Gaming with the Government: Interview with the ECA

ECA

Often times while playing a video game I’m more concerned about how to complete my next objective, or preparing to deliver a humiliating teabagging to some virtual enemy. One thought that rarely occurs to me while gaming is whether or not my rights as a gamer are being well represented to the government. However I should be concerned. As the industry becomes more popular, and makes more money, it is becoming an ever increasing target for various media groups and politicians. Personally I’ve become a fan of the website Gamepolitics.com and how it does a great job on keeping the community informed on when politics collide with video gaming. Gamepolitics.com is a part of the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA), which is currently the only advocacy group representing the opinions of people who play video games. Recently Hal Halpin, the Executive Manager for the ECA, granted an interview to Diehardgamefan.com, which is posted below.

Hal Halpin

Hal Halpin, Executive Manager of the ECA

DHGF: I will provide a short description of the ECA for our readers, but in your own words could you briefly explain what the ECA is, and what as an organization its mission is?

HH: Sure, the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA) is a new non-profit membership organization that was established to represent gamers. The easiest way to think of it is like a AAA, but for game consumers. Members pay annual dues of $19.99 ($14.99 for students and military) and receive back a ton of affinity benefits, such as discounts on games-related merchandise and advocacy representation in the media and at the State and Federal levels.

Other than representing consumers interests in politics the ECA supports or runs various websites and programs such as GamePolitics.com, GameJobs.com, and the Video Game Yellow Pages. How do these sites help you reach out and connect to the consumer?

HH: We do. Additionally, we recently launched GameCulture.com as well. These sites all represent yet more ways for us to provide education to our members and the community as a whole. We see “education” generally, as one of the greatest challenges we have in the long term. With 35 million game consumers in the U.S. alone, and the largest of enthusiast media outlets only regularly reaching a fraction of that population, we need to make sure that we’re doing our best to arm our constituents and games journalists with information. Unfortunately, the vast majority of gamers probably aren’t aware of their rights, much less how under attack they are.

Outside of Gamepolitics.com, it seems like most gaming news has to do with release dates or new information about games. How does the ECA inform consumers about how their rights are being affected by various video game related bills?

HH: GamePolitics is certainly the tip of the spear there, however our Government Affairs department has done a great job in the past few months rolling out new initiatives and modules that empower and enable consumers. The Advocacy section (http://www.theeca.com/video_gamers_rights) of our website is a great resource for both seeing what we’re up to as well as getting involved in the fight.

As a second part to the previous question, does the ECA have a plan to try and motivate video game consumers to become more involved in the issues that affect them?

HH: Well, we try not to force-feed inspiration, but I know that I, for one, can be a bit of a rebel rouser – especially via our social networking initiatives (I have to apologize to those that I spam regularly in that regard). But to your question: just a few examples are: ECA Today, our nightly newsletter, is a great conduit for informing folks about what’s going on, as are our FaceBook and MySpace groups. Additionally, we’ve formed 30 chapters in just the past nine months where gamers can become as involved as they like. We also have various opportunities for members to get engaged in our advocacy efforts via letter writing and working side-by-side with our Government Affairs department to effect change.

Previously Hal Halpin ran a retail trade association (the IEMA) that represented retailers who distributed video games. How different is it to represent the consumer side than the retailer’s side?

HH: Ha! Great question… it’s vastly different – probably most visibly in the scope and scale of what we do on behalf of our membership. For the IEMA, we were laser-focused on a few very important issues each year such as the standardization of the PC games box and its platform identification mark, source-tagging, RFID and loss-prevention generally. Each of those things were huge weighty intra-industry issues, but with only 30 member companies we could affect change and gain consensus pretty easily. Contrast that with the challenges and opportunities that we’re working for on behalf of consumers: Net Neutrality, EULA Standardization, Fair Use and DMCA, Violent Media Legislation, etc. and you can see that we’re now operating on some really important national issues that have a ripple effect far beyond just games. Plus, game consumer’s needs individually and collectively are disparate from major retailer’s. For instance, we’re working on providing access to life, health and auto insurance, affinity credit cards, scholarships, resume writing help, job boards, etc.


