Head of Xbox doesn't want to be ‘virtue shaming’ Activision

Phil Spencer is ‘disturbed’ by the claims against Activision, but doesn’t want to call the company out.

Phil Spencer, Executive President of Gaming at Microsoft addresses the audience at the Xbox 2018 E3 ...

Lead Xbox executive Phil Spencer is very aware of the gaming industry’s toxicity at both in-game and corporate levels, calling for a cross-platform ban list while also asserting that he does not wish to engage in “virtue shaming” against longtime Xbox partner Activision.

In a New York Times interview, Spencer shared his thoughts on the gaming industry’s culture of intolerance and harassment and expressed his desire for people to feel safe at work. “I’ve been in this industry long enough to maybe feel more ownership for what happens in the space, and I’m saddened and sickened when I hear about workplace environments that cause such distress and destruction of individuals and teams,” Spencer said.

The Xbox boss spoke broadly and generally about toxic workplace cultures, choosing to not address the industry’s rampant sexism problem by name. Instead, he referred to such workplace cultures as “destructive,” perhaps in an effort to come across as corporately diplomatic.

When asked about Xbox’s long-term relationship with Activision, Spencer refused to go into detail or share specifics about how Xbox has changed its relationship with the company accused of a “frat boy culture” that allegedly led to multiple rapes and one suicide.

Spencer skirted around the issue, stating, “The work we do specifically with a partner like Activision is something I’m not going to talk publicly about. We have changed how we do certain things with them and they’re aware of that. But... this isn’t about Xbox virtue shaming other companies, you know, Xbox’s history isn’t spotless.”

Xbox’s hired schoolgirl dancers at its Game Developers’ Conference party in 2016.Anonymous

Uh, what? — Spencer’s reluctance to call out Activision suggests that he wants to maintain a civil relationship with the company. But it’s also likely he doesn’t want to come across as a hypocrite given Xbox’s own history. “If I can learn from [Xbox’s partners]... I’d much rather do that than get into any finger-wagging at other companies that are out there,” Spencer said.

He made a point of acknowledging that the 2016 Game Developers’ Conference — where Xbox hired women to dance around in sexy schoolgirl outfits — “was a painful moment in our history.” But ironically, Spencer claimed that the Xbox team “was some of the strongest voices out there talking about how [it] wasn’t right” after the dancing schoolgirl event occurred.

Reporting live — As for how he thinks the industry should change, Spencer said that “the first thing we need to be able to do is have people be able to report and talk about what’s happening.” He’s also apparently a big advocate for reporting bad behavior in both toxic work environments and in games, as Spencer spent some time in the interview explaining just how important the “report” features are to the Xbox UI.

Level 1 — The real question is — how will the gaming industry handle reports going forward? Gaming companies don’t exactly have the best track record for handling reports so far, considering that the CEO of Activision Blizzard Bobby Kotick was reportedly aware of rape allegations for years while other employees who allegedly harassed and made bigoted remarks were kept around despite multiple reports.

Gaming industry, take note: The burden of change shouldn’t fall on victims. It’s up to companies and lawmakers to protect and enforce rules surrounding harassment and abuse.