Victories And Challenges For The ESA

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This year’s E3 Expo was a return the glory of the old days, when the show was at the centerpiece of everything the game industry did. Not only did we have major console news from two of the big three, but plenty of games in development for every platform and in every genre. There was even a mobile gaming area for the first time this year.

One of the people at the very heart of this web of gaming was Rich Taylor, Senior Vice President of the Entertainment Software Association, which owns and manages the show, and acts as the industry’s champion and advocate. He took some time to chat with GiN about videogames in society, the E3 Expo, and what we can expect to see from our beloved industry in the next few years.

GiN: So let’s start with the basic questions. What efforts are the ESA planning in the coming year?

Taylor: We hope to continue to tell the story of this industry, which is one of economic engine, one that’s driving innovation, one that’s changing education and healthcare. There are a lot of amazing things going on right now, and I think people are seeing more and more applications of not just games for entertainment but interactive technologies really improving the way we live our lives in a number ways, and we want to tell that story.

GiN: Well, that was a direct lead-in to one my later questions, but I’ll keep them in order!

Taylor: There you go! We’ll do it in whatever order you like.

GiN: How has the lead up to E3 been this year? Were there any unexpected hurdles or unexpected triumphs?

Taylor: You know, this thing, we make a date for it, and it’s going to come whether we’re ready for it or not, so we choose to be ready! This has been a really exciting one, obviously. It’s rare you have two new consoles introduced in a single show, and so there’s an amazing amount of energy and excitement. Both Sony and Microsoft sort of previewed their consoles earlier in the year, Sony earlier than Microsoft, but it all drove and pointed towards this event this week, and so you’re really seeing that sort of release of the energy that’s been building so long on the show floor today and throughout the week. So it’s a great show that way.

The Wii U was revealed last year and continues to draw folks over there. So we have three major players with three new or relatively new pieces of hardware, and it makes for a very special show.

And then, you know, I haven’t been on the floor extensively yet this year, given that it’s only been open a couple of hours, but seeing the trailers and some of the gameplay at the press conferences yesterday, it also looks like a lot of very cool individual titles that are going to make a very happy holiday season for this industry.

GiN: Yeah, it’s definitely a madhouse out there around the Sony and Microsoft stations, you can barely get there. So, ok, last year I asked about the status of the ESA Foundation program and how it might factor into the ESA’s projects to help growth in the industry. Is the Foundation still going strong, and what new iterations has it taken?

Taylor: Yeah, so we have our ESA Foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of our trade association, and we do a number of efforts to support worthy causes using interactive technologies. One of the things we do is we provide scholarships to women and minority students who want to pursue learning computer and vide game design in college. We think this is a great way to help folks further their dreams. We think it’s healthy for an industry where you have a changing demography of people who play games – more women are playing, more people of color play, and this industry, it’s important for its health and survival to reflect that, so it’s great to be supportive of young talent that wants to get into this industry and our Foundation is really doing what it can to help promote that.

GiN: It’s like you’re predicting all of my questions! But staying on track, out on the floor you can see that there’s a new wave of game development centered around health and wellness, from helping wounded soldiers recover to assisting the elderly. Last year we discussed games being used in various efforts such as helping Native American tribes preserve their language or helping children with cancer understand their disease. What other projects such as this do you know of, and what role does the ESA and the ESA Foundation play in promoting them?

Taylor: Well, we’re actually in the process of evaluating a number of the new round of folks that have applied for grant support, so I’m not at the point where I can share where those are, because it’s actually ongoing. But what I can tell you is we’ve seen an amazing increase in the number of applications, we’ve seen an increase in the diversity of those applications, both in what they’re trying to accomplish using games and interactive technology, and where they are located, which is basically anywhere in the Untied States.

There are programs coming and proposals coming from all over the place. So the good news is I’m confident that whatever groups we decide we will support this time around are going to be remarkable, telling very great stories.

One thing I can say we’re doing is we’re in a partnership with the Children’s Miracle Network, which supports children’s hospitals in cities across the U.S., and we’re helping them raise awareness of, and hopefully helping them raise donations for, their marathon of gaming they do every year in the fall. Basically the same way many folks will do a walkathon or they’ll run a race and get pledges for every mile they run or every hour they walk or whatever it might be, this is for how much they play a video game. And so for one day, folks are focused on playing and raising funds, and those funds go directly to the children’s hospital in their locality, so if you’re playing in Dayton Ohio, it will go to the children’s hospital there, if you’re playing in Texas it will go the one closest to you, unless you say just put it wherever you want to. So it’s a good way for people to really impact their community while having fun doing what they love to do.

