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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Roe v. Wade repeal looms, video game industry stays mostly silent

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

In the wake of a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion essentially confirmed that Roe v. Wade’s days are numbered, most of the video game industry’s biggest companies have remained conspicuously quiet — though not all.

Shortly after Politico first reported on the leaked Supreme Court draft on May 2, Sony-purchased “Destiny 2” studio Bungie published a statement in support of reproductive rights, calling Roe v. Wade’s demise a “blow to freedom in America” and “a direct attack on human rights,” and prompting fans to donate to reproductive-rights-focused organizations. In the following days, indie developers and a handful of other studios like “Psychonauts 2” creator Double Fine and “Guild Wars” developer ArenaNet published brief statements of their own.

A handful of workers also told The Post they would participate in a week-long Mother’s Day strike aimed at protesting the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade, with permission from their companies to stop work this week.

But the majority of gaming’s heaviest hitters appear to have kept both their mouths and wallets closed. This silence is especially conspicuous following the industry’s near-uniliteral support of causes like Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and anti-Asian hate as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. In both of those cases, many big companies released statements, donated to charitable causes, updated internal policies and added in-game features to allow players to express their support.

Black game developers: Diversity push is lots of talk, little progress

The Washington Post contacted 20 major video game companies about whether they planned to make a statement regarding Roe’s potential repeal or provide employees with monetary aid in places where abortions would no longer be available. Only Microsoft and Activision Blizzard responded with statements.

“Microsoft will continue to do everything we can under the law to protect our employees’ rights and support employees and their enrolled dependents in accessing critical health care — which already includes services like abortion and gender-affirming care — regardless of where they live across the U.S.,” reads a statement issued to The Post. “This support is being extended to include travel expense assistance for these and other medical services where access to care is limited in availability in an employee’s home geographic region.”

Other tech behemoths like Amazon, Tesla, Lyft and Uber have also promised monetary aid and, in some cases, legal protection to employees in states that will no longer offer abortions.

Since 1973, Roe v. Wade has protected the right of Americans to receive an abortion. Once it is overturned, the decision of how to handle abortion — up to and including potential criminalization — will move to the state level. Already, a number of red states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Texas have indicated that they will functionally ban abortion, while blue states like California and Vermont are moving to codify abortion as a constitutional right. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 28 percent of those surveyed supported the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The independent studio Certain Affinity, which has worked on major games like “Halo Infinite,” is based in Texas, a state that has already significantly restricted access to abortion. Still, Max Hoberman, the company’s CEO, said the Roe v. Wade news took him by surprise.

“We will absolutely take a strong stance on this, and we will consider how to best support our staff who may be affected, but we haven’t had a chance to get out in front of messaging or strategy yet; it caught us a bit off guard,” Hoberman told The Post. “We’re still an independent company with limited resources.”

The response to Bungie’s post might offer a clue as to why some companies remain mum on the matter. Gamers have a tendency to bristle at issues pertaining to women both in-game and out, as evidenced by regular online blowups against prominent women in the industry pioneered by 2014′s “GamerGate” movement, and a series of recent scandals surrounding sexism and corporate culture within companies like Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft, as well as on live-streaming platforms like Twitch. Bungie’s own history is not bereft of such controversy, with IGN publishing a report last year in which current and former employees alleged a boys’ club culture. That culture, say employees who’ve spoken to The Post, has since improved, but truly pervasive fixes take time.

On Twitter, thousands of people replied to Bungie’s statement about reproductive rights, with some angrily chastising the studio for being too political. As a result, companies tend to carefully consider responses in cases like these, when they respond at all.

Bungie, for its part, stood firm: “We’ve chosen our side and it wasn’t difficult,” Bungie replied to one angry tweet. “Our company values exist beyond our games.”

What would happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned

Inside the company, the reaction has been mostly positive. “Super awesome that we are leading the way in the industry space with a strong stance,” said one current Bungie employee who, like others who spoke with The Post, did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the subject publicly. “It’s weird to me that more people aren’t coming out and standing up for basic human rights.”

Bungie has an internal diversity committee that one current employee characterized as instrumental in the creation of internal and external statements on Roe v. Wade’s impending repeal. That employee described significant interest within the studio around the idea of monetary support for employees in places like Texas — especially now that Bungie has adopted a “digital-first” remote work structure — and said that Bungie is “looking into” it. An email to employees from Bungie to employees specifically stated that “in the longer term we are investigating ways to help affected employees preserve their right to essential health care both in Washington state and those working remotely.” It remains to be seen, however, if leadership will manifest that interest into a tangible initiative.

“Pete [Parsons, the CEO of Bungie,] and the other executives are usually quick to speak out against things, which is nice, but any systemic company changes take a really, really long time to come out, and we don’t hear about them until they’re actually close to happening,” said a third current Bungie employee. “They’ll usually give us corporate speak of, ‘This is really important to us and we’re looking into it’ kind of stuff, which is always frustrating to hear.”

Activision Blizzard, a prominent game developer facing multiple lawsuits and investigations over its corporate culture and CEO Bobby Kotick, provided a brief statement on abortion rights late Tuesday evening. “We are committed to an inclusive environment that is supportive of all of our employees,” said Rich George, a spokesperson for Activision Blizzard. “As a company, providing fair and equitable health care is a top priority, and we will closely monitor developments in the coming weeks and months.”

In a May 5 message to employees viewed by The Post, Blizzard President Mike Ybarra wrote, “I realize we are late and I am sorry. It has been incredibly stressful for Blizzard (and me personally) as we read the news.” He said that he had met with leadership to discuss how the company would address the situation on May 4. “I realize this isn’t very helpful, but I’m being honest with where we are and what we are discussing across the company.”

“Right now, within Activision, there are many employees distracted and scared for the future,” said Emily Knief, a senior motion graphic designer at Blizzard who is trans. “Mr. Kotick made a commitment to improve the working conditions of the many lives that work under him and make Activision the best company it can be. And I can say without hesitation that, as of right now, he’s failing all of us.”

Robert Anderberg, CEO and co-founder of indie game studio ControlZee said, said: “Our position on abortion rights in [the] U.S. is that we support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion for any reason.”

Anderberg said the company currently operates in five countries, including the U.S. However, of these countries, the U.S. “is the only one where abortion is restricted and about to become more so.” His company is allowing employees to participate in the Mother’s Day strike.

The Supreme Court’s draft opinion on overturning Roe v. Wade, annotated

The Mother’s Day strike runs from May 8 through May 15 and asks participants to stop working, shopping and eating out as a way to protest the possibility that Roe v. Wade could be overturned.

“We’re still scrambling for organization right now,” said Javiera Cordero, an indie developer who is participating in the Mother’s Day strike and compiling resources for best organizing practices. “As a trans person, this is directly related to me, because this is about the stripping of bodily autonomy from individuals. This is where trans issues are directly related to feminist issues like abortion rights.”

“I don’t know how long I can continue to live in this country and actually feel like they care about us,” said an indie game developer in Chicago who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of online harassment after what happened to Bungie. She is participating in the Mother’s Day strike with permission from her studio, which was supportive. The studio declined to provide a statement.

Not every game developer in support of abortion rights has been able to take the week off work to strike. One Blizzard employee told The Post that while she wanted to participate, she could not afford to. “I understand the thought behind it, but I am hard pressed to think who can strike like that without having it be dire in terms of being able to live reasonably.”

Right now, game workers just want some semblance of stability with Roe v. Wade’s potential repeal threatening to rock their foundation. A commitment to reproductive health care from their employers, in their eyes, would at least be something.

“While bodily autonomy may be a hot-button issue, [companies like Activision Blizzard] are disregarding the very real lives of the people that it impacts,” said Knief, the Blizzard graphic designer. “The many women, trans men and nonbinary folk within the company that are forced to carry on their day-to-day meeting expectations of their role while also being mindful of the fact that their ability to regulate their own bodies may soon become criminalized.”