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Three reasons why gamers should care about the ESA

7:21 PM on 05.12.2008 // HarassmentPanda

[Editor's note: HarassmentPanda gives us the lowdown on the Entertainment Software Association and what it means to all of us. It's a very informative read and is a very important topic to all gamers to understand. -- CTZ] 

logo_esa_200.jpg Recently, the Internet has been abuzz with discussion surrounding Activision and Vivendi’s decision not to continue their membership with the Entertainment Software Association (”ESA”). Coupled with a rumored defection by LucasArts, gamers have begun to wonder if this is a portent of troubled times for the gaming industry’s premier trade association. While it is too early to declare that the ESA is “rapidly taking on water,” a continued decline in membership over the next year could signal trouble.

Overall, news of the Activision/Vivendi departure was met with a predominantly favorable response from gamers. While there was an occasional expression of concern for the future of the organization, the majority of gamers seemed to be bewildered with what the ESA actually does. As a result, many were proud of Activision and Vivendi for pulling out of an organization they viewed as being largely irrelevant.

Interestingly, complaints went beyond anonymous remarks from Internet users. Wedbush Morgan’s Michael Pachter chastised the ESA for being too passive since the departure of former president Doug Lowenstein. And, perhaps strangest of all, Mike Wilson, CEO of Gamecock Studios, recently released a snarky video announcing that he is running for ESA President. More after the jump.

Despite these complaints, the vast majority of hostility towards the ESA has come from gamers and journalists. The gaming industry, on the other had, has been largely supportive of the ESA’s efforts. Industry heavy-weights Capcom and Electronic Arts have come forth and shown their support for the ESA and Take-Two, a company in perhaps the best position to judge the ESA’s performance, has stated that it “supports the Entertainment Software Association, its leadership and its efforts on behalf of the industry” and that “Mike Gallagher has done an outstanding job as president of the ESA…"

The reason for the ESA having a fair number of opponents among gamers is not hard to cognize and was well put by Mike Musgrove of the Washington Post:

The [ESA] makes headlines on game news sites only when there’s been an anti-piracy crackdown or a new uproar over a game’s rating. Neither of those types of story tends to win the organization fans in the gamer community.

However, it is time for the ESA to make headlines for entirely new reasons. It’s time for gamers to discuss what the ESA does and why it is so imperative that this organization continue to defend the interests of the gaming industry.

What is the ESA and what does it do?

Perhaps the most fundamental problem with public perception of the ESA is that most gamers do not understand the nature or intent of the organization. Prior to writing this article, I conducted an unscientific poll and found that gamers typically believed one of three things about the ESA:

(1) the ESA is the group that “is supposed to sue all those people making videogame laws,”

(2) the ESA “arrests all of those people selling modchips,” or

(3) “the ESA doesn’t do anything.” Granted, the majority of gamers have never heard of the ESA, but this sampling was taken from gamers informed enough to know what the ESA is, but decidedly less informed than the extremely “hardcore” gaming community. (Disclosure: Those polled were GameStop employees.)

To a certain extent, answers (1) and (2) are both correct. The ESA does involve itself with defending against anti-game legislation and it also helps organizations, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, arrest and prosecute game pirates. However, the true intent of the ESA is far more expansive. According to the ESA Web site, the organization is “dedicated to serving the business and public affairs needs of companies that publish video and computer games for videogame consoles, personal computers, and the Internet.” What does this mean? Well, it means that the ESA is the videogame industry’s trade association.

In the most basic sense, a trade association is a public relations organization that is funded by corporations in a common industry. Trade associations typically promote an industry by lobbying, advertising, making political donations, and educating the public about the relevant industry. More specifically, the ESA actively combats copyright infringement, censorship, and government regulation of videogames and regularly publishes business and consumer research concerning the video game industry. Additionally, the ESA is responsible for founding the Electronic Entertainment Expo (”E3″), the Entertainment Software Rating Board (”ESRB”), and the VideoGame Voters Network (”VGVN”). Put in this framework, it is clear that the ESA has a fair number of projects, but one important question remains:

Why should gamers care?