The business of video games is growing every year, and as it states on the ECA’s own website it’s a 10 billion dollar a year business, why do you think that it wasn’t until recently that a group like the ECA was formed to represent the rights of video game consumers?

HH: We’re pioneering a space, basically. When the idea occurred, there wasn’t a parallel organization to model against; nothing in music, movies, etc. So, we’re really in new territory here. It’s a slow and steady battle to educate quite literally everyone on why gamers matter and why their rights shouldn’t be diminished.


Recently it seems that a few politicians are trying to propose additional taxes to video games, why do you think that entertainment medium was singled out and what is the ECA’s stance on additional video game taxes?

HH: The blunt answer is that entertainment is a luxury and legislators see applying a sin tax as low-hanging fruit – especially when vilifying videogames. It’s spun to the media as though entertainment consumption is a vegetative and complacent pass-time. It’s interesting to watch from an objective point-of-view if you can step out of the debate for a minute. States will bend over backwards to encourage the game business to move there and pontificate the up-sides of gaming’s social attributes, the fitness spin of the Wii and DDR. And then, 24 hours later, be screaming about protecting the children and how vile games are, condemning the entire medium in the process.


At the present time it seems like the ECA fights an uphill battle against politicians who are of an age that most have likely never even played a video game, so how do you represent an entertainment medium to lawmakers and politicians whose video game experience is playing Solitaire and Minesweeper? Why do you think that video games are singled out more than movies or any other media by politicians?

HH: I think it truly boils down to a generational gap. Generations X and Y have grown up with gaming as a part of their broader entertainment diet, consuming interactive entertainment similarly to music, movies and television. As such, we respect it as media and know and appreciate the diversity of content. The Baby Boomers have matured watching their kids and grandkids play games, and therefore see it as a toy – not media – and as a result view anything but child-appropriate content as reprehensible. Casual and serious games can bridge that gap. And we’re looking at a few ECA initiatives that may help in that regard.

While the ECA represents the consumer’s side, there are other groups out there that represent other areas of the business, such as the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) who represent the publishers and Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), the organization that applies and enforces video game ratings. Does the ECA work together with these groups?

HH: Absolutely! Our immediate coalition partners are the respective trade orgs: the ESA (as you said), the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), and the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). We also support some of their respective initiatives, such as the ESRB, as you mentioned. We work together on a variety of mutually-beneficial matters, but there are instances where the consumer’s interests and those of the industry differ. Also, there are matters in which we’re engaged and they are not… and vice versa. It’s our charter to represent the best interests of our respective memberships, so I believe there’s a healthy respect for the work that we each do – even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye.


Now there are times when the publisher’s side of the business seems to act against the interest of the consumer. As an example, there’s some fairly restrictive DRM licensing for downloadable content on the current console that seems to act against the interest of the consumer. Where does the ECA stand when it comes to licensing agreements for downloadable content? An example: if you purchase an Xbox Live game and something happens to your video game system you are unable to recover the game you purchased unless you are actively connected to the internet you cannot access this content. You lose the ability to go online, and well, there goes the game you purchased.

HH: Yes. This is a great example of what we were just talking about actually. A few weeks ago I wrote about End User License Agreements (EULAs) in a column I write monthly for GameDaily, a business-to-business newsletter (http://www.gamedaily.com/articles/features/guest-column-eula-hell/?biz=1). I sited the example of how we worked collaboratively in the past to save PC gaming by standardizing the box and the icon and used it as an example of an important way in which we can, all together, affect real and lasting change. I see standardization of EULAs as precisely the same opportunity. And the more digital the distribution process becomes, the more important for us all to be on the same page. Presently, EULAs are so vastly different that consumers have no idea how to decipher or digest the contract that they’re agreeing to. By standardizing the process, you’ll know beforehand that you agree to their Terms and Conditions of Use – before you open the package and can no longer return it to the store.


Speaking of, how does the ECA choose to combat rampant piracy that is threatening to eventually damage – irreparably – the PC gaming market, and is widely assumed to be one of the major reasons Electronic Arts canceled it’s Madden franchise on the PC? Is there any way to actively self regulate things such as piracy?

