For all the hardships that come along with being a young medium, many of which have been hashed over quite thoroughly by the gaming press, there’s also some advantages that come with being the new kid on the block. The long and celebrated histories of music, books, television and film have led to a great respect for these art forms in popular culture, which is something videogames are still very much pining after. However, in the case of music and movies particularly, this history has led to the establishment of institutions that have mutated over the years into something pretty undesirable.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Formed as trade groups to represent the interests of record labels and production studios, these groups have evolved into a very well-funded lobbyist group, which manage to impose significant corporate influence over government legislation. This is generally accomplished via direct “contributions” (read: bribes) to Senators and Members of Congress. When one considers that the RIAA claims to represent the people who “create, manufacture and/or distribute approximately 85% of all legitimate recorded music produced and sold in the United States,” it’s easy to see just how much money and influence is behind such organizations. It would be difficult for any educated consumer to conclude that these trade groups are a positive influence over their respective industries.
So what can we do to save the games industry from a similar fate? Fortunately, there is not yet a games industry trade group as dominant or as well-moneyed as the MPAA or RIAA. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) is certainly heading in this direction, but has not yet become as egregious as its peers in other media. There’s a few things preventing this, giving hope that gaming does not have to follow in the footsteps of older media.
Foremost among these saving graces is that the games industry is far more globalized than most other entertainment industries. American film studios are grossing more annually than the rest of the world’s combined, and the vast majority of the movies made outside of America are virtually invisible to Western audiences. Meanwhile, a huge amount of game developers are based in Europe and Japan, and North American gamers have little trouble finding and playing Japanese and European games. This sort of globalization prevents an American trade group like the ESA from becoming as monolithic as the RIAA or MPAA.
Another roadblock to the emergence of any such monolithic association is the games industry’s consumer base. Gamers as a whole tend to be fairly outspoken about their opinions, and they’re able to present these opinions in a far wider-reaching fashion than in the pre-internet era the big trade groups formed in. Modern technology allows consumers to be a powerful force of organized opposition to things they disagree with, as we have so recently witnessed in the case of SOPA opposition. This simply wasn’t an option consumers had at the time the MPAA and RIAA were emerging (1922 and 1952 respectively.)
Whether or not these obstacles will prevent the ESA – or a similar organization in the future – from becoming as nefarious as their contemporaries in other media remains to be seen. The ESA’s withdrawal of their support for SOPA in the face of consumer pressure is certainly a good sign, even though it came too late to be anything but symbolic. It’s also encouraging that the ESA still has a functional purpose outside of lobbying, as the organizer of gaming’s largest trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo.
Only time will tell whether gaming can escape the temptation of having a monolithic lobbying arm with which to push its own agenda at the expense of consumers. The best thing we can do is remain vigilant, and continue to be vocal when we disagree with the actions of developers and publishers. At the end of the day, we must all be willing to vote with our wallets.