to provide an example that I could "use development tools to meaningfully implement narrative elements" and show that I could "learn any tool provided." 
    • Blizzard mostly uses internally built software for developing their games, so asking me for knowledge in a specific style of coding or with a particular software would have been pointless. So, I took that action - I built a roughly 15 minute experience in RPG Maker that was fully playable. I implemented narrative elements like voice over, music, sound effects, portaits, dialogue and storytelling through quest progress from scratch. This was entirely self-taught. I also heavily documented all the changes I made throughout my process, including bug logs, to show that I could document my work properly.
    • I also got approval from my management to participate in one of Team 3's game jams (usually a 24-48 hour sprint to make something; this could be anything from a minor piece of code to an entire game mode or proof of concept, and you could work in a team if you wanted). I self-taught myself use of their very not user-friendly proprietary tool to implement a small piece of code that the game otherwise didn't have, working in a small team of 3-4 people. My role was programming and implementation. The peers I reached out to and my teammates were happy to help me learn and guide me along the way. I had never done anything like this, and it worked really well! I was very proud of the work we did in just a couple short days. We showed it off to the whole team to pretty tepid reception. Sure, it wasn't fancy or flashy; but it did exactly what we were trying to do.
    • The next application I put in, I included all of this—and received another immediate rejection and no further follow-up. That was the day I gave up; they didn't want me, or what I could do. That was now very clear. No amount of work I was going to put in would change that, so why keep trying? 
  • When the opportunity I ultimately took to leave came up, I was very transparent about the offer, my frustrations, and what it would take for me to stay. The pay disparity at the new offer was 18% higher than my pay at the time, and I knew it was what I was worth. I told Blizzard that if they could match the offer, I would stay. The response was, "You should leave." That was, ultimately, a kindness (and honestly, the right advice). But it's a complicated feeling to be told what you aren't worth by a place where you've invested nearly a decade of your career.
There are many, many more stories I know I have repressed in order to simply try to move on and enjoy my work at my new place of employment. Anything I've put above is memorable enough to me that I'm confident to speak on it. 

Ultimately, I left Blizzard because I hit a point in my career where I knew I could no longer progress. 
  • I "wasn't ready for management" despite having been forced to manage my team previously due to frequent restructures and a constant revolving door of managers. 
  • When I had finally given up trying to explore other paths and "bite the bullet" to become a manager, I wasn't even considered. Blizzard instead hired another man externally to take over the team, someone I was also responsible for interviewing. This happened at least twice, that I can recall.
  • I regret putting myself in the position of "I don't want to be a manager" because I was told, so often by so many, that it was something I couldn't or shouldn't do. 
  • It should not have taken six years for me to drop "associate" from my title. 
  • I should not have felt like I needed to flee to another department to be happy, the efforts of which were also shut down with zero feedback on my applications. 
  • There was no way to make me happy in my role, because toxicity, particularly amongst the development teams, made my role often feel pointless. 
The designers and programmers and artists whom I were (and still am) friends with all felt similarly fearful or frustrated that they couldn't do anything about it. I know, so very well, that we were not alone; just powerless. 

There's a separate, yet related underlying issue to the misogyny at play here, and this is the best name I have for it: Developer Ego. Community Managers are supposed to be the lifeline to how your fans are feeling. We already get discredited for being "too emotional" about the game as community managers; it just gets amplified when you're a woman. I was tired of being unheard and disrespected, or having to willfully ignore the community I was dedicated to helping in order to toe around sensitive dev egos. 

That lack of humility plays a huge part in these issues. No one above you can ever be wrong. There was no room for ever making an apology even when a mistake had clearly been made, no matter how egregious. That is a toxic and unrealistic environment for everyone. 

I also want to reiterate: This isn't just a Blizzard problem. This is an industry problem. These issues aren't unique to Blizzard, and my peers across the industry all commiserate on the same experiences. This is especially true when it comes to dismissiveness around community, influencer, and social media management. Let's be clear - these are three different disciplines that require different skillsets, but often are expected to be done by the same person. It'd be like expecting your localization writer, copy editor, and narrative designer to be one person. Sure, they all work with words, but they don't do the same job.

I have very complex feelings about Blizzard. I'm the experienced, successful community manager I am today because of the work I did there. Seeing nearly a decade of work at Blizzard is something I'm certain still draws eyes to my resume. You get a piece of that Blizzard success by having worked there, and in exchange, they can treat you however they want. I have some particularly weird feelings about being the poster child for reinforcing the phrase "You will bleed Blizzard Blue for the rest of your life," because it's true—it really does become an inseparable part of you. It's indoctrination and pride, but now, it's tainted by a reflection and shame that I let myself be taken advantage of. 

All of those feelings are valid. 

I'm wearing my Community Development - Diablo sweatshirt right now, drinking my coffee from a Diablo cup with my 5-year sword hanging on the wall behind me. I met my husband at Blizzard—we started in CS the very same day, in the same training class, and became fast friends well before we ever started dating. We now decorate our house in thousands of dollars of Blizzard art and statues. We debated getting married in front of the Orc before I left. It's a very intrinsic, meaningful, part of my life that has some absolutely wonderful moments... and some pretty awful ones, too.

If you're someone who's privileged enough to make a meaningful difference, I ask for you to listen. Pay attention to what people are saying, past and present. Most importantly, look for the patterns. If you're finding yourself asking, "Huh, I wonder why this person isn't progressing?" dig into it instead of just ignoring the fact they're clearly someone who's caught your eye and aren't being rewarded for their good work. It's been far too easy to ignore these issues and paint them over with excuses. Passion is a vibrant, overbearing color in our palette. Let's stop overusing and relying on it.