HH: The terms “piracy” and “intellectual property” are really misnomers. They have become so engrained in the collective unconscious that we see one is purely evil and the other as a God-given right of protection, and really neither is the case. Piracy is a real and tangible problem for the sector as a whole, but I think there are ways that we can work together to resolve the bigger challenges related to it without marginalizing consumer rights in the process. Now that gamers have a seat at the table – via the ECA – we can begin working with the other stake holders toward a common-ground position.


What does the ECA see as the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of its goals?

HH: Clearly it’s education, as we discussed earlier. Our challenges there are formidable in that we – first and foremost – have to get the attention of the millions of gamers out there and convince them that they need to become involved. The early adopters of ECA will likely be those that care passionately about their rights and about gaming, the tip of the consumer pyramid. But as we grow, my guess is that the vast majority of our members will be joining for the affinity benefits. We’re trying to make the value proposition a no-brainer: you pay twenty bucks for membership, but receive back over 200 dollars worth of benefits and discounts… in that instance, where you’re spending money on games-related stuff anyway, why wouldn’t you want to spend less through your membership? Again, pretty similar to AAA where most folks, myself included, joined because of the discounts and roadside services – not even knowing that they also provide advocacy on our behalf. The same will likely be true of the ECA in the future.

What keeps the ECA as a group, or to be more personal, how does Hal Halpin keep himself motivated?

HH: Oh, that’s easy… when you care about what you do for a living and know that just being involved will have a profound impact, it’s easy to remain motivated. Plus, the interaction and feedback from members is so rewarding, personally. I love getting the opportunity to IM, email and chat with fellow gamers, especially at conferences and events. Many of those conversations lead to new ideas and ways in which we can improve the org, so it’s really important.


Whenever a tragedy happens it seems like there’s always someone nearby who is more than willing to point the finger at video games instead of how easy it was for someone to get access to guns, or any environmental or psychological factors. Often times it seems the mass media has no problem televising so-called “experts” on the evils of video gaming, and it seems like until recently with the Wii that most mass media coverage about video games was generally negative. Why do you think that is?

HH: Haha… hmm, not mentioning any names, right?! Well, it’s a simple problem with a phenomenally complex solution. How do you earn the faith of those who have none in a medium that is easy to condemn? How do you prove a negative? How do you reverse false stereo-types? How do you overcome adversity? You fight back. You speak up. You cease abdicating your position to your detractors. You get involved and learn more about how to defend your self and how to influence and educate others; and you take and keep the high ground. Look, we know we’re in the right. We just need to take a stand and convert others. It won’t be a short-term battle, but a series of battles that decide who wins the war – and we’re coming at it from behind, with the “expert” having lots of wins. But we’re making progress, building membership and regaining ground. United, we are the end-users, the community and where the buck stops. Our destiny is our own.

There seems to be a thin line between where retailer/producer responsibility ends and parental responsibility begins. Would you mind sharing the ECA’s view on how important the roles of parent are in observing what video games their children play?

HH: No, absolutely. “Parental empowerment” is critically-important for the industry, but what’s often lost in the discussion is “parental responsibility.” The trade can only realistically be expected to do so much. Before the IEMA got involved, seven or so years ago, there were very few ratings education signs hanging in the stores. Now it is a ubiquitous practice. You see counter-cards, shelf-talkers, placards, and even standees. Retailers, according to the FTC, are now carding for M-rated games at roughly the same rate as R-rated movies. That was a huge change to make in five short years, and one of the prouder moments I had when running the IEMA. I think that the focus necessarily must change to empowering parents there. Sure the publishers should continue to support the retailers via ESRB, but the publishers shouldn’t be in the consumers business. They’ve done their part and will continue to do so. But the emphasis needs to be on educating parents. That’s why I’m so gratified to see new independent assets like WhatTheyPlay out there.

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I’d like to thank the ECA and Hal Halpin for taking the time to do this interview. If you are interested in more information regarding the ECA head over to their website, www.theeca.com, and you can learn a little more about what they do and how you can get involved. It’s up to us as consumers to make sure that we are well represented. Otherwise the in a couple of years you might find yourself paying an extra tax just for buying a game in what is already an expensive hobby.

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