D.I.C.E.: Lowenstein Ends ESA Career With A Bang
During the speech, which started relatively sedately with a retrospective of the E3 conference, Lowenstein, who is leaving to head the newly formed Private Equity Council trade body based out of Washington, presented a sometimes savage indictment of issues endemic within the industry, at a development, media, and public awareness level.
First Amendment, The ESRB, & The ESA
Lowenstein said that the ESA’s most important contribution has been in its defense of First Amendment rights. “There is nothing more important than defending the first amendment,” he said. “It is a fight worth fighting, it’s a fight I’m proud to fight, and we need to keep fighting. But in my view there has been nothing more important that the ESA has done than putting its money and resources out there to defend your artistic freedom. And sometimes that’s not easy. Plenty of things are put out that are art, that don’t necessarily ennoble the culture, but they’re protected. We made a decision at the ESA that we’re going to defend constitutional freedoms no matter what. And I think we’ve done that, and we’ll continue to do that.”
He also defended the ESRB. “I’m very proud of the ESRB,” he said. “Let me tell you something, these people who work there, unsung, unnoticed, unknown, you owe a great debt of thanks to every night when you go to bed if you’re in the creative world. Because they take a lot of heat, they believe in what they’re doing, they work for an organization that has been attacked by advocacy groups, by the media, and they go to work every day and believe in striking a balance between giving parents good and reliable information while being fair to this industry.”
“They’re very talented, they’re very dedicated, and I’m very proud of how that part of the ESA family has grown. And it is the shield. If we didn’t have that shield, we would be taking on bullets and all other manner of ammunition, and we wouldn’t be fighting back successfully.”
“The next time you think about criticizing the ESRB, just remember, that part of what we do is central to your ability to create the products you want to create.”
Lowenstein On 'Cut & Run' Developers, 'Boss Level'
Lowenstein then shared some of his largest “pet peeves” of the games industry, starting with what he called “cut and run” developers. “The publishers and developers who make controversial content and then cut and run when it comes time to defending their creative decisions,” he elaborated. “Nothing annoys me more. If you want the right to make what you want, if you want to push the envelope, I’m out there defending your right to do it. But, dammit, get out there and support the creative decisions you make.”
“If you want to be controversial, that’s great. But then don’t duck and cover when the shit hits the fan. Stand up and defend what you make.”
Another pet peeve of Lowenstein is what he calls the “Greek chorus,” what he described as the “Boss Level chattering class", presumably referencing the high-level private mailing list of the same name.
“[They] always seem to think there’s a better way to do something,” he said. “It’s very easy on the keyboard to type up a bunch of criticisms about how ESA isn’t doing this or that right. Then you look and where are these people? Are they getting in the fight? Are they making political contributions? Are they going to their senators? No, they’re sitting on their hands. I’m sick and tired of people sitting on their hands.”
VGVN Support, Enthusiast Media?
“How many people are on the Video Game Voters Network?” he asked the crowd, which responded with very very few raised hands. “That’s pathetic!” he yelled. “You go to a website, click a few keystrokes and that’s it. No one has bothered to take the time to do that, and it makes me sick. What is the problem? You can not expect this industry to grow and prosper if you’re not willing to take the time and effort to help it.”
“No matter how good we are, and we’re good, we can’t win the war without an army. And you’re the army. And most of the people in this room who have the most at stake are too lazy to join this army... Don’t let others fight the fight for you, because in the end we won’t have enough soldiers to succeed.”
He also had a few words to the enthusiast games media. “I think there’s a lot of maturity that needs to happen in the gaming press. It’s not just because there’s a cozy relationship between the press and the industry they cover. That I find a little uncomfortable. But I think the games industry press needs a higher level of maturity and seriousness.”
“Great other forms of media have a very very powerful forms of critical components,” he continued. “Look at the film and music industries. The quality of the nature of the criticism is very deep, it’s very thoughtful. The game industry press has the ability to push this industry to greater heights of creative success. People in this room care a lot more about what the games press say about what they create than what anyone else will say. And I hope that that platform is used in a way that is more empowering and more ambitious. I just don’t think the games press has asked enough of itself, and I hope that it does.”
“In terms of the nature of coverage, just in the last six months, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read ridiculous rumors, just sloppy reporting that just shouldn’t be anymore,