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Why players want game studios to take strong social stances

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court’s majority draft opinion detailing its vote to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked out to the press, setting the stage for possible erosion of abortion protection in the United States.

Some video game companies spoke out against the draft opinion, like Bungie, which voiced support for its employees’ reproductive rights in a blog post two days after the leak. Others fell silent on the issue — or stood neutral. In that latter camp sits PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan who, according to Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier, sent an internal email on May 12 urging employees to “respect differences of opinion” on the abortion rights debate regarding Roe v. Wade. The email veered off-topic to talk about his two cats’ first birthday and his desire to get a dog.

Playstation CEO and president, Jim Ryan, stands in front of a blue wall with Playstation button symbols illuminated.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Dogs really are man’s best friend,” Ryan’s email reportedly reads. “They know their place … .”

Many gaming fans took issue with Ryan’s response, painting it as tone-deaf to a sensitive issue. While some might question why a video game company would be vocal about the subject at all, Sony’s quiet response stands in sharp contrast to how it’s approached other hot-button topics in the past. That sends mixed messages to fans, who are looking for consistency in the video game industry’s response to social issues.

Sony’s previous stances

After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers triggered Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, PlayStation was quick to release a statement showing its support for protestors and condemning police brutality toward the Black community and other people of color. Its statement read in part: “We denounce systemic racism and violence against the Black community. We will continue towards a future marked by empathy and inclusion and stand with our Black creators, players, employees, families, and friends.”

To further show its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that October, PlayStation released a PS4 theme dedicated to the cause, raised fist and all.

— PlayStation (@PlayStation) June 1, 2020

Two years later, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an attack on Ukraine and ordered his military to invade the country in February 2022, Sony condemned the invasion — which is still ongoing — saying it has suspended game sales and releases, as well as pulled the plug on the PlayStation Store in Russia. On top of that, it donated $2 million to several humanitarian organizations aiding Ukrainian victims and refugees, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save The Children.

The suspension of game sales and unavailability of the PlayStation Store in Russia were drastic measures. One could argue that it punished Russian players who may not have agreed with their government’s invasion of Ukraine in the first place. Still, PlayStation made it perfectly clear it didn’t tolerate Russia’s violence and those decisions will remain in place until the conflict stops.

In-between those two campaigns, PlayStation responded to other social justice issues. In September 2020, it signed on to Stonewall’s campaign to protect trans rights in the U.K. along with other game companies and publishers, including Microsoft, Sega, Splash Damage, and Ustwo Games. Six months later, it donated to Stop AAPI Hate in response to the spike in anti-Asian violence across the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of those previous vocal commitments set a precedent for Sony, which makes its silence on the abortion debate puzzling for fans.

Sony’s Roe v. Wade response

Two weeks after SCOTUS’ draft opinion leaked to the press expressing its intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, PlayStation has “both-sided” the abortion issue.

PlayStation was extremely vocal about condemning racism, anti-LGBTQ+ hatred, and the Russian-Ukrainian war, yet it’s taking a notably different approach when it comes to abortion. Ryan’s email stresses the importance of differing views on the subject, as he writes: “We owe it to each other and to PlayStation’s millions of users to respect differences of opinion among everyone in our internal and external communities.”

PlayStation’s first-party studios are more vocal by comparison, though that’s created more mixed messaging. The Washington Post reported that Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart studio Insomniac Games plans to donate $50,000 to the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRRAP) through the PlayStation Cares program. However, Insomniac CEO Ted Price said in an email that Insomniac employees were given explicit instructions by Sony not to tweet about the donation, make any statements about abortion rights, nor mention Insomniac and Sony when retweeting announcements from WRRAP lest they face severe consequences.

It did when I worked there. Both pro and anti abortion charities can have donations matched.

— Shayna Moon (@qorquiq) May 16, 2022

Once word got out about the planned donation, IGN reporter Rebekah Valentine tweeted a query regarding PlayStation Cares matching employee donations to anti-abortion clinics. Shayna Moon, former employee at Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, replied: “It did when I worked there. Both pro and anti-abortion charities can have donations matched.”

Why players care

When The Washington Post published its report about Sony’s response, several readers questioned why anyone should care what a video game company thinks on the subject at all. Some would argue that video games are nothing but mindless entertainment, but games are just as much a respected form of storytelling as books, movies and television are. They’re packed with thematic takeaways, real-world wisdom, and even political stances — all influenced by the beliefs of the very people who created them. After all, art imitates life.

Players care about PlayStation’s stance on abortion and reproductive rights because they want its actions, as well as those of other game companies, to match the positive social messages it imparts in the games it creates. As far as trans rights go, PlayStation not only joined Stonewall’s campaign to protect trans rights in the U.K., but it also accurately portrayed a transgender teen, Lev, in The Last Of Us Part II. Naughty Dog hired a trans actor, Ian Alexander, to voice Lev, as his experiences of being rejected by a religious community for his identity paralleled Lev’s own story. The handling of the character drew some criticism, but he resonated with some transgender players, making the gameplay experience more inclusive for them.

If PlayStation didn’t stand for trans rights, would a trans character have been handled as well in The Last Of Us Part II? By contrast, look at Cyberpunk 2077, which was infamously called out for including what players felt was transphobic imagery. The game’s developer, CD Projekt Red, notably had a history of making tone-deaf jokes aimed at the trans community. Whether it’s subconscious or not, the way people working in the games industry feel about social issues will ultimately be reflected in their work.

Games shape our worldviews about the people we interact with and the issues we face today, especially games from companies that are dedicated to crafting elevated storytelling. If PlayStation’s activism for human rights in the real world is reflected in the games created by itself and its subsidiaries, then it’s reasonable that its players would want the company to address concerns about its stance on reproductive rights. By remaining selectively silent on major issues, Sony risks eroding the goodwill it had previously built with its community.

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