The GameSpeak experiment is, for lack of a better term, evolving. The questions are not the same. The goal - to discuss video games, game violence and their social impact – remains.
Hal Halpin is the president and founder of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association.
When you head into a Blockbuster, CompUSA or Toys R Us, you're walking into one of the many retailers represented by Halpin and the IEMA.
The IEMA also spends a vast amount of time representing the video game industry in government arenas; talking to lawmakers and partaking in discussions about video game legislation.
What does the IEMA do, exactly?
The Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association is the non-profit retail trade organization that represents the interests of the $10B U.S. video game industry. We handle all matters to that end including lobbying local, state and the federal government, negotiating standardization issues, researching and implementing new policies and procedures, public and government relations, etc.
What does your job as president entail?
I founded and run the organization and handle the day to day business needs of the group while coordinating efforts between our staff and inter and intra industry groups.
Why should gamers care about the IEMA's activities?
The IEMA's interests have, to-date, been precisely in line with those of consumers - and for good reason, our customers are our business. We make important policy decisions based upon customer feedback, and those procedures impact the very way in which people buy games.
The IEMA is a lobbyist group, how much interaction do you have with the politicians on Capital Hill?
It's interesting that you categorize us as such, as prior to this past year our lobbying efforts were negligible at most. But in the course of the past few years we have been working much more closely with politicians, government agencies and special interest groups. In terms of frequency, certainly several times daily...
Do you personally speak to the House and the Senate?
I personally speak with both members of the congress and the senate. We have been working closely with several high-profile federal politicians whom have influenced our recent policy changes including Senators Lieberman, Kohl, Brownback, and Santorum.
Do you find that politicians have a bias in regards video games?
That's a difficult question to answer directly in that we find that there is often a political divide with regard to content, and a generational divide with regard to presumed information or opinions. My personal opinion is that those on the Democratic side of the aisle generally abhor violence in media, but have more lenient attitudes toward sex, where the opposite is true for Republicans.
Do they treat gaming as something for kids?
With respect to the generational gap I mentioned, those politicians who are over a certain age tend to think of games as toys rather than media. Their frame of reference tends to be fixated in the 8-12 year old boy playing an Atari 2600 era, and when they see the level of technological sophistication and new gamer demographic, the information takes them aback. Younger politicians who have grown up with games as a basic part of their entertainment diet understand the difference because they're grown up with it.
Do you find yourself on the defensive at all when speaking to them? That you've got to give them a good enough reason to listen?
Not really. Generally speaking their hearts are in the right place and they're trying to do what they believe to be the right thing on behalf of the constituents. Once we have an informed discussion, we often find that our differences are much closer that they previously expected. It's the few politicians who use the violence issue for political grandstanding with whom it's difficult to carry on an intelligent conversation. But they are in the minority of policymakers fortunately.
Have you found politicians who genuinely like video games and the industry?
Absolutely. Unfortunately they don't get a lot of press due to the lack of sensationalism associated with their beliefs. A recent state-level example of this was just this week in Arkansas, where a Member worked with us and made some constructive suggestions that are likely to influence our policies nation-wide.
Ultimately, his efforts are likely to change the retail landscape and impact millions for the better. To me, that is a far better use of one's authority and public responsibility than futile efforts at legislation that has proven time and again fruitless.
How much of an influence does the IEMA have on decisions regarding laws made for interactive entertainment?
Fairly significant. We lobby before a bill is proposed, testify during the legislative process, and participate in the flight to overturn in the rare instances where a bill passes. A recent example of this would be Washington State.
How much influence does the IEMA have on the politicians themselves?
It's hard to say precisely... we work with the ESA, ESRB, IGDA, and other parallel trade organizations to educate policymakers on a regular basis. We hope that we have curbed many pieces of otherwise proposed legislation simply by educational means and building relationships whereby we work together... those are true success stories, but it requires a lot of hard work on each group's behalf.
Since you represent the retail side of gaming, what's the driving force behind the IEMA's actions?
Consumer interests. We're not interested in alienating customers, so we actively listen to their wants and needs and adjust our policies to meet them. Politicians often talk about how they are looking out for parents when there is a rush to judgment regarding government's role in child raising, but the truth is that parents want retailers to be their partners, to educate and empower them to make appropriate and responsible decisions on behalf of their kids.
Is the IEMA looking out for gamers, too?
Absolutely. Gamers are our customers. Look at any reasonable study and you'll find that the average age of gamers has risen dramatically over the past two to three cycles. Sure there are games that I'm morally opposed to and that I wouldn't buy for my children, but ultimately that's what it's all about: making informed decisions about how to raise your children.
Games can and should be part of their broader entertainment diet, but in the same way that you wouldn't want to buy The Godfather or Kill Bill for them, you should be no different in where you draw the line on games. Gamers who are of-age, unlike the 8 - 12 year olds in sting operations, clearly have the ability to drive themselves to the store, and the $50 in disposable income with which to make the purchase. What's appropriate content is their decision.
What is your personal stance on violence in gaming?
I believe that the retailers have made the prudent and necessary decisions, and parents must now take control of what their children read, watch, listen to, or play. As for adult gamers, games that have violence as an integral aspect to the story tend to appeal to their demographic and sell well because they're good games. Games that are marketed as violent and with gratuitous sex or violence in order to sensationalize, typically aren't good games and wouldn't sell if it weren't for politicians and the media hyping the title.
How many hate or violent crimes would you say are linked to or directly related to violence in video games?
To my knowledge there have been none. Since Columbine the media, politicians, special interest groups, lawyers, and scientists have been trying to determine what drove these two mentally disturbed individuals to commit such heinous acts. The focus has been on what they watched, played, listened to, read, and even how they dressed - rather than asking where their parents were.
