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There's no hiding from the culture wars | Opinion

Sony and Disney's instincts to stay silent on culture war issues are understandable -- but among an array of bad and costly options, silence may actually be the worst of them all

When culture war issues rear their heads, the first instinct of many corporate executives is to duck theirs.

No matter which way you land on an emotive argument about people's rights and freedoms, it's going to be bad for business in some regard; some group of people is going to be mad at you, someone on the Internet is going to try to arrange a boycott of you, maybe some politicians are going to take cheap shots at you in the media.

In the face of that, well, perhaps it's not the most vertebrate of responses, but muttering something about the importance of shareholder value while lowering your head well below the parapet and keeping your lips firmly sealed seems like a tempting option. If you just stay out of the fray, nobody can get mad at you, right?

Well... No.

This week it's been Sony's turn to rediscover how badly wrong that approach can go, with an attempt to dodge and weave through the issues raised by the United States' reopening of an acrimonious debate on abortion rights turning into a damaging farce that's resulted in pretty much everyone being mad at the company. Most major corporations have understood -- often with a bit of unsubtle prompting and poking from their employees -- that they have some responsibility to stand up for employees' rights in this situation, and Sony is no exception; but it also desperately wanted not to make itself into a target for culture warriors in the process.

Commitment to diversity has to mean something when the chips are down, and the decisions are tougher than whether to put a rainbow flag in your Twitter avatars during Pride Month

The solution it hit upon is inelegant at best; it quietly made a $100,000 donation to the Women's Reproductive Rights Assistance Project ($50,000 from Insomniac, which seems to have been the studio most forcefully demanding that the company take a stance, matched by an equal amount from the parent company) and intends to offer assistance to employees who need to travel out-of-state to avoid restrictive laws.

But it declined to make any public statement and demanded that subsidiary studios also stay quiet on the situation. Unsurprisingly, details of the donation were made public almost immediately -- so conservatives are fuming - while the glaringly obvious nature of that donation as hush money, paid as the price it took to shut up Insomniac and the other studios, has made the company look fairly terrible to everyone else as well.

You may at this point be among those wondering why the hell it matters what stance a video games company makes on an issue like reproductive rights, or why anyone should expect them to take a stance at all -- shouldn't just keeping their lips sealed and their heads down be the default, and a perfectly acceptable default at that? However, the problem facing Sony here is the same one that faced Disney a few months ago when its response to Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill -- essentially a retread of Britain's infamous 1980s anti-LGBT law, Section 28 -- was criticised for being weak and ambivalent.

In both Disney's situation then, and Sony's now, it's not the tug-of-war between conservative and liberal consumers that's at issue, as some like to imagine; rather, the anger is coming from inside the building. It's employees and subsidiaries of Disney and Sony that are feeling let down and frankly pissed off by their companies' failure to respond strongly and publicly to issues that they feel have a major impact upon the lives of themselves and their families, and it's the companies' relationships with those employees and subsidiaries that risks fraying as a consequence.

Like most successful companies in the media, entertainment and technology sectors, these are companies with markedly diverse workforces, and they have benefited greatly (in terms of hiring processes, staff retention, and the motivation and loyalty of employees) from being seen as welcoming and positive places for women and minorities to work. The problem is that their commitment to diversity has to mean something when the chips are down and the decisions are a little tougher than whether to put a rainbow flag in their Twitter avatars during Pride Month.

Insomniac Games has been pushing for Sony to donate and take a stance, but while it succeeded in the former, it failed in the latter - something that will cause tension within the company

It's not unreasonable for staff to expect their employers, having talked up their commitment to diversity and inclusivity for years, to use some corporate clout to stand up for the rights of employees and their families when they are under threat -- and the staff themselves are the one group for whom the "oh but we're just a little games / media company, it's not our place to speak on this" argument absolutely will not land, because god knows they've sat through enough slightly self-congratulatory speeches, presentations, and emailed memos over the years about how important their work is and what a difference these companies are making in the world.

