As Entertainment Software Association president Doug Lowenstein said farewell to the gaming industry at his D.I.C.E. presentation last week, he admonished pretty much everyone involved with the industry. He slammed publishers who made violent games and then didn't go public to defend them. He slammed the gaming press for sloppy reporting and giving Jack Thompson too much coverage. And to make sure he didn't miss anyone, he slammed was pretty much everyone in attendance at D.I.C.E. (and by implication, gamers at large) for not being more involved in the politics of gaming by joining the ESA's Video Game Voters Network.
On the first count, I agree with him. If Take-Two wants to make a fortune off Grand Theft Auto and rattle cages with controversial content, it should be willing to stand up and explain what possible artistic value their games have when overprotective and out-of-touch legislators come knocking. It shouldn't just make a mess and expect the ESA to deal with the entire cleanup.
As for the media, Lowenstein was half-right. Generally speaking, it is sloppy. It needs cleaning up. It needs more maturity. It needs people more willing to actually do the job right.
But in regards to Thompson, the gaming media could ignore the man entirely, and I'm convinced he'd still be plenty happy with the attention he received from the mainstream press, concerned parents, and legislators. Thompson constantly resurfaces in opposition to the industry and is taken seriously (at least for a time) by parent watchdog groups and politicians. That makes him a threat to the industry's interests, and as a result, that makes some of his actions newsworthy.
I'm also incredibly uncomfortable with a field of mature, thorough, competent reporters (like the sort Lowenstein implored us to become) coming to a mutual conclusion as to the newsworthiness of a story or an individual, and quietly imposing a group ban on coverage of Thompson. I'm doubly uncomfortable with it happening at the behest of the ESA, an organization we are supposed to cover impartially. Even if an agreed ban on coverage of Thompson would be effective (which I doubt), the collusion of media outlets in determining a subject's newsworthiness would set a filthy precedent.
Finally, there's the admonishment of people who sit on the sidelines and don't lend their voice to the industry. This is where I have a big problem with Lowenstein's speech. If you're inspired to do so, taking political action to defend the gaming industry is indeed admirable. But it's not mandatory.
I understand that it must have been frustrating for Lowenstein to see message boards light up with outraged comments from gamers every time a new state ponders gaming legislation, and then see that the outrage dies as soon as the poster's half-formed diatribe is submitted. But don't put me on a guilt trip for not signing on to the Video Game Voters Network, and don't tell me I'm a bad gamer for not forfeiting my own voice to whatever the ESA's grassroots political organization wants to do with it.
The ESA has a wealth of fine deeds in its history, and serves some absolutely crucial purposes in the industry. However, it isn't real big on transparency (see the cloudiness of an ESRB ratings process that gives Oblivion a T for Teen before launch and an M for Mature months later, why it spends money to influence online gambling laws), and it's not interested in the betterment of gaming; it's interested in the betterment of its publisher membership.
In many cases, the two goals are one and the same. Any sort of legal restriction on the sale of M-rated games would be bad for publishers' business, so the ESA comes down hard against it. So in the biggest picture, anything that's clearly catastrophic for gaming is likely to be really bad for publishers' profit, and you can count on the ESA to fight it tooth and nail.
However, there are a lot of gray areas in which the ESA's interests don't necessarily fall in line with yours or mine. Laws requiring retailers to post signs educating parents about the ESRB are a hassle for retailers given another requirement to follow, but if they don't directly affect the publishers' interests, the ESA takes a neutral on those matters.
And then there are the labor laws in California. The ESA said it spent over $100,000 over the course of three months just to get "interpretive guidance" from the state's labor department about overtime laws. Given the lawsuits sizeable California-based publishers like EA and Activision have faced over allegations of mandatory excessive overtime for their employees, the ESA likely isn't lobbying for these publishers' employees to get better treatment. Even if they aren't lobbying for specific laws, spending that much on interpretive guidance is like asking "So just how badly can we bend these suckers over a barrel before it becomes illegal?"
Yes, being politically active and letting legislators know how you as a gamer and a voter feel about restrictions on the medium is a great thing. Yes, gamers should be more active politically. Yes, the VGVN is one way to do that. However, if you're going to turn your voice over to a third party (and whether or not you should even do that is debatable), you may as well make it one that's looking out for your interests on the surface. If you're EA, Activision, Sony, or Microsoft, then yes, the ESA is definitely the group for you. But if you're just a gamer, look into the Entertainment Consumer's Association. If you're a developer, hit up the International Game Developers Association.
Whatever you decide to join, make sure they know what you want them to lobby for; otherwise you're just a name and an address that they'll use to get whatever they want done.