GiN: And where can people get more information on that game-athon?

Taylor: You can definitely do that through the ESA Foundation’s website: http://www.esafoundation.org/

GiN: In your opinion, what would be the biggest threat to games and game makers right now? Last year we talked about the Brown vs. EMA/ESA decision, ruling that games are protected speech, and about some common misperceptions about games in public discourse. Do you feel we are seeing any improvements in these arenas?

Taylor: I wish the answer was an unequivocal yes, but unfortunately it’s not. Even with our prevailing in that supreme court case, which confirmed that games are free speech, free expression, protected by the first amendment, and which looked at the science around games and whether they cause real world violence – claims which were rejected out of hand because the science is not there and in fact it says quite the opposite, so the supreme court was overwhelmingly with us on that case.

Even with that having happened, then you have something that shakes the national consciousness, like what happened in Newtown Connecticut, and the perpetrator of that crime was a 20 year old male with an arsenal of weapons who happened to play video games, as many 20 year old males do who do not have an arsenal of weapons. And unfortunately that horrible tragedy happened and some folks chose to try and blame video games. So we’ve been caught more than we deserve and more than we would like in the debate about that, but we have a great story to tell, and we tell it, and people tend to understand – and those who don’t understand simply more often than not just are not interested in hearing the facts around it.

So we have made great progress, but you know sometimes something happens that is so inconceivably horrible that people scramble for answers and sometimes they look in places that have nothing to do with it. The same games are played around the globe. The Washington Post had a very interesting graphic about games played in major metropolitan cities around the globe, anywhere from London to Tokyo to cities in the U.S. as well – if you look at video game consumption or gameplay, they are fairly consistent around the globe, and the kind of games they play are fairly consistent around the globe. The only place that those lines separate greatly is if you look at gun violence, and the U.S. stands disgracefully alone in terms of the level of gun violence that occurs here, and so you have to start asking yourself, if the same games are being played, why do we have these kind of problems here?

GiN: So, next question. Do you feel the industry has been responsive enough to a changing market? You see a lot of surveys out there these days that claim the average age of a console gamer is somewhere in their thirties and upward, with the younger generations being focused mostly on smart technology games. How accurate do you think these claims are, and how do you feel they might shape the decisions of developers?

Taylor: I think our industry has been very good at meeting the consumer where the consumer wants to be met, and anticipating where the consumer wants to go. You talk about mobile gaming as an example, well when you look at the top selling apps, the top free apps, usually seven or eight of the top ten are games, so we’re meeting folks there. Console gaming continues to be strong, and continues to draw lots of folks, and there are obviously titles galore for those so we’re meeting consumers there. Even things like, you know, Facebook, the games played on there, there are amazing titles being generated to meet audiences there as well. So we recognize that games can be played basically anywhere where there’s a screen, and this industry is smart enough to say let’s make really good games, those are market places, every screen is a market place, and we’re not going to be an industry that just thinks there’s only one way to enjoy what we do.

In fact at E3 this year for the first time we actually have a pavilion dedicated to online and mobile gaming, because you know those games have sometimes been on the floor of E3, but the nature of playing a game on your phone or your tablet is different than on a large screen TV, as is the sound and volume, so when you’re next to a large display booth out here that’s showing a game like car racing on the floor or something, you don’t really get the experience of playing on your phone like you would. So we’ve given a dedicated space, and sort of a more natural way you might be playing those types of games. Which again, that evolution of our trade show here is even an acknowledgement that we see who is a gamer and how that has changed in definition, but it does not abandon who was a gamer before.

There are still people who play games on consoles and love it, we have new consoles emerging to meet those demands, but we are also making games for other platforms as well.

GiN: The economy these days can still be hard for a lot of people, especially if you’re in any age category where paying the bills is a real concern. I hear from a lot of gamers I know that these days they just can’t afford to drop sixty dollars on a game. People like that are really bewailing the potential loss of the used game market, because sixty might be too much to swing, but not thirty. How can the gaming industry respond to this? How do you strike a balance between delivering good games and affordable prices?

Taylor: Right now I think the marketplace will help sort that out. I think there will be different approaches from different companies, different publishers, and that’s a determination for them to make right now. As a trade association we don’t declare or dictate how they do that part of their business, and in fact I don’t think we’re allowed by the law to get involved in pricing or anything like that. This industry has been very smart for a number of years, and I doubt they’re going to wake up dumb tomorrow. They’ll figure out a pathway, and it may be different pathways, we’re already seeing indicators of that in approaches and news from some of the shows yesterday even, but I think that’s a question best directed at each individual company.