Disney was ultimately motivated to take a public stance on the Florida law by these concerns, provoking predictable levels of melodramatic fury from proponents of the bill, who have retaliated by proposing to do everything from stripping Disney of planning and regulation powers over its resorts in Florida through to rewinding copyright laws to the early 1900s in order to remove Disney's copyrights over much of its early back catalogue (which is especially depressing to anyone who has raised reasonable objections to the frequent arbitrary extensions of US copyright terms to protect Mickey Mouse, and now finds the issue finally being brought up in Congress for the most unserious and pathetic of reasons).

While Sony is the company in the news this week, it would be naïve to imagine this isn't going to create internal conflict for every major company in the industry

Disney's a big enough company for most of this posturing to be water off a duck's back; but one can certainly understand why the fury of the response to Disney signals to any smaller companies (Sony included) that even dipping a toe into the poison swamp of America's culture wars right now is a terrible idea. That, of course, is precisely the point of the otherwise meaningless sabre-rattling -- it's less about Disney and more about scaring off any other company that might be considering taking a stand on behalf of their employees.

To some extent, this is an especially problematic situation for video games companies because of how this industry is structured. Other creative industries have a lot of high-profile talent who are effectively freelance, contracted to individual projects or franchises but more or less seen as independent of any major studio -- but that's not the norm for the games industry, which for years quietly resisted the notion of key development staff being promoted as high-profile creators of hit video games, and has more recently turned major independent studios into an endangered species through years of acquisitions and consolidation.

This robs the industry of a potential release valve in these kinds of situations; Hollywood and its ilk have individual stars or high-profile creatives who are happy to lend their names to various causes or to take public stands on contentious issues, in the process rendering the question of whether the companies who make their movies, albums or books have an official stance on such things more-or-less moot as far as the public is concerned.

It's notable that much of the drive for Disney to take a stance over the Florida laws seems to have come from segments of the company, like animation and theme parks, that don't generally have such a "release valve" built into their culture. Of course, while the ability to effectively turn the spotlight onto stars like actors, directors, musicians, writers and so on in these thorny cultural conflict situations is helpful, this situation isn't always sunshine and rainbows for these companies; sometimes stars do or say things with this freedom that sends a company into damage control mode for the productions and franchises with which they're associated. In the general course of things, however, it allows the industry as a whole to appear politically engaged while the major studios keep contentious issues at arm's length.

This is not an advantage which the games industry enjoys, and that's only going to exacerbate the very thorny conflicts that will embroil companies in the public eye as culture war issues continue to dominate politics in the USA and in various other countries in the coming years. You can see the basic structure of such a clash laid bare in the conflicting messaging from Bungie and Sony this week; Sony is on board with its employees' demands for action as long as everything is kept quiet and everyone agrees to making no public statements, while Bungie's leadership, even as a multi-billion dollar acquisition deal goes through the closing dance, has taken a very public stance about their unwillingness to be bound by any such gag order from their parent company to be.

Bungie was already going to be operating somewhat independently from Sony post-acquisition and may even be able to stipulate that this includes freedom to make public statements on political issues impacting the studio's staff; but such sentiments are undoubtedly shared widely within all of Sony's studios, not just at Insomniac, and existing internal studios and their staff don't have Bungie's room to negotiate. That's inevitably a source of tension -- and while Sony is the company in the news this week, it would be naïve to imagine that this isn't going to create internal tension and conflict for pretty much every major company in the industry in the months and years to come.

There's no neat, tidy answer to this situation -- it's going to get messy as hell, regardless of what approach companies take, and it's important for the managers and executives who will make decisions on these issues to understand that there is no clean, neutral option, because silence is itself an inherently political position.

The argument that it's not corporations' place to engage in political issues is meaningless in a world where everyone knows how hard corporate lawyers fought to have them recognised as legal persons with a right to free speech and, consequently, political participation. The instinct to avoid public engagement with these fights is understandable -- but when that inevitably leads to a public spilling of internal conflicts and dirty laundry, it just leaves absolutely everyone mad at you, not least of all your own staff.

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Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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