Xbox Boss Not Interested In ‘Virtue Shaming’ Activision

Head of Xbox Phil Spencer stands in front of an Xbox sign wearing a State of Decay shirt.

Photo: Kevork Djansezian (Getty Images)

Back in November, the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, told staff he was “evaluating all aspects” of the Microsoft gaming division’s relationship with Call of Duty publisher Activision Blizzard following a bombshell report by The Wall Street Journal of workplace misconduct and coverups at the massive publisher. Pressed to elaborate on what exactly that meant in a new interview today with The New York Times, Spencer said he wasn’t interested in “virtue shaming” another company.

Spencer wrote in a November email to Xbox teams that he was “disturbed and deeply troubled by the horrific events and actions” recently brought to light in The Wall Street Journal’s report, a sentiment he reiterated today in an interview with tech reporter Kara Swisher on her podcast Sway.

“I always feel for people working on any team, my own teams, other teams,” Spencer said when asked about Activision Blizzard’s ongoing reckoning with reports of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination. “I think people should feel safe and included in any workplace that they’re in. I’ve been in this industry long enough to maybe feel more ownership for what happens in the video game space. And I’m saddened and sickened when I hear about workplace environments that cause such distress and destruction of individuals and teams.”

When Swisher asked in a follow-up how the reports about Activision Blizzard had changed Microsoft’s longtime partnership with the giant video game publisher, Spencer said he couldn’t go into it publicly.

“We have changed how we do certain things with them, and they’re aware of that,” he said. “But I also—this isn’t about, for us as Xbox, virtue-shaming other companies. Xbox’s history is not spotless.”

As an example of Xbox’s own problematic past, Spencer referenced a now infamous 2016 GDC party Microsoft hosted that included women in schoolgirl outfits dancing on platforms. Spencer apologized for it at the time, and did so again in an interview with Axios last November. Two former senior Xbox employees were mentioned in last year’s reports about misconduct at Activision Blizzard, but Microsoft has so far declined to comment on them.

Spencer was asked several more times by Swisher about any ways Xbox would be “punishing” Activision Blizzard for past incidents at the company, but he remained vague:

Swisher: I don’t mean to be rude, but what’s wrong with punishing them for that? Like, we don’t want to do business with you unless you cleaned up. Now, again, these issues were back several years ago too, but under the same leadership, Bobby Kotick, who’s the long-time Activision CEO.

Spencer: I think in terms of interactions with other companies, the things that we choose to do with our brand and our platform, in coordination or not with other companies, is the avenue that we have to have an impact. I would say in terms of individuals that are in leadership positions at other companies, it’s not obviously our position to judge who the CEOs are. Like, CEOs are chosen by shareholders and boards. At Xbox, I know who I’m accountable for here in terms of the business and the operations. It’s my teams here, my management chain. And that’s the thing that we continue to focus on, is to try to grow. And whether that’s us sharing, again, the experiences that we have with other partners, if we can help them on their own journey or on the things that happen in our own teams.

Following last November’s Wall Street Journal investigation, thousands of employees at Activision Blizzard called for CEO Bobby Kotick to resign. A worker group called ABK Workers Alliance announced shortly afterward that it was passing out union cards to members, while a smaller group of developers officially went on strike following the announcement of layoffs at Call of Duty: Warzone studio Raven Software.

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