On May 19, 2021, Texas governor Greg Abbot passed anti-abortion bill SB8 into law. SB8 bans abortions after six weeks, and enforces the law with an unusual measure. Instead of state officials pressing charges against violators, individuals (from any state) may file civil suits for up to $10,000 to against anyone who carries out or assists with providing an abortion.
This law has dramatic implications for childbearing people, their healthcare providers, even the taxi drivers who might need to take them to a clinic. Though SB8's impact is often framed around cisgender women, the law also impacts people of any gender who can become pregnant, as well as the family members of Texas-based developers who could otherwise be wrapped up in the law’s consequences.
SB8 has been challenged multiple times in Federal Court but has been allowed to remain in effect during review by numerous Appeals Courts and most notably The Supreme Court.
Reproductive health is rarely a large part of our editorial at Game Developer, but SB8 is impossible to ignore for one big reason: Texas is maybe the fastest-growing destination in the United States of America for game development studios. Activision Blizzard, Crystal Dynamics, 2K, and Wizards of the Coast are among the companies who’ve announced new offices in Texas.
And that’s after you account for the state's already-booming games scene. A 2018 study from Investment firm JLL found that Texas was home to over 270 game development studios and publishers, while UT Austin estimates there are over 20,000 game development-related jobs in the state.
Those jobs are at companies like Gearbox, id Software, Arkane Austin, Zynga, Certain Affinity, and more. Unity and Unreal Engine have offices in the state. Developers who leave these companies hop to other Texas-based studios, or raise capital to start their own.
The future of the United States' game industry is, at least in part, in Texas. But many developers are wondering if they can be part of that future while SB8 is in effect.
"The policies are working."
Video game AI designer Marcie Philips was one of the first game developers to speak publicly about how SB8 impacted her career opportunities.
After SB8 went into effect on September 1, she tweeted out a story about how the law’s passing was impacting her ability to apply for jobs at Texas. Speaking to Game Developer, she described how the experienced played out as she began applying for a job with a studio based in the state.
Philips’ job application process began after an employee from said studio made a public post about mentoring women and other disadvantaged groups after the explosive news about California’s lawsuit against Activision Blizzard in August. She realized the studio would be a good fit, and began interviewing for a position with them.
During the interview process, it became more and more clear that SB8 would become law of the land in Texas. Phillips was unwilling to move to a state where her reproductive rights were at risk, and the studio’s HR team informed her that they wouldn’t move forward with the job interview if relocation was off the table.
"This hit me like a ton of bricks," she said. She realized that this wouldn't be a career roadblock for cisgender men applying for the same position. They could accept the studio’s offer to relocate without worrying for their physical health or safety.
"The policies are working," she grimly explained. If the goal of anti-abortion laws is to not only outlaw abortion, but shape society to be more conservatively organized, it was doing its job. Many women and other developers for whom pregnancy is a potential concern must second-guess their employment in places like Texas and either stay away from the state or move in and navigate life under these conservative values.
Philips’ story thankfully has a happy ending. She went back to the studio’s HR team and told them outright that asking her to move to the state "would be asking me to jeopardize my liberties," thanks to SB8.
Because the team was eager to have her on board, the studio was able to compromise and allow her to work in another part of the country where it had "a tax presence." She did note almost everyone she dealt with at this studio was sympathetic to her position, but she was shaken by how easy it would have been for them to shrug off her remote work request and just hire a candidate not directly threatened by the law.
The choice not to move to Texas isn’t just an intellectual one for Phillips. She’s from the state. She has friends and family in Austin. And she fundamentally feels that SB8 threatens her health and safety.
She’s not the only developer who feels that way. Another ex-Texan game developer (who was not authorized to speak by their employer, so asked to remain anonymous), told Game Developer that they wouldn’t consider moving back to the state for work or personal reasons anymore.
"[Studios] are going to have a harder time recruiting women now," they said. "Keep in mind this law doesn’t only affect women having abortions. It affects women having miscarriages and might get sued by someone who 'suspects something.'"
"It makes rape even more terrifying, because a rapist can basically control your future."
Another anonymous senior game developer who mentors younger developers and is involved in several women-in-tech groups, said that the mood has been "grim" among her peers, and she's advising mentees to not take jobs in the state.
Said developer also pointed out that SB8 adds a layer of fear for any game developer who's dealt with stalking or abuse in the workplace. The law adds another tool for abusers to control employees. It's difficult to rule this concern as being hypothetical when some of the stories coming out of companies like Activision Blizzard involve stalking, abuse, and inappropriate romantic entanglements.
