SOPA: Why I Can’t Defend the Game Industry Anymore
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront. The featured image on this week’s post is an amazing piece by sakimichan at Deviant Art)
When I first started writing, one thing I wanted to do more than anything was to defend the videogame industry. The frustration I felt when watching games suffer ignorant criticism by mainstream media pundits often threatened to develop into a consuming inferno of throbbing rage. No moment more defined my goal as a writer than the murder of 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah. The British teen was brutally attacked with a claw hammer by a “friend” who was reportedly “obsessed” with Rockstar’s Manhunt. This game became the focal point of a discussion that ignored driving motivations for the murder (it turned out that the incident was an attempted mugging), the wider causes of violent street crime, and the fact that Pakeerah’s own parents had bought Manhunt at one point.
Despite police concluding that Manhunt was not responsible for the attack in any way, that didn’t stop opportunists jumping on the bandwagon, to the point where some blame Manhunt for Pakeerah’s death even to this day. The parents were the driving force of the blame, but scavenging Labor politician Keith Vaz was the fuel in their engine. The self-promoting minister has continued to attack videogames and still claims Manhunt is responsible for Pakeerah’s death.
When I was hired by Destructoid in 2006, I finally felt like I had a voice. Even if I was preaching to the choir, there was a great catharsis in championing the videogame industry’s merits, as I did when the British Board of Film Classification banned Manhunt 2, when Anne Diamond wrote a slew of anti-game propaganda for the Daily Mail, and when California attempted to impose limitations on videogames that movies and books had not been subjected to, singling out interactive entertainment as something more dangerous and toxic. I did this proudly, and I did this with all the energy that my moral indignation could muster. Nowadays, however, I struggle to care. The indignation is still there, but the desire to fight in favor of the industry? That’s been eroded, possibly beyond repair.
It has become pretty clear over the course of the past two years that my desire to defend videogames is at odds with my desire to defend the rights of gamers themselves. As publishers continue to punish paying PC users with unfairly restrictive DRM measures, as the likes of THQ and EA put online passes into games to pressure retailers (who rely on secondhand sales to make any kind of profit), and as a vast majority of the game industry still remains silent on the issue of the Stop Online Piracy Act, I cannot help but feel that my past desire to “go to bat” for this industry is a little embarrassing. To defend the rights of companies that don’t care if we live or die … it’s not something I feel comfortable doing anymore.
Online passes and DRM were one thing, but the recent SOPA issue took it too far. It’s what hammered home a truth that we all know, deep down — that the game industry we so love has no feelings toward us. We are all little more than walking wallets, and that’s something we’ve been fine with for a long time. I don’t expect EA, THQ, or Ubisoft to give a rat’s ass about me, but I would have expected more than stony silence on an issue that threatened the free speech of everybody in this industry, be they developer, gamer or even publisher. Unfortunately, the Entertainment Software Association sunk lower than silence. It supported — and still supports — SOPA. A bill that, in case you haven’t heard, was written with the intention of allowing corporations supreme power over the Internet, blocking access to sites that it didn’t like without due process, and strangling revenue streams to sites containing copyrighted content. It wasn’t just about piracy, either — even sites with user-generated content could be shut down. That’s how vague the bill is, even after multiple changes and research (not to mention postponed hearings!).
The ESA, which represents a huge amount of game publishers, has proudly remained a supporter of SOPA in the face of terrible publicity, consistent blows to its credibility, and criticism from a huge number of tech experts. What truly makes it appalling, however, is the startling hypocrisy at play.
Remember, this is the same ESA that begged gamers for help during the Brown vs. EMA/ESA legal battle. The California Bill wanted to restrict the sale of games, slapping laws on videogames that other forms of entertainment were not governed by. The ruling would be a direct attack on the First Amendment rights of entertainment software, and the ESA worked that angle like a pro. It used its Video Game Voters Network to whip gamers into a defensive frenzy, and it milked the concept of free speech for every beautiful, shiny drop. I spread the word as best I could, as did many gamers, and I feel many shared my years of frustration with games being treated as dangerous scapegoats. Years of pent-up anger toward preening pundits and clueless politicians was salved when the supreme court eventually ruled that videogames were protected by free speech, that people couldn’t just waltz in and change the rules because they did not understand a new medium.
