Numerous high-profile companies, including gaming heavyweights EA, Zynga, and Microsoft, filed a legal brief in July opposing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law. In interviews this week, the companies' bigwigs said they have experienced little to no blowback for their actions. This raises an interesting question: Should game companies be taking stands on political issues at the corporate level and stepping unnecessarily into the legal world to advance them?
Let's take a look at what these companies actually did here, because it's not as simple as supporting or opposing gay rights. The Defense of Marriage Act is a law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes. This doesn't stop states from recognizing gay marriages, but it does mean, for example, that if a gay couple gets married in one state and then moves to another, their new state does not have to recognize their marriage. It also means that gay couples do not receive the federal tax benefits of marriage, including tax breaks for spousal health insurance.
A lawsuit says that this law is not merely wrong but unconstitutional. (It's currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court may hear it alongside some other challenges to DOMA.) While EA, Microsoft, and Zynga are not involved in the suit directly, they joined what's called an "amicus" or "friend-of-the-court" brief, which is a brief that any party can file to offer arguments about a case.
By the numbers, this ought to be an incredibly divisive move. Recent polls show opposition to gay marriage at around 40 to 45 percent of the population. Even some supporters of gay marriage think the issue ought to be decided by voters rather than the courts. (For the record, I'm in this camp.) And even those who agree with these companies completely might wonder why they're spending time and money on politics instead of making more games.
The companies describe their reasons for getting involved in the brief. They point out that when a state recognizes gay marriage, it creates a "dual regime," where some marriages are recognized under state but not federal law. Because gay couples do not get the tax breaks that go along with insurance coverage, the companies need to figure out which of their married employees are gay, which is inconvenient and intrusive. Further, many states forbid discrimination against gay couples, and yet DOMA requires companies to discriminate in this way. (As a general matter, federal law trumps state law, but the companies say it can be difficult to tell where the line is.)
Make of that what you will, but there's no denying that these companies didn't have to stick their noses into this particular dispute. They certainly had the right to—people, and groups of people acting together, have the right to speak in this country. But there was nothing forcing them, and it's rather unlikely that their brief will make much of a difference, seeing as it doesn't even mention the constitutional issues that are at the core of the case. The main point of the brief was to take a public position in the DOMA debate.
For gamers, the question is what role we want companies to play in the political process—after all, it's the money we spend on games, and the prestige that money gives them, that they're using to push their agenda. Personally, I wish they would stay out at the corporate level, particularly when it comes to the biggest companies. I love it when a studio makes a game that has a political message, at least when it's done well, but I see no reason for an enormous company like EA to associate its entire brand with a particular political stance.
Then again, EA's own investors don't seem to mind, and I don't hear gay-marriage opponents calling for a boycott. Rightly or wrongly, gay marriage is making serious inroads—in public opinion, in state law, and in the courts. Young people—disproportionately, the people who play video games—are the most supportive of the cause. So maybe these companies are just doing what they think best represents their employees and their customers.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.
Date: October 17, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*