If Activision Blizzard wants to change, it must fire much of its executive team.
I’ve been preoccupied with my health lately, so I haven’t said anything about Activision Blizzard, a company I know and have worked with (for example, I led the teams that did the tabletop RPG adaptations of Starcraft and Diablo). As I’m late to the subject, I won’t give you another rundown of the horrible allegations described in charges by the state of California, except to say they’re horrible. There are enough fantastic analyses of these problems by women and people of color that you should read; you don’t need another flawed white man’s opinion on them.
But I do want to talk about why I think these problems will not be adequately addressed: Activision Blizzard’s hiring record the last couple years is abysmal. Now, I don’t mean in the rank and file. I know at least half a dozen people who’ve joined the company in the last couple years and they’re all top flight. What I’m talking about is the C-suite, which has been so thoroughly polluted with bad people that it needs a complete overhaul. If Activision Blizzard wants to change, it needs to start by firing a large portion of its executive team.
When California issued its charges, I was not remotely surprised by Activision Blizzard’s response to the complaint, which can best be described as “The Brett Kavanaugh Defense.” It was an attempt to scream the problem out of the room. The statement downplayed all the charges and ended with a dig at “unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.” It made perfect sense to me that this leadership team would issue that statement.
Let’s start with executive VP for corporate affairs Fran Townsend, who was the Bush administration’s third of four Homeland Security Advisors. “The Hurricane,” as she was called, was a primary advocate of torture as a policy — I’m sorry, she calls it “enhanced interrogation techniques.” She was in that job as the Abu Ghraib revelations came to light, defending the uses of waterboarding, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, and the like. The fact that a torture advocate became the chief compliance officer at a game company is staggering. The fact that a torture advocate is — get this — the executive sponsor of its Employee Women’s Network is even worse. (One of the demands of the recent walkout is that she step down from this position, after she issued a tone-deaf response to the allegations.)
As bad as Townsend is, Activision Blizzard topped themselves by hiring Trump administration Undersecretary of State and Mike Pompeo sycophant Brian Bulatao as its chief administration officer. Before the State Department, he was Pompeo’s chief operating officer at the CIA. Basically, he was Pompeo’s attack dog. The State Department’s inspector general described him as a bully, running the department under a cloud of intimidation; he also showed how Bulatao would repeatedly ignore potential illegalities committed by State employees. Also under Bulatao, State spending on domestic travel and use of government staff for personal benefit to the secretary went way up. And there’s the whole purging of the inspectors general and ousting of career ambassadors like Marie Yovanovitch, which Bulatao oversaw. If Fran Townsend is kinda the worst, Bulatao is literally the worst.
But why stop with two Republican administration defenders of the unthinkable? Activision Blizzard’s recently acquired chief legal officer, Grant Dixton, was Bush’s associate counsel. Dixton was second in command to Alberto Gonzales, the primary advocate of warrantless surveillance in the Bush administration. Under Gonzales and Dixton, the White House counsel led the charge for legal authorization of torture. Everything that Fran Townsend defended, Dixton provided the legal underpinnings for. He then parlayed that job to becoming general counsel for a defense contractor, Boeing. I would not be surprised if Activision Blizzard’s ham-fisted statement in response to the California suit was written by Grant Dixton.
Finally, as the waves of criticism and employee protest overran Activision Blizzard’s corporate suite, CEO Bobby Kotick announced that the company hired the law firm of WilmerHale to investigate. Fantastic news, right? Uh no. WilmerHale is directly connected to Townsend, and is particularly known for its expertise in union-busting, literally the thing that stops accountability on a corporate level. This is not an “independent” investigation. It’s an investigation to insulate the corporation from consequences.
FYI, this pattern isn’t new. Kotick has a history of appointing Republican political operatives before this particular group, notably former Activision Blizzard president and COO Collister “Coddy” Johnson, a former Bush campaign field director—and Bush’s godson.
I’ve been asked: Why would a game company hire people like this? The regulatory pressure and complex laws for games worldwide makes a hire with international credibility a great idea. You need heavy hitters if you’re an international company like Activision Blizzard. (I recommend avoiding those that have destroyed our reputation abroad, but that’s just me.)
As for why these political operatives would want to work at a game company, at this company the executive packages worth eight figures a year don’t suck. It’s the bankroll of a defense contractor exec, with fewer trips to Iraq.
Several shareholder rights firms are now actively investigating Activision Blizzard, which is super-bad if you want your stock prices to stay up. If I were the company’s board of directors, this is when I would fire all of the people listed above and make a commitment to change. The only way they can do that is to put pressure on Kotick, who this week had to walk back the company’s awful responses to the lawsuit. That’ll happen when your stock price does this in a week.
Firing those folks might win me back some of the employees. According to OpenSecrets, individuals at Activision Blizzard overwhelmingly contribute to Democratic candidates over Republican candidates on a level of 4-to-1. They can’t be happy being represented by these awful people. And when your chief compliance officer, chief administration officer, and chief legal counsel — y’know, exactly the people who might be charged with addressing allegations like this — are this compromised, you’re not going to see any meaningful change.
I’m a CEO of a game company too. I’m on record as saying that I’m sure Kotick is better than me at running Activision Blizzard, but with a salary of $155 million this year, he’s not 2,000 times as good as I am. Given who he has hired, I might be better at any price.
Postscript: A horrifying and relevant realization about this post from a commenter on Facebook: The C in “C-suite” stands for “Corporate,” not “Cosby.”
This is the 68th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, Colin Kaepernick, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, the midterms, the Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third parties, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, the Trump mafia, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, the impeachment inquiry, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, Boris Johnson, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, unemployment, rioting, the Klan, the Confederacy, the GOP 2020 strategy, Biden’s strategy, the wildfire crisis, civil war, Kamala Harris, Trump’s COVID diagnosis, Biden’s case, Native Americans, and the insurrection. Most of these appear in my new edition of my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order from our store.