A game industry audio designer currently living and working in Austin, Texas said that it’s been incredibly hard since the law went into effect. She emphasized the danger to developers like her who have genetic health issues related to pregnancy. "I come from a line of women with health issues. If I ever try to have a kid, it would [be very difficult.]"
"With this law in place, if I tried to abort to avoid miscarrying my child or prevent harm to me, the law says I’d have to have that child."
This audio designer also expressed how frustrating this was for the world of game audio, which has been dominated by cisgender men for years. She and a colleague at another Texas game company were discussing how it just felt like the numbers were starting to improve but, at least in this state, that trend could shift.
"Women are being told to be terrified, and not to move here," she quoted her friend as saying.
So what should studios do?
Game studios and publishers have every reason not to comment on or publicly react to SB8. But the developers we spoke with pointed out they’re the only ones who might be able to do anything about it.
Philips and the first unnamed developer we spoke with offered different perspectives on the power companies have in Texas. Philips explained that the state’s lack of income tax is a major attraction factor for getting employees to move from out of state, but it also means that corporate taxpaying entities are the ones the state government will listen to.
"Companies are welcomed with open arms, but citizens are left on their own," she said dryly. She said if developers are committed to diversity among their employees "the only solution is to allow other workers to work from where they can be safe."
But better remote opportunities aren’t a universal solution. The senior developer we spoke with who was advising younger developers away from Texas called remote working a "band-aid."
"Their tax money still goes to Texas, and people who work at the studio always have an advantage over remote workers," she explained. "They get face time with leadership and get to socialize with them…it’s an advantage."
"I don't see how any studio can credibly say they're working for a more diverse and inclusive industry when they're based in a state with policies that so flagrantly hostile to marginalized people."
The other developers we spoke with argued that companies need to speak up on behalf of their employees, and drastically improve their parental policies to support new parents who give birth due to the new policy. Breast-pumping rooms, childcare support, and expanded parental leave were some of the ideas suggested.
But parental policies won’t undo the fear and anxiety some developers described having. There are still circumstances where one could do everything "right" and still be at risk of being sued. Employers staying silent about SB8 reinforces a sense of isolation that childbearing folks in Texas face.
Lip service over bodily autonomy won't cut it. "I don't see how any studio can credibly say they're working for a more diverse and inclusive industry when they're based in a state with policies that so flagrantly hostile to marginalized people," the senior developer argued.
"If you don’t like it, then leave."
The individuals who spoke to Game Developer shared instances of bad-faith attacks they received for speaking about SB8. People in support and in opposition to the law expressed scorn and derision, saying that developers who fear the law should leave or just not work in Texas—or that companies outside the state should refuse to work with Texas-based companies.
Both options put developers in harm's way. The Austin-based audio designer we spoke with noted that if her clients stopped working with her or her colleagues because they live in Texas, it would be their own livelihoods at stake, not those of the law's supporters.
Not every game developer can financially or emotionally afford to leave the state. Philips noted that at her last job, some QA testers drove for ridesharing services on the side to make ends meet. Another developer originally from Texas noted that asking employees to leave the state, "is a way of ensuring that nothing changes."
Maintaining the status quo would make SB8's supporters perfectly happy. The Texas legislature has been thinking two steps ahead, and is already passing legislation and proposing new district maps that would depress the electoral power of the state's urban areas, where many game studios are located.
Those also aren't the only laws Texas has been implementing that jeopardize the liberties of its citizens. The soon-to-be-passed HB25 targets transgender kids who want to play in sports leagues that match their gender. HB3979 banned the teaching of "Critical Race Theory," and has led educational authorities to gut reading lists of diverse authors in schools across the state.
"I don't see how any studio can credibly say they're working for a more diverse and inclusive industry when they're based in a state with policies so flagrantly hostile to marginalized people," the senior developer fumed.
"Who are they going to import? It's going to be the same straight-white dudes as always because the environment in Texas is too hostile for anyone else."
Tech recruiters have told outlets like Texas Monthly that they haven't seen any notable impact on the law in their recruiting efforts yet, but its impact may take shape before anyone even begins the job interview process.
SB8 and the restrictive laws it preceded are about exerting a noxious form of social control, and they run directly counter to the game industry's efforts to be more inclusive at their studios and in their games.
That fact seems especially grim with the growing rush to set up more studios in the state.
Game Developer reached out to several Texas-based studios, and companies with offices in Texas in advance of this article.
As of this writing, none of them have responded.