ESA Says, Vote for Video Games

As you have probably noticed, the legal and political climate surrounding video games and the video game industry is becoming absolutely stifling. The number of laws being proposed or passed on a daily basis relating in some way to the restriction or regulation of games continues to grow. Of course, most of them are struck down by the courts, but the fact that politicians feel compelled to keep proposing them, and elected officials continue to pass them at the senate and house levels, indicates that the general sentiment about games is not a good one. When politicians are unable to pass laws that restrict game sales or content, they obtain funding for surveys that will potentially allow them to do so. At this rate, don't be surprised if some of these attempts end up sticking.

While it may be difficult to gain a broad perspective on the issue as a gamer, when it's easy to ignore the constant assault and observe the industry largely operating as usual, public opinion is undoubtedly very negative. At this point, there are over seventy pieces of state legislature in the U.S. attempting in some way to regulate video games, and there are multiple measures at the federal level as well across party boundaries. This would simply not be so widespread if the average citizen who elects the politicians in question supported or was indifferent to video games. With the non-gaming public's knowledge of games being that they might kill you and with their loudest educator being Jack Thompson, who continues to testify in game-related cases and speak as an expert on national television despite how much we may think he has been discredited, it should come as no surprise that the public opinion of games is largely uninformed and negative.

Why is there so little resistance when video games are presented as nothing but killing simulators? Why doesn't anybody know about Ico or Katamari Damacy, other than the people playing them? In fact, one would say that much of the public is very aware of games such as The Sims, but nobody from the games industry ever seems to be around pointing that out when John Pundit is decrying the entire medium on TV. And, really, why aren't there more games for gamers that aren't so violent? Let's be honest with ourselves here, when the core audience of a medium does, in all frankness, spend so much of its time virtually killing things, that's bound to attract attention. I'm sure that after seeing that, a good number of readers have bristled and are prepared to be loudly offended in the comments section, but really, it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise that people might see our hobby at least as something a bit odd.

At last year's E3, Entertainment Software Association president Doug Lowenstein--you know, the guy who comes out and pats everyone on the back in those articles about game legislation being struck down--posited an question to the industry. "We've all seen games that depict content which is constitutionally protected artistic expression and yet which also raises the question of whether it really was necessary to realize the designer's artistic vision. That's not a call for censorship or government intrusion into video game sales," he said. "But it is meant to say that it is fair for critics, and us, to ask whether everything that is cool and pushes the envelope is, in fact, creatively necessary." It is enlightening to note that Lowenstein's address was given before the whole Hot Coffee incident. A year prior to that, I had a similar train of thought in an editorial entitled "I Kill You."

In the last few weeks, much of this seems to be reaching critical mass. SILOE Research Institute executive director and former VP of LucasArts global sales & marketing John Geoghegan gave a 12-step presentation at the Game Marketing Conference. He spoke on how the games industry, and its marketers in particular, should be presenting games to the public. (From Goeghegan's address: "How not to market in a hostile environment? Basically, don't do everything we're doing right now," and "We're not making friends. I haven't seen this much animosity since big tobacco told congress that cigarettes are not addictive.") Dennis McCauley of the excellent site Game Politics this weekend published a call to the ESA to step up its efforts not just in response to legislation but out in public, to the people who are supporting such legislation. Late last month, the ESA hired a lobbyist to promote its interests in Washington.

And, this morning, the ESA launched the Video Game Voters Network, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and action among gamers about the political situation surrounding the industry. Currently, it is centered around the Family Entertainment Protection Act proposed late last year by Hillary Clinton. The act would assign federal enforcement to ESRB ratings, but also gives the FTC the power to circumvent ESRB ratings if mandatory investigations reveal what are determined to be misleading or incorrect ratings. The VGVN calls for gamers to write their senators and point out that neither cable television, books, nor movies are federally regulated in the way proposed by FEPA, and nor should games.

Hopefully, the ESA's latest effort is indicative of a change in attitude on the part of the industry; for one thing, organizations such as the ESA need to be involved all along the line, not just to appeal to courts after bills have been passed. Ideally, gamers will send a stronger message to their elected officials as well. At this point, there are many, many people--politicians and otherwise--who want to damage games and the games industry, and clearly somebody needs to return fire.