VGVN-h.jpg First, despite impressive sales, videogames continue to lack political credibility. While generally under the radar of most gamers, the ESA has taken giant strides toward legitimizing videogames as a valid concern for leaders on Capitol Hill. Even with $17.9 billion in sales across 2007, most political leaders did not view videogames as a legitimate concern of their constituents. Instead, the few times games were brought up in congress, it was usually part of a bill designed to limit the “negative effects of gaming on children.”

As of this writing, the ESA is the only organization that has attempted to buck this pernicious trend. Between the announcement of a new political action committee dedicated to supporting politicians who are friends of the gaming industry and the creation of the VideoGame Voters Network, the ESA has taken steps to influence politicians in the two areas that matter most: money and votes. The ESA’s attempts to organize both contributers and voters into a unified, grass-roots movement has been immensely important to the political maturation of the gaming industry. Despite the relatively low-profile of many of these efforts, these activities form the absolutely essential foundation required to ensure that gamers have a significant voice in the political process.

Second, gamers should care about the ESA because it is the gaming industry’s only form of organized political influence in Washington. Whether another, more effective organization could be formed would provide enough discussion for an entirely new post, but, as it currently stands, the ESA is the only organized group continuously lobbying for the gaming industry in Washington. The importance of effective lobbying cannot be understated, particularly for an industry still clamoring to gain political and cultural credibility. From frozen pizza to healthcare consultants, the number of trade associations lobbying the US government in some form is staggering. The importance of lobbying is no mere hyperbole, the mass assemblage of lobby groups across numerous industries makes two things clear: (1) lobbying works and (2) without an effective lobby, even the most noble causes will be lost among the thousands of groups bellowing for their constituents.

Aside from lobbying efforts, the ESA has created an organization that would be nigh impossible to sustain without the backing of the gaming industry at large: the VideoGame Voters Network. While still in relative infancy, the VGVN has already proven an effective tool for organizing voting-age gamers into a common collective. Within the span of a week, the VGVN surpassed a membership of 10,000 voters and now boasts membership well over 100,000. Through their Web site, the VGVN has successfully informed both voters and politicians about issues in the videogame industry and further launched several state-wide campaigns to battle videogame legislation.

Third, the ESA is responsible for supporting the successful litigation of numerous anti-videogame bills. While many gamers criticize the ESA by claiming that the organization is too hands-off with its litigation efforts, people fail to recognize the work that the ESA has done in numerous states. First, it is important to recognize that the ESA’s job is not to serve as private council for every game publisher that is brought to court. Such involvement is impossible from a practical standpoint; litigation is expensive and the ESA cannot provide support in every case. Instead, the ESA picks its court battles carefully and only takes action when the outcome of a decision is critical for the industry as a whole. The ESA has been a key player in industry victories against state legislation seeking to regulate or censor games. Among these victories are decisions against the Minnesota VideoGames Act, Michigan’s bill regulating the sale of violent videogames, the Illinois regulation on videogame sales, and the St. Louis violent videogame bill. Each of these decisions has proven to be an important victory for First Amendment protection of video games and has often resulted in damage awards for game publishers.

Conclusion

Despite my seemingly lavish praise for the ESA, I will impart one caveat emptor: the ESA is still a publisher-owned organization. While the political aims of publishers have so far been in line with the concerns of the average gamer, there is always a point where the interests of consumers and publishers will diverge. The clearest example of this was in the scaling back of E3. Gamers came to love the glitz and glamor of the industry’s largest trade show, but the ESA decided to scale back the event when it became little more than a massive pissing contest between publishers. While this move was not favored by the press, the ESA hoped it would better serve the interests of its constituent publishers — whether this is true has yet to be seen.

In sum, the ESA is an organization that is largely misunderstood by the gaming community and extremely important to health of our hobby as a whole. While seemingly opaque at first blush, the ESA is surprisingly frank and upfront with its policy and goals. While I don’t expect everyone to agree with the methods or policy behind every ESA decision, I hope that everyone reading this is now in a position to answer to oft-posed question, “What does the ESA actually do, anyway?”

[Interested in more political shenanigans in the videogame industry? Check out HarassmentPanda's blog, Laws of Play. -- CTZ]



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