The video game megacorporation Activision Blizzard, Inc. was the subject of a two-year investigation by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. A lawsuit is now pending against the company because of “constant sexual harassment, unequal pay, and retaliation.” For those familiar with the video game industry, this lawsuit comes as no surprise; this behavior is both common and actively defended. In terms of the ethics of the company’s alleged behavior; there is no real moral debate: these actions are evil. In terms of the legal aspects, that is for the lawyers and judges to work through. While I am an ethics professor, I am also a gamer and I have an active subscription to World of Warcraft (WoW). When news of the lawsuit broke, my gaming group discussed what we should do. One person proposed finding a new game made by a company that treats its employees well. I am writing this not only as an exercise in philosophy, but as a means of working out my own ethical view on the matter in real time.
One defense commonly advanced in such cases is to point out that most (if not all) companies are morally bad. As such, almost any game will be morally tainted with the wrongdoings of the company. Looked at one way, this can be fallacious reasoning. If the company is defended by claiming these are common occurrences, then this is the appeal to common practice fallacy. This fallacy occurs when, obviously enough, a practice is defended by claiming that it is commonly done. Even if something is commonly done, it does not follow that it is acceptable.
Looked at another way, one can make a pragmatic argument. If someone wants to play a certain type of game and all companies that make that type of game are bad in some manner, then they will always be stuck with a game from a bad company. At the very least, any major company will be exploiting its workforce because that is how capitalism works. The Good Place did a good job illustrating this sort of problem: it is almost impossible to be a good person in today’s world. One can, of course, try to pick the least evil option: if the allegations against Activision Blizzard are true, then it would be among the worst, and one could select a company that is not nearly as bad as an option. But this is still a moral problem.
While Thoreau was focused on government, his discussion of civil disobedience can be extensively retooled to apply to companies. A good person, one can argue, must withdraw their support from evil companies or they become accountable for their portion of that evil. On this view, to keep subscribing to WoW would be wrong (assuming that the charges are true). It would also be wrong to switch to any other evil company.
One can make the case that there are neutral or even good companies that make games like World of Warcraft. This could be done by arguing that capitalist exploitation is not bad or that there are companies that treat their workers well enough to be considered non-evil. If so, one could at least pick a non-evil company and keep playing that sort of game without enriching a bad company. In this case, switching would be the right thing to do.
There is also the option embraced by some, which is to believe that the alleged behavior is acceptable—for such people there is no moral concern here. However, I obviously do not believe that. There is also the somewhat selfish approach of just not caring what a company does and focusing on what one wants to do. So, a person could just ignore the allegations against the company and keep subscribing, being concerned only with the game itself. This is a not uncommon position. Interestingly, though, the people who take this position towards allegations of this sort also tend to be the same people who get enraged if a company starts expressing “woke” views. This is a bad faith position: if what a company does outside of the product does not matter, then it does not matter. If it does, then it does. As one would suspect, what people care about does depend on their values—so it is not that they do not care what the company does, they just do not care about the horrific sexism and other ills. But there are those consistent in ignoring everything beyond what they like and dislike about the product itself, be a company “woke” or wicked. While this might seem somewhat irresponsible, it has the virtue of consistency.
While I have considered cancelling my subscription, I do have some concerns about that. Some of the victims of the (alleged) harassment and abuse still work for the company and boycotting the company would also hurt them. There is also the concern about the WoW community; leaving WoW would cede the game to those who are either morally fine with the alleged crimes or who are indifferent. Another point of consideration is that the top leadership of the company is so wealthy that they would not be meaningfully hurt by a boycott. While it is true that they would have less money to siphon out of the company, they are so rich that it would not matter except in terms of their bragging rights to the other millionaires. This is, of course, a general moral concern with any boycott: in most cases, the people being hurt the most will be the workers rather than those in control. That said, solid arguments can be advanced for boycotts. For example, while the top executives would not be meaningfully hurt by a decline in income (they are already millionaires), they want to keep siphoning money and they can face consequences—such as being replaced. As such, a case can be made for boycotting the company in the hopes of having some impact on the behavior there. While each individual, such as I, would have little impact, collective action could be meaningful: the company might be forced to decide between profit and their (alleged) “frat boy” culture.
The company is entitled to its legal defense and, as this is being written, nothing has been legally proven. Hence, I am careful to use “alleged” to avoid being sued. That said, the available evidence seems damning, and it is hard to buy their goods and services in good conscience. But, as noted above, there is the moral concern for the (alleged) victims.