How pathetically ironic, then, that the ESA is doing to the Internet what Arnold Schwarzenegger and Leland Yee tried to do to videogames. Now it’s the ESA’s turn to play the out-of-touch, incompetent, hysteria-driven old dinosaur that is trying to legislate that which it cannot comprehend. And in the face of an appeal from the gamers that once helped it, the ESA has this to say — f*ck you. F*ck you all.
That was, as they say, the last straw. Yes, it’s obvious that the game industry doesn’t care about its consumers, but until recently, I kind of didn’t mind it. I was still happy to fight for gaming as an art form, even if Activision and Microsoft just saw it was a way to fleece as much cash out of consumers as possible. I was fine with that. But not anymore. I can’t keep doing it, because I respect myself too much. I can’t go to bat when Mass Effect is accused of distributing pornography to minors by FOX News, or when some half-baked psychologist claims Bulletstorm encourages rape. I can’t do it because the sting of knowing that I’m being exploited is just too great. That’s what it is, at its core — exploitation. Publishers know how much gamers respect videogames, rely on them to defend their artistic rights, and then betray them at a later date. As EA and Capcom continue to pull poker faces and refuse to speak out against SOPA, as the trade body representing them actively and proudly supports the thing, I can’t feel morally right about sticking up for any of the bastards. Even as some companies come out against SOPA at the eleventh hour, one feels they were were staying on the fence and letting other people do all the heavy lifting, marching in only when they were sure it was a good PR move, expecting a hero’s welcome.
The frustration I once felt when I saw games being misrepresented in the media has been replaced with a different kind of frustration. A frustration at seeing developers claim to require online passes because their million-selling, AAA title wouldn’t make a profit otherwise. A frustration at seeing publishers use DRM that they know doesn’t work, exerting greater control over paying customers while blaming everything on the pirates who have gotten away scot-free. A frustration at corporations fleecing retailers over profits of brand new games, then acting like the victim when those retailers push used sales in order to make up for it. A frustration at seeing platform holders play with our personal details like toys, and only come clean about it once the evidence is too great to deny.
The silence of games companies and the treachery of the ESA opened my eyes to everything else. It also allowed me to see the hypocrisy that infests this industry. Just think about how videogames are used as a scapegoat when someone is killed. Now think about how pirates or used sales become scapegoats when a shitty or poorly promoted game doesn’t sell enough copies. Videogames have learned well from their detractors over the years. The same propaganda and fear-mongering employed against them have been employed expertly against the perceived enemies of this business. Pay like unto like, I suppose.
That’s why, when I see Electronic Arts crying over free speech while defending the use of real-life helicopters in Battlefield 3, I am not compelled to care. EA doesn’t care about free speech. Nor did the ESA. To the games industry, free speech is not a basic right, but just another loophole to be exploited. It’s just something that disingenuous fake-grassroots organizations like the Video Game Voters Network can utilize to trick gamers into defending corporations that don’t give the first fuck about them. It’s just another tool in the box. I can’t keep defending First Amendment rights for companies that are fair weather friends to the First Amendment.
I am still as angry as I ever was when I saw Stephen Pakeerah’s death used as a political tool by self-serving parasites. Now, however, I cannot wield that anger to champion the side of games. I still love videogames, and it’s an industry full of individuals I respect, but my self-righteous oratory is wasted defending interactive entertainment. It needs to be used to defend the interactively entertained. That’s you. And me, of course. Gamers. Consumers. People. Consumer advocacy has been something that truly spoke to me over the past few months of anti-SOPA protest, and I dare say we need a few more consumer advocates in gaming.
I got into the games writing field with a hope to defend videogames from selfish, greedy people. Now, it seems we need to defend people from selfish, greedy videogames.