The warning signs for juvenile violence are usually blaring, and it requires nothing more than for someone to watch closely enough. When I speak with educators and scientists on both sides of the issue the issue always ends up with parental responsibility and accountability... But then you'll never hear a politician say that parents should be held culpable for these crimes... Music, Movies and Games don't vote.
Is there a correlation between playing violent video games and acting in a violent manner?
I believe that any studies that have been done to-date indicate that there is no causal link between the two, though there is a lot of work yet to be done on the matter. The statistics that you'll hear often quoted by those opposed are derivative from a broader media study and making correlations based on shaky groundwork makes for nothing more than sensationalistic news, not helpful or useful facts.
Is the self-imposed rating system for video games enough? Is the ESRB working? What is the relevance of a rating system for video games if the powers that be will black-list certain games because of their graphic content?
The ESA is fond of quoting Senator Lieberman as saying that the ESRB ratings system is the best of the three entertainment systems (movies have the MPAA system, and music has a labeling system). We know that it works because the IEMA was the entity that empowered it so. In our formative years, the ESRB was having a difficult time penetrating above 50% of the publishers voluntarily participating. The IEMA retailers required all publishers to have a rating for all games that were to be sold, and in doing so aided the ESRB's overall efforts.
With regard to black-listing of titles, it's not a matter of a lot of frequency, but there have been several instances where our members have disagreed with a Mature rating, instead believing it to be worthy of an AO rating - and as such decided not to carry the product. Ratings are subjective, and it will happen from time to time that our members - because we are not involved with, nor consulted by, the ESRB - will disagree with a rating or potentially a policy, but that does not mean that we would cease being supportive of their efforts.
How does free speech factor in?
The matter boils down to this: should games be legislated in a similar manner to Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, or are Games more similar to Music, Movies and Literature. If you believe the former, the First Amendment probably doesn't mean much to you, if you're in the latter camp it does. It really is as simple as that.
Are parents paying attention to what their kids play?
This also goes back to our assertion that there is a generational disparity at work regarding this issue. Those over a certain age believe games to be toys and are shocked by today's level of sophistication when presented with modern-day games. Those under that line likely grew up with or around games and appreciate the fact that it is an entertainment medium, and should be regarded as such. Anecdotally, I find this to be true on a regular basis. For younger parents knowing what their kids are playing is as important to them as knowing what movies they're watching.
Where does the accountability lie? Are parents responsible for their children's behavior? Society?
Parental responsibility is truly the key here. The IEMA is dedicated to educating and empowering our customers to make informed purchasing decisions on behalf of their kids. The industry and society have done their part in the recent past to aid in that effort, but ultimately the bottom line is this: you simply cannot legislate sound parenting.
Let's say, hypothetically, that violent crimes were scientifically linked to violent video games; that it was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Where would the IEMA stand?
Oh I think that it would likely be also associated with movies, music, and literature if there were a provable causal link. And if one were established it would fundamentally change the way in which we sell all three categories of product, I'm sure.
Is the IEMA, no matter what, against any kind of censorship in video games?
That's an open-ended question if I've ever heard one! I guess the logical answer is that we oppose legislation that would prohibit our customers from making informed and appropriate decisions. We oppose legislation that diminishes our developer's First Amendment rights. And we oppose legislation that could be harmful to our businesses in unnecessarily and unduly influencing our relationship with our consumers. The industry and its customers have been and will continue to be the best censors for artistic quality and value - again, no different than the motion picture business.
What are some of the positives of video games?
Interactive entertainment can be as amazingly positive as you make it, from becoming integrated into middle-school curriculum (as is the case with a Montessori School on which I serve as a member of their board) to being a socially-enabling tool... that brings people together and enhances interactions. It is an art that bewilders, and a science that certainly keeps me in awe. Games have changed the fabric of our society and had, in its brief 25-year history, much more relative impact than music or movies did in their formative years. The positives are endless, but the negatives are self-imposed.
There are several charities that the IEMA is a part of, tell me about those.
The association is directly responsible for the reduction of the size and shape of the PC games boxes - the packaging of computer games, and that it is significantly smaller than the old larger software size. That was due to wanting to get more product and diversity of offering per square foot of shelf space. In standardizing that form factor, we also created a standard platform identification mark, or logo, which all software publishers receive usage of on a royalty-free basis. As part of that legal agreement, they submit three finished copies of each game in which they use our trademark. Since there are thousands of games created per year, we realized quickly that we should find outlets for these good and valuable products.
We linked up with several children's charities in an effort to provide useful homes for these games including: Yale New Haven Children's Hospital, The Tommy Fund for Childhood Cancer, and Get Well Gamers - all of whom were exceptional outlets for E-rated games.
We also joined with some teen and adult charities that aid battered women or help teens stay out of trouble, among others those include Kids in Crisis, and the George Washington Carver Community Center. We also donate product and services to local municipalities, schools, and libraries. The stories of the ways and manners of how these games impact lives of those in need are truly inspiring, and we're fortunate to be able to play a role.
Why do you think that the positive aspects of video games, like the aforementioned charities, are rarely showcased in the media?
It's a frustrating thing, but probably emblematic of our culture and how we value news. I had a call from a reporter with a large city newspaper last week who saw through the half-truths and spin from a local press conference, and decided to do his own sting operation on our member's stores to see if we really were carding and if were really did have new signage up in ever store. Twelve out of twelve did, in both instances. He was calling to apologize because his editor removed those facts because it made the story less sensational. I'm sure that happens frequently, and it is aggravating.
The fact is that the IEMA has already done some altogether altruistic things, many socially impactful and responsible things, and ultimately does what's in the best interest of our customer relationships, but the value of those stories tends to be measured by eyeballs rather than societal contribution - and in that I'm sure we are not alone.
Previous GameSpeak columns:
By William Vitka