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The Ubisoft paradox: How the publisher enabled a culture of abuse and control

The Ubisoft paradox: How the publisher enabled a culture of abuse and control

July 1, 2020 | By Chris Kerr




Something is deeply wrong at Ubisoft. Multiple reports from several former and current employees, many of which have been shared online over the past two weeks, depict a toxic workplace where sexual harassment, abuse, racism, and homophobia have been allowed to take root and flourish at Ubisoft studios across the globe.

While a surge of people have come forth over the past several days with reports of sexual harassment and abuse across the entire game industry, Ubisoft's case stands out. At a frequency greater than any other major game publisher, the company has been named repeatedly as a place where abuse runs rampant.

Last week, we reported allegations made by Ubisoft workers who said they experienced or witnessed some form of abuse during their time at the studio. These allegations range from homophobic jokes and racist comments being made on the studio floor, to women being coerced, harassed, and sexually assaulted by co-workers and their superiors -- many of whom escaped meaningful reprimand.

These accusations don't only come from colleagues at a single Ubisoft studio, but from people based around the globe. Ubisoft Massive, Ubisoft Sofia, Ubisoft Toronto, Ubisoft Paris, and the Ubisoft North Carolina customer support center have all been named as the allegations continue, suggesting abuse and harassment are endemic at the Assassin’s Creed publisher.

Following those reports, multiple anonymous sources reached out to Gamasutra to provide further insight into the accusations and culture at Ubisoft, specifically calling out those at the top of Ubisoft's ranks for enabling misconduct by instilling a mob-like mentality that protects and even rewards abusers while "hushing" victims into silence.

"Mafia"-like

One current employee, who confirmed their identity to Gamasutra but asked to remain anonymous, said the issue runs even "deeper and wider" than what’s currently being reported, and said the "clear pattern of problematic behavior" that exists within Ubisoft became apparent within a few months of them joining the company. 

Painting a damning picture of the Ubisoft hierarchy, they told us how the company is run like a "mafia," with promotions often being handed out to those willing to "take a bullet for the family," while those who don't play ball are punished by way of lower salaries and slower career advancement. Those 'family members' accused of abuse and misconduct will often be shuffled around internally, with Ubisoft content to hide the issue in plain sight, letting abusers act with impunity, and putting more employees at risk.

They detail a chronically inept setup that has ushered in an era of systemic misconduct by instilling those in power with a sense of immunity. It’s a claim corroborated by the multitude of reports shared on social media last week involving those in high-level positions such as Ubisoft editorial vice president Maxime Beland, Assassin's Creed Valhalla director Ashraf Ismail, product and brand marketing manager Andrien Gbinigie, and associate public relations director Stone Chin, all of whom are facing allegations of predatory behavior and abuse.

"Reports of abuse would be silenced instantly," they explain, outlining how the HR department enables misconduct through inaction. They also claim that, in those instances where people in power are removed, Ubisoft isn’t looking to drive meaningful change, but rather protect its brand image and create a "false culture of growth and transparency."

"People complain in small groups, but the previously mentioned faux transparency just kills any chance of actual change. It is such a well-functioning system of control, because there is a lot of conversation happening in the company. It just leads nowhere. An audit in Ubisoft leads nowhere 9 times out of 10," they said. 

"Problematic events often spark widespread passionate conversation on the internal social system 'MANA' as well as locally in many studios, where concerned staff air their very legitimate complaints. Yet as we can see today, change has not happened and is not happening."

Another Ubisoft employee, who also confirmed their identity but wished to remain anonymous, had similar experiences. Like so many others, they recalled multiple instances of sexual harassment and abuse within the studio, such as the time a female co-worker was groped by a male colleague during a photo shoot, or how another woman was let go on false pretenses after failing to reciprocate the advances of her male boss. "A man was hired to fill that position a month later," they say, revealing the pattern. 

They go on to share more stories and more allegations against people in positions of power, one of whom has since left the company to work for another major publisher. After the past two weeks, that has become something of the norm for Ubisoft. From the outside looking in, you'd be forgiven for thinking those allegations -- often being made at great personal risk -- have set the wheels of change in motion. 

Those on the inside, however, are more skeptical. They tell me not to lose sight of the bigger picture, which looks to be the striking image of a company that refuses to acknowledge the rampant issues that have affected so many of its employees. For all the painful allegations of harassment, abuse, and misconduct being leveled at Ubisoft, those still with the developer suggest the biggest problem of all is willful ignorance. A slavish faith to the very systems and hierarchy that have left Ubisoft workers vulnerable and exposed for so many years.

"Though there are many of us that acknowledge these issues and fight them every day, I doubt this is the reckoning that would tackle the root of the problem or do anything for us today and now," explained one source.

"Some specific people are going to get canned and then it would be business as usual. White males in all positions of power, enabling each other and picking an HR team that protects their questionable behavior while women and POC do the legwork. [Going] over-budget because the 'core team' spent it on trips to LA and San Francisco. Overdone marketing campaigns, and paying minimum wage to actual developers." 