GiN: So this is kind of tying into some stuff you mentioned earlier. As a female gamer I often wonder how the industry hopes to capture the new markets we were talking about. Simple smart phone games like Angry Birds can appeal to all demographics, but sometimes it seems as though the larger industry focused on consoles can sometimes get stuck in old approaches. There’s a definite rise of women in the gaming audience, and among developers as well, but you can still see a lot of sexism in the gaming community, as evidenced by countless flame wars that erupt online around comments from women in the industry. How do you think the industry needs to approach the idea of opening new markets in previously less targeted demographics, and do you see any evidence of this already happening?

Taylor: Right. I think that’s, you know, we are of the opinion that any sort of sexism or racism or anything that is made to make someone feel uncomfortable or inferior is not to be encouraged, should be unacceptable. The community does a pretty good job of policing itself when that happens, and our members who have games in an online environment also have folks to do that as well.

That said, touching back on what we were talking about earlier, I think that it’s real important for the long term health and welfare of this industry, and just common sense, to want to have developers and executives who reflect the changing demographics of the audiences they are trying to reach. And with more and more women playing one hopes more and more women will continue to move into the field, with more and more people of color playing one hopes more and more people of color will populate developer and executive ranks to greater extent, and as that happens you’ll see an industry that is again meeting where consumers are and who consumers are.

We’re doing our part we believe by helping support things like scholarship programs for women and minority students so they can pursue their dreams of computer video game design at the higher education level.

GiN: So last year’s E3 was surrounded by a lot of controversy regarding SOPA. Are there any new efforts to protect creative works in the industry that the ESA feels might be more widely embraced or that look promising?

Taylor: There’s nothing percolating right now. No real news on that front.

GiN: Speaking of things that are controversial…the presence of what a lot of people consider to be “spy tech” in the new consoles coming out is raising quite a fuss. In today’s age of marketing and information gathering, people are wary of the extremes to which this stuff goes. Just as it’s important to protect a developer’s rights to protect their creative property and concerning piracy issues, would you say it is important to protect the gamer’s experience and privacy in today’s technology world?

Taylor: I think privacy obviously is a critical issue, not just for the game industry but everywhere from retail to banking to you name it. Information circulates freely and sometimes very openly. You know, individuals have their role in protecting their privacy as well. People click through user agreements as fast as they possibly can – those are legal documents that describe exactly what you are agreeing to or not agreeing to. A marketplace can have a great influence if it chooses to.

So, not that I’m saying that I don’t appreciate concerns in that regard, I do. But I also think that folks have personal responsibility in that equation as well. You know you see people on some of those social networks complaining about giving up their privacy, but at the same time based on their own personal contributions to those networks they pretty much have given everything away already. So I think there definitely needs to be a fair level of corporate responsibility in that regard, and there needs to be a fair level of individual responsibility in that regard.

When those are booth in place I think the balance will be in such a way that both sides can operate in a way that they feel comfortable. But we’re in a new age, you know, we’re finding our way, we’re very Lewis and Clarke in that sense on this trail of privacy in a world of non stop connectivity and information, and technology ever present. So we don’t know what’s on the other side of that mountain that we’re going over, but there’s something there, and we’ll all figure it out together I’m sure.

GiN: Any last thoughts you want to share with the community? Anything that you’re particularly excited about, or worried about?

Taylor: I would share a couple things. One is that the future is bright, because if nothing else, I’ve seen amazing games already this week. I’ve talked to developers and the crop of developers out there now is so dynamic, and frankly so many people can develop games now, or publish games. They’ve made it so easy that if the imagination is there you can create a pretty remarkable piece of entertainment. The other thing I would encourage folks to do is to consider joining the Video Game Voters Network, which is: https://secure.videogamevoters.org/

That is a way when we are facing these fights, like we did with the supreme court, and when there is such disinformation going out there in the wake of a tragedy like Newtown, they can let their voices be heard so that they are not misconstrued as being some kind of uneducated, disinterested, checked out rabble that is completely disconnected from reality. In fact they are students and moms and dads and doctors and lawyers and journalists and producers and everything in between, just like any other form of consumer, and they actually happen to be more often than not more passionate about what they do than most. And so I like them to channel that passion, join the Video Game Voters Network and make sure their voices are heard when we face challenges like we sometimes face.

GiN: Perfect ending! That’s great, and thank you for your time.

Taylor: You’re welcome!

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