Why do I need to know which Activision Blizzard executives worked in the Trump administration?

Activision Blizzard’s executives have been criticized for a series of progressively tone deaf responses to the lawsuit brought by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and the resulting labour action. The company has done nothing to earn any sympathy, and the most charitable reading of the executive response would be ‘failed to rise to the occasion.’ The company and its executives cannot seem to resist casting themselves as the villain, which makes a pattern that has emerged in the coverage all the more curious. When discussing Activision Blizzard executives, it is common to add some variation on “…who worked for the Trump administration…” no matter its relevance to the topic. For example, this is a tweet describing Brian Bulatao’s “consider the consequences of your signature” e-mail regarding unionizing:

Bulatao’s e-mail was not a good one. Presumably any argument against a union is predicated on management behaving differently than before, something his “quicker” solution does not provide any assurance of. Beyond failing to demonstrate any understanding of why the workforce wants to unionize, Bulatao includes a threat carefully worded enough to muddy the waters, denying himself even the cowardice of his convictions. Simply put, the tweet above is right to highlight the threat and the reading that management is concerned about unionizing is uncontroversial, which makes the connection to the Trump administration seem all the more out of place. The problem with the e-mail is its contents, not its author.

Brian Bulatao’s career includes the Army Rangers, McKinsey & Company, and executive positions prior to his role in the Trump administration and Activision Blizzard. He was brought on as an advisor and then Chief Operation Officer by Mike Pompeo, then acting as Director of the CIA. He then joined Pompeo at the State Department as Under Secretary of State for Management. The role at the State Department required Senate confirmation and so was held up as part of a broader effort to obtain documentation on political appointees (particularly to address the claim that officials were punished for showing disloyalty to the present administration), but there does not appear to have been any concern regarding Bulatao’s qualifications at the time, and his confirmation passed with a substantial margin (92-5, making a margin of 43 votes with a simple majority required to pass). For comparison, when considering the nominations for the week prior to and the week following Bulatao’s confirmation, his was the only to pass with a margin in the double digits (though it should be noted that a number of these were judges. Comparable votes in this period may be Janet Dhillon for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with a margin of 3 on a party line vote, and Jeffrey Rosen for Deputy Attorney General, with the same margin on party lines). Bulatao was a qualified candidate on paper and his confirmation is unusual only in its bipartisan support.

A review of Bulatao’s credentials and nomination is not intended to be some kind of apologia, since his e-mail speaks for itself. His hiring at Activision Blizzard was also questioned at the time due accusations of his bullying, stemming from an inquiry from the Foreign Affairs Committee. Leyla Johnson of Mohawk Games has written far more eloquently on the issues at the State Department than I ever can (I sadly cannot find her blog, but one appalling example is here), but even these limited examples should show how damaging this kind of behaviour is, both for the individuals affected and the institution as a whole. What it is intended to highlight is that, if anything, Bulatao’s government experience make him a desirable candidate for his role at Activision Blizzard (a role that involves overseeing the Call of Duty Endowment) and that it is his personal qualities that are disqualifying.

A similar case is that of Frances Townsend. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick was criticized for calling Townsend a “highly regarded public servant” given her public comments on torture. The problem with this criticism is that Townsend is, in fact, a highly regarded public servant who has worked for both Republican (Bush) and Democratic (Clinton) administrations. I didn’t find out she was a member of Activation Blizzard from the gaming press but rather as part of an introduction for a recording on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Speakers Series in which she discussed technological progress in defence with Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden. She is, in short, a serious person with serious credentials, whose opinion is sought on matters of public policy. Townsend’s comments on torture are narrow and contain a number of qualifiers and hedges, and so while I am not convinced by her position (which, at the risk of being uncharitable, seems to have something of a ‘following orders’ flavour), the designation of ‘torture apologist’ (from the same article) overstates her case. More importantly, while Bulatao’s conduct (not his presence) at the State Department actually does have bearing on his suitability for his role at Activision Blizzard, Townsend’s views on torture are completely irrelevant to her role as head of compliance. It would certainly not be the first time a qualified woman was denied a senior position for holding opinions unrelated to the position under consideration, but it wouldn’t make it any more correct.

As with Brian Bulatao, what matters is Townsend’s conduct. While her story is murkier, it is not difficult to criticize her actions without bringing up her political past. The e-mail circulated under her name was not appropriate to the moment. It was later revealed that Kotick was the author (link is behind a paywall). Kotick, for his own part, blamed Townsend for being tone deaf for circulating the memo. While this paints Townsend as slightly more sympathetic than the initial reaction to the memo might inspire, her subsequent activity on Twitter, viewed as comparing the court case against Activision Blizzard to a situation at Yale Law School that did not reflect well on the participants, is her responsibility. The article seemed to get far more criticism than it deserved (for what it’s worth, the author, Elizabeth Bruenig, is very much of the “progressive” stripe), but by linking what happened to Amy Chua, where it does seem like there was an injustice, to the situation at Activision Blizzard, Townsend communicated a complete failure to appreciate the gravity of the moment. Even here I may be being unfair. Townsend did not explicitly link the situation at Activision Blizzard to the article, she did previously use her Twitter account to discuss current affairs, and Twitter seems calibrated to produce the worst possible interpretation of any given tweet. All that being granted, sharing that article at that particular moment is, at best, an exercise in extraordinarily poor judgement. In addition, she did ultimately allow her name to be attached to Kotick’s memo. Few of us when actually faced with this test are willing to take a stand and resign, so I do not envy her position, but it was ultimately her decision. As such, the call (which was ultimately acted upon) to have her step down as executive sponsor of the Women’s Network at the company seems entirely appropriate. However, absolutely none of this has anything to do with her time in government or positions on torture.

It is difficult to find other gaming executives discussed the same way Activision Blizzard’s executives are. Articles about Take-Two’s proposed acquisition of Zynga do not have references to the acquisition being overseen by ‘President Karl Slatoff, formerly of Lehman Brothers who totally cooked the books and screwed us all in the subprime mortgage crisis’. Activision Blizzard is unusual in that it has a number of executives who have served in government, but we should be honest and say that it is likely the party affiliation that singles these roles out for special mention. It is a shorthand for letting the reader know who is wearing the white hat and who is wearing the black hat in the story. Instead of simply letting the facts speak for themselves, political alignment becomes a little bit of editorial to give you a nudge and let you know they’re one of those people. This tendency also seems to be inversely correlated to the severity of the charge. The only thing irritating about the tweet above is that tweets are supposed to economize on words, but Bulatao’s position in the Trump administration gets the mention, not his actions in that position. In contrast, Kotaku’s characterization of Townsend as a “torture apologist” is not leaving much to the imagination, despite the fact that the article is only about her being hired. Oddly enough, Kotaku is arguably more justified in highlighting her political career given that it forms the substance of her qualifications for the role. Contrast their article with the Wall Street Journal’s coverage which informs the reader as to the geopolitical considerations that make her political experience relevant and still finds the space to mention her private sector experience in almost half as many words.

There are two big problems I’d like to focus on that seem directly relevant to both Activision Blizzard and the government roles. First, we are rushing to condemn Bulatao’s presence in the Trump administration with such breathless haste that we are running right past the fact that the initial concern was his role as some kind of commissar at State, rooting out the disloyal. The Trump administration certainly was an aberration and figures who disgraced themselves should not be allowed to quietly launder their reputations. However, condemning on the basis of simply being present in the administration fails to distinguish between individuals like Jim Mattis and Elaine Chao, who appear to have performed their roles competently and both resigned on principle, toxic elements like William Barr, and the many who beclowned themselves like H.R. McMaster. Townsend’s inclusion in the rogues’ gallery likely means this is not just about the Trump administration but rather a presence in any Republican administration. While I will concede that Republican officials are not a particularly sympathetic group, I do not think it is at all desirable to turn political beliefs or actions into hiring criteria. Doing so essentially says that what Bulatao did at State was okay if only he’d been a bit nicer about it.

The second issue is that I do not think it is in our interests to make government positions any less attractive than they already are. Relatively speaking, the top spots remain attractive for just about any profession, but it’s hard to see how candidates with options would see government as a desirable one outside of some sense of public spiritedness. This extends from the rank and file of individual departments to cabinet positions. If a 2 year pandemic hasn’t taught us to appreciate the value of competent civil servants who can procure and distribute emergency supplies regardless of which party is in power, then surely the fact that we disagree with Frances Townsend should tell us we want better people who will make the correct choices in those positions. Adding the risk that a candidate will be blamed for the actions of an unpopular administration in future job prospects will only serve to limit the talent pool at exactly the time the country would need high quality candidates of good character.

If this second point sounds familiar it is, to an extent, similar to what Townsend was talking about in the comments that got her labeled a torture apologist. Her point was, in essence, that people were acting under a set of guidelines established at the time and that the Obama administration’s decision to declassify the memos subjected these people to public shaming that would result in the intelligence community second guessing their mandate. One could argue that second guessing might have spared the world the war crimes at Abu Ghraib, and that the kind of anonymity she seems to be advocating for would likely produce more abuses (again, I’m not advocating for Townsend’s position here). But the fact that an expert cannot comment on a matter of policy without it overshadowing all her other qualifications for a role in the private sector speaks to a confusion as to which matters we settle at the ballot box.

As a matter of pure demographics, I am almost certain I have obtained goods and services from Liberals, NDP, Conservatives, and likely a number of people who have never voted in their lives. I couldn’t tell you if Liberals or Conservatives give better haircuts, or if non-voters make the best coffee. If you work at a large enough firm, it is equally certain that some of your coworkers consider some of your cherished political beliefs downright immoral. For the most part, dealing with those differences through the political process and focusing on the things we do best lets us get on with our day and not hate our coworkers. It was Frances Townsend’s response to the lawsuit that made her unsuitable to continue as the executive sponsor for the Women’s Network, not her actions at Homeland Security or her comments on CNN. Brian Bulatao’s comments may be in line with Bobby Kotick’s vision for HR, Workplace, and Physical Security, but they are odious to anyone who wants to see real change at Activation Blizzard. He could fully renounce the Trump administration, play basketball with Barack Obama every weekend for the rest of his life, volunteer at a food bank 6 days a week and it would not change the contents of his e-mail.

In the same way that the rest of us can function day to day without knowing or caring about the politics of most of the people we interact with, I wish our reporting would do the same and let us know what happened and the relevant context. Given that I often don’t share the politics of the targets, I can completely understand the impulse mark the bad guys out through their political affiliations. As such I propose a compromise. Games journalism should just come out and append the phrase “who is a real scumbag” instead of the more circumspect reference to political history. Those of us who do not consider a lack of perfect political alignment to be a disqualifying factor can move past the outburst and not have our intelligence insulted with political euphemisms. For the rest who really cannot abide the idea that someone else may think differently than them, they get harder hitting coverage that says what it means and can safely skip the content.

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