"He started to control me"

For anyone who’s spent time on social media over the past few weeks, this will sound all too familiar. Typing in the word 'Ubisoft' on Twitter will surface a ream of public allegations, ranging from sexual assault and harassment to stories of physical violence against co-workers and others. 

Recalling their time at the studio, a former employee claimed to have witnessed one colleague ask female co-workers for blow jobs, and said they once even tried to “fist fight the DJ at a Ubisoft event." As has become par for the course, that person -- a "middle level" team member -- was "routinely complained about but never fired.”

Another former employee, who joined Ubisoft Massive as an intern in 2014, wrote on social media about how they were manipulated, coerced, and pressured into reciprocating the romantic advances of their team leader, who was directly responsible for evaluating them. "He started to hold my hand in secret, touch me and eventually it proceeded to kissing me, literally French kissing. Not just the one kiss on each cheek. He would stop the elevator when we were alone and kiss me," they wrote on Twitter.

"We texted a lot and our friendship turned flirtatious very quickly. Everything started to be secretive with us. I was now so far deep in it all that I didn’t know how to tell him that I didn’t want that. He started to control me, and I didn't even notice it at first. I was not allowed to befriend other guys at the studio and gave me comments like; 'you shouldn't,' 'I don't recommend,' 'I don't like them.' He wanted me for himself and I felt like I was his toy."

There are more. Allegations against a former member of the Ubisoft Massive HR team, who reportedly propositioned a male employee at a work party in exchange for a promotion. Multiple accusations against Gregg Baker, a former community developer at Ubisoft, who was reported as far back as February 2009 for sexually harassing women. Those concerns were passed on to management at the time. Nothing was done. Other damning claims that detail how Ubisoft North Carolina would attempt to sweep sexual harassment allegations under the rug by handing out gift cards to those who complained or witnessed instances of abuse. 

"Not only was I given a gift card instead of them helping me, but they gave my entire team one because they were witnesses to it," wrote one former worker on social media. "But tell me Ubisoft -- why did HR give me more money than the others? For silence? Or because I was the actual victim?"

The pattern is clear. These allegations depict a systematic and endemic problem within Ubisoft. One that has seemingly been present for over a decade. One that has caused countless Ubisoft employees -- who've either experienced or witnessed numerous forms of abuse -- a great deal of pain. One that continues to be ignored by those at the very top.

The paradox

That apparent inability to acknowledge and take responsibility for the kaleidoscope of cultural issues that seem to be etched into the very foundations of Ubisoft presents a paradoxical issue: how can positive change be made when those overseeing the process have spent years enabling the current status quo?

Right now, it's a question without a clear answer. Following Ubisoft's blanket response to the various allegations that surfaced last week, wherein the company said it was "deeply concerned" by the claims and pledged to investigate with support from external consultants, we've been told the mood inside the company is "muted."

That's despite those at the very top making the right noises, with Ubisoft CEO and co-founder Yves Guillemot expressing "deep solidarity" with those caught up in recent events. Writing to staff in an email obtained by Gamasutra, the chief exec said he was "profoundly affected" by the allegations and pledged to establish a "multidisciplinary working group" with the help of an external partner.

"This group will have to come up with better solutions and tools to detect, report and resolve any incident or serious problem without delay and in an impartial manner," he wrote. "To inform their proposals, this working group, aided by an external partner, will start organizing focus group meetings to hear from you and get your points of view. I will regularly participate in these sharing sessions. 

"I am organizing a call on Monday with all your Managing Directors to discuss these subjects in more detail and to ask them for their full involvement and exemplarity on these important issues. I will come back to you soon with additional updates, and I want to say again that I am committed to safeguarding for each and every one of you a work environment of which we can be proud." 

In another email, Ubisoft's chief talent and communications officer, Cecile Cornet, said the studio is "determined to act," and outlined an action plan that includes an anonymous online reporting tool, a third-party audit, and several internal investigations -- the latter of which, she explains, "can typically take two weeks to two months depending on the case."

This, however, must be the start of a larger commitment. If Ubisoft hopes to work towards a better future, it needs to heed the advice of its employees -- the ones sitting in the trenches, crying out for actual change -- and be unerring in its response. The fear, one source tells me, is that this will be another blip on the radar. A "razzle dazzle" performance that will only serve to root out the accused without addressing the wider need for meaningful, long-term, systemic change.

"Very few trust our processes or the people in charge of solving the issues. I guess we will see after the weekend, a lot of us are still reeling. Both Tommy and Maxime were open secrets, and there are so many yet to be outed," they explain, referring to the recently suspended editorial vice presidents Maxime Beland and Tommy Francois.

"Until we see the company act on people like this without a victim coming forward publicly, I have no trust it’s not just a show designed to protect our image."


If you or someone you know has been affected by this, you can email Gamasutra to share your story confidentially.



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