Q&A: Doug Lowenstein, going the distance

The news of Lowenstein's imminent departure from the ESA hit the industry like a hammer today. Here, the outgoing president talks about the future ahead for himself, as well as the organization he founded a little more than a decade ago.

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Doug Lowenstein
Doug Lowenstein

For the past 12 years, it was impossible to navigate the game industry's inner machinery--whether that was the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the DICE Summit, or the extended stomping ground of Capitol Hill--without somewhere along the line running into Doug Lowenstein. As the game industry's most obvious spokesperson, his words and actions became a war cry for the industry to rally around--or the center bull's-eye for industry critics to take aim at.

He had both detractors and fans, probably more than his fair share. And in a tip of the hat to the depth and many-layered quality of the complex game industry, many who enjoyed the final product Lowenstein spent years defending and defining--the gamers themselves--may not have even known he existed.

But exist he did, and never more vividly that in his sermons from the mount, or rather, his opening comments to the world's media that religiously kicked off each E3 (2006, 2005, 2004).

He may not have been loved by all, but he was listened to. If nothing else, Doug Lowenstein could draw a crowd, and the results of his ongoing efforts to represent the industry brought a certain cache and clout to it that was, before his tenure, nonexistent.

Among the press, within the beltway, and with local, state, and international governments in almost every corner of the globe, Lowenstein spent time, cash, and shoe leather promoting and defending the game industry.

Today, Lowenstein confirmed he would leave his post as president of the Entertainment Software Association sometime in early 2007. GameSpot spoke with him shortly after the announcement was made.

GameSpot: Does this signal tough times ahead for the ESA?

Doug Lowenstein: I don't think ESA is in any difficulty. I don't think ESA is troubled. I don't think ESA has anything but an extremely bright future ahead of it. And I believe that, into the core of my being. I'm not sure I could have left if I didn't believe that, because the last thing I would want to do is walk away from something I created and leave it in some kind of shape that doesn't allow it to prosper and thrive.

GS: Do you remain an active president for the next two months?

DL: I'm active and busy; going to meetings and working with the staff on plans, working on budgets, and so forth.

GS: Come March 2007, do you sever all ties to the ESA?

DL: Once I formally start a new job, I will not be working for ESA and will not have a formal relationship with them. That said, if my successor wants my input...for as long as anybody wants to ask me my opinion or to tap into whatever institutional or historical knowledge I have, I'm more than happy to share that with anybody who wants to talk about it.

GS: Speaking of a successor, what kind of person do you think is required to fill the role of ESA president?

DL: I think that's up to the board to decide, but broadly speaking, I think this is an incredibly exciting, dynamic, evolving, and a cutting-edge industry, and I think that it's important to have somebody who embodies all of those characteristics.

In a lot of ways, if I had left five years ago, it would have been very different. But I think ESA's position in the Washington market, our credibility, and our effectiveness have really put us in a place where this is a very, very plum opportunity.

It's an exciting industry. It's got exciting issues. It's got great companies, a great history, and a great staff. I think that it's set up for someone to look at it and say "this is an extraordinary opportunity." They're going to have no shortage of candidates for this job.

GS: Twelve years ago the IDSA was formed in response to growing political pressure on the industry. Today, the industry still remains the object of the same political pressure. Why is progress so darn difficult in terms of taking some of that pressure off?

DL: Well, I don't agree. I mean, that implies that in 12 years we're running in place, and I don't think that's true.

GS: I don't mean to imply that. I think you can carry the question. Even assume that's implied.

DL: Here's the deal. I think that there are plenty of industries that have ongoing public policy issues that endure over time. If you live in the world and if you've been on the Hill--I don't say this in a condescending way at all, please don't mistake it--but I remember there were issues I worked on, on the Hill, for the five years I was there, that I worked on every year. That may be because bills didn't get passed and people were just persistent about them or that there was continued attention on an industry.

Look at the pharmaceutical industry. There are issues, for example, around prescription drug pricing that have been around for at least a decade. And it doesn't mean that you're not making headway, necessarily. It just means that there's a lot of interest and focus. I think you can go through the issues, environmental issues and fuel economy standards...I'm sure you can remember people debating fuel economy standards going back a decade.

That's the nature of public policy. So for us the issue revolves around concerns about content. And really, truthfully, if you look at it, the film industry deals with these issues and have been dealing with [them] for 35 years. Now it ebbs and flows. And sometimes the film industry seems to not be the center of attention and then other times there's sort of a flurry of activity around [it]. They're dealing with a lot of issues right now: about smoking, not about violence. But if you look around at the state level and the issues that are affecting the film industry, you'll see that [the industry is] spending a huge amount of time dealing with public-policy concerns about the depiction of smoking in film.

That's just the nature of the beast. It's the nature of the public-policy environment. It's a continual educational process and you hope that every year you've converted and educated a few more people, raised awareness and understanding, and are a little bit better off than you might have been a year before.

I think we can certainly look back at what we've done over 12 years and look at where we started and look at where we are now and say with absolute certainty that the appreciation and awareness of the industry are far, far beyond what they were 12 years ago--or even four or five years ago.

GS: What do you see as the biggest challenge for tomorrow's ESA?

DL: I think they're the same challenges that we face today, and they're the same challenges that caused our board to look at, and over the last few months, reaffirm the direction that we are going in as an industry. Fundamentally, the challenges for the industry are to continue to build the accessibility and the acceptability of video games in the world. And those two words, I think, capture everything.

GS: Can you elaborate? Accessibility. What's that all about?

DL: It's about not restricting access to games based on content. It's about opening markets and reducing piracy. It's about all the things that create inability for people that--and I'm not talking about the technology access, I'm not talking about sort of some arcane Internet backbone server kind of thing.

Acceptability is about continuing to raise awareness among people who are decision makers that this is a fundamental and basic part of the entertainment culture, and create this sort of sense that I talked about a little bit at E3 last year, or earlier this year, when I talked about how there are many industries for which you can have arguments and concerns in a public policy context about some aspect of the industry. But you want to reach the point where people look at the industry in a holistic way and they say, "Yeah, well we're concerned about this," or "Gee, we're concerned about some of the content of these games." But this is a really important and vibrant industry, and we need to look at it in this sort of larger sense and recognize we can be concerned about it without condemning the industry and at the same time recognizing the enormous contributions it makes in a lot of other ways.

That's all you can hope for, particularly if you're in the content business, because you're always going to be doing something that somebody's going to find controversial or objectionable. It's impossible not to do that. So in some ways, if all you do is make product that everybody finds rather acceptable, you're probably not pushing the envelope creatively.

GS: How were you able to put up with the vitriol of those who attacked, and still attack, the ESA?

DL: Well, you don't take stuff personally. If you engage in the sort of ad hominem personal attacks not only, I think, do you degrade yourself but you really make it much more difficult for your voice to be heard. [What] you end up doing is making the story or making the issue who's calling you or who's calling somebody what. The media loves that, but I don't think it helps anybody understand anything more about video games for me to attack a critic.

I've tried very hard, hopefully mostly successfully, but I'm sure I've slipped up from time to time, but I've tried very hard to always sort of look and say, "What animates people's concerns?" And I think, in most cases...their concerns are evolved from some genuine concerns. Most people's motives are honorable, and I try to approach it that way. Whether I disagree with that, whether I disagree with how they express themselves, I always try to recognize that, particularly as it relates to the concerns about violence in games, that, of course, people can be concerned about that.

I think it's one reason we've been successful--[because] we're not dismissive. We don't make believe that everybody should embrace every game as good for everyone. And I think you just have to go forward and look at what you do and try to do it honorably and try to do it openly and try to do it fairly and try to do it respectfully.

And you go to bed at night and you say, you know, what's this all about? And in this particular area it's about freedom of expression. I can sleep at night knowing that I've been a small part of championing that right and that privilege. And you know, that makes it easier.

GS: You know, there's so much sizzle surrounding the challenges you've faced as ESA president, it strikes me as a curious direction to go, finance.

DL: I don't want to get in to too much detail about where I'm going or what I'm doing yet.

GS: OK, how about this: You're going into finance, are you going to miss the sizzle of entertainment?

DL: Look, I'm sure I'm going to miss a lot about ESA and the industry...you know, I don't want to get too sappy, [but] the people I've met and the members of the board that I work with, other members of ESA, the staff here, other just great people that I've gotten to know who have been so supportive and helpful. Yes, I'm going to miss the people and I'm going to miss the personalities and I'm going to miss the energy and excitement that's central to the industry.

I think where I'm going, the challenges are going to be enormous. The work is going to be exciting and energizing, and you know in the end, the sizzle is in the issues and the nature of the work. I think it's a mistake to think that somehow if you work for the entertainment industry it's a more exciting job than working for other industries. To me, the excitement flows from the nature of the issues you work with, the nature of the challenge that you have. That's what gets me motivated and juiced up about coming into work. Am I stretching? Am I intellectually stimulated? Am I around smart, passionate, opinionated people? You know, do you have a chance to engage in lively debates and strategic dialogue about issues that matter. That's where the sizzle is for me.

GS: Was it easy to leave the ESA?

DL: Of course it wasn't easy. I said I was honored and privileged to be given a chance to start this organization--and there were a lot of people who were very much a part of that. So it's a little bit awkward to take too much credit for that because there was a lot of work done by a lot of other people before I arrived on the scene. Success has a lot of fathers and that certainly is the case, and deservingly so, for ESA.

But there's still a personal sense of pride and investment in the organization and the people here. And you know, I've got 12 years of my life wrapped up in the issues and the industry. So to leave that behind is not easy. And it was not a decision that I made lightly.

In the end, I felt very comfortable with this decision. This is one of those things that you look at and say, "If not now, when?" Because you don't get opportunities like this again. And I just thought this was one that I just needed to grab and see if I could be part of creating something again. I mean, to do that twice in a lifetime, you know, given the kind of life I've led and the world I work in. [I'm] someone who never thought--as I was in my younger newspaper days and other days--that I was going to be somebody involved in starting a business once, let alone having a chance to do it twice, building and creating something. That's a great opportunity.

GS: You're getting sappy, Doug.

DL: Oh, well, clean it up! Un-sap it!

GS: I will.

DL: I've enjoyed a lot of this, almost all of it, [but] life presents new opportunities and new challenges and it's...it's kind of carpe diem.

GS: Good luck, Doug.

DL: Thank you very much, and we'll talk soon.

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