Trigger warning: Pregnancy-related medical issues and sexual assault
The Supreme Court of the United States’ decision to reverse Roe v. Wade (the landmark 1973 Supreme Court Case that guaranteed a constitutional right to an abortion) comes as no surprise to those following the court since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in 2016. It is understandable that others might be shocked. Not only has Roe v. Wade been considered “settled law” for half a century, but the Justices appointed to the court from 2017 through 2021 all told Congress that they agreed with that status quo.
The court ruling is reversed, and abortion will be illegal in 13 states in the next 30 days. Nine other states are likely to follow. As part of today’s decision, Justices Clarence Thomas also indicated a willingness to reverse the Supreme Court rulings that fully legalized homosexuality, access to contraceptives, and same-sex marriage.
The health and safety of game developers and other workers in the game industry are now severely at risk.
The conclusion of a 50-year effort
That risk has been apparent ever since Texas passed its law outlawing abortion by attempting to circumvent the legal precedent set by Roe v. Wade. After that law passed (and the courts refused to strike it down), game developers in Texas, or considering jobs in Texas, began to realize that the law could directly affect their livelihood.
As we noted at the time, Texas is a major hub for the United States video game industry. As of late 2021, an estimated 270 game companies employ over 20,000 workers in the state. Should any of those employees require an abortion, they will be required to travel across state lines to obtain it.
Luckily, the video game industry appears to have been preparing for that possibility. Companies like Electronic Arts, Sony, Certain Affinity, Bungie, and more have either publicly or privately indicated their intent to financially support employees who seek such travel.
Abortion opponents did anticipate such support, and have indicated an intent to pass legislation that would criminalize such travel. In today’s ruling, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, one of the deciding votes on the decision to reverse Roe, indicated he did not believe such the court would support such a ban.
Whether he retains that opinion is yet to be seen.
The health and career risks to developers are substantial
There are a cascading series of physical and psychological impacts that abortion bans might have on individual game developers.
The risks will impact them in different ways. Broadly, restrictions on access to abortion are associated with an increase in maternity-related deaths. This has been particularly true in Texas.
Many of the abortion bans protected by today’s ruling do not allow for abortions in the case of a medical emergency. If a planned pregnancy suddenly runs into complications, it would not be legal to seek an abortion in these states.
The authors of many of these same abortion bans also explicitly refused to provide exceptions for rape or incest. If an individual in these states is sexually assaulted, they might need to travel outside state lines to seek necessary medical care.
Lastly, there is the simple fact that people who do not wish to give birth or raise children might now be forced to do so. Giving birth is a painful process, and pregnancy can take an incredible toll on the human body. In 2013, the United Nations classified a lack of access to abortion as “torture,” in recognizance of this fact (they repeated this sentiment after today’s Supreme Court ruling).
Many game developers are very well aware of these risks, and often navigate career decisions based on these facts. After Texas’ ban went into effect, we heard from developers that discussed not accepting jobs at studios based in the state and a reluctance to pursue Texas-based opportunities. If these companies are not willing to provide remote options for candidates who fear for their health and safety, they will have unequal access to career advancement in the world of game development.
Lastly, there is still the fact that the video game industry is reckoning with a history of sexual discrimination, abuse and harassment in the workplace. While discussing the Texas law, one developer we spoke with pointed out that it adds a layer of fear for any developers who have experienced stalking or abuse in the workplace.
Many video game companies have chosen silence or compliance
The video game industry’s long-standing tradition to stay out of politics has meant that few major companies spoke up against the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade after an unknown source leaked a draft of today’s decision to Politico in April.
Even worse, some company leaders like Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan or executives at Electronic Arts have pushed back against employee requests to take a public stance. Ryan asked employees to “respect differences of opinion” on abortion, and EA leadership’s internal stance was that it would not be “inclusive” to decry such a decision (it would later partly reverse this stance).
Ryan would also follow-up his request by attempting to “lighten the mood” by discussing his cats’ birthday party, and talking about his desire to get a dog.
Reality Labs parent company Meta urged employees not to discuss abortion or Roe v. Wade on the basis that “it can still leave people feeling like they’re being targeted based on their gender or religion.”
We should pause here and note that in making these statements, SIE, EA, and Meta have equivocated a religious opposition to abortion with the belief that abortion should be illegal. Those two stances do not necessarily align.
The urge to restrict access to abortion, regardless of motivation, is rooted in the belief that people who require abortions should not enjoy equal rights. Seeing company leaders speak up in defense of that position is demoralizing at best, and actively harmful at worst.
Today’s confirmation of the Supreme Court’s decision has driven more companies (including many Sony subsidiaries) to publicly speak up in favor of access to reproductive rights. Many are indicating that they will support their employees if they require access to reproductive care outside of their states. Others are encouraging fans to donate to nonprofits that support abortion access.
The threat of far-right violence
You cannot untangle today’s reversal of Roe v. Wade from the wave of right-wing violence that preceded it.
According to the National Abortion Federation, assaults against abortion patients and clinics rose 128 percent in 2021. That follows decades of murders, bombings, and arsons targeting abortion providers in the Unites States. The number of arson attempts has only increased in the intervening years. Patients seeking abortion in many states regularly face crowds of opposition that attempt to physically or verbally interfere with their care. Abortion clinics anticipate such opposition will only get worse.
I mentioned earlier that Justice Thomas indicated the precedent of overturning Roe v. Wade could be used to overturn similar precedent that prevents states from banning same-sex marriage or even homosexuality. As we speak, right-wing activists are mobilizing to intimidate or threaten LGBTQ Americans in different settings. They are storming libraries that hold LGBTQ storytime events, charging into historically queer neighborhoods, and attempting to disrupt Pride events.
How will game developers who are part of these communities be able to live if they or their children can’t receive the healthcare they need? How can they share benefits with their spouses if their marriages are annulled? And if the states they live in are willing to accept implicit violence through discrimination, at what point will their physical health and safety be threatened by explicit violence?
It’s not enough to only discuss abortion access and LGBTQ rights as an intellectual issue. Both topics are fraught with a history of real violence that could affect our creative community.
What can game developers and their employers do?
Many major game studios have already begun to speak up and decry the reversal of Roe v. Wade. In 2021, developers speaking to Game Developer made different arguments compelling larger companies to speak up and push for further action.
One developer pointed out that lawmakers are likely to respond to corporate pressure on this topic, since states like Texas are reliant on corporate taxes for revenue more than they are income tax. Another advocated for companies to step up their support for parents at the company. Employees who are forced to give birth (or whose family members are) may need more support in the form of parental leave, breast pumping accommodations, and more.
Developers were split on the value of remote work for studios based in these states. On the one hand, it would let them contribute to the company while lowering the risks to their health. On the other hand, developers in the office are more likely to socialize with company leaders, which could disproportionately impact the careers of those who can’t.
Rigorous support for remote employees can’t be an afterthought. Studios need to do more to support workers.
The video game industry already struggles to create equality for developers from different marginalized backgrounds. Today’s Supreme Court ruling is an earth-shattering moment that will dramatically impact the lives of all Americans.
That little bit of equality the industry has created? It could vanish in a heartbeat, consumed by the ripple effects of a monstrous decision 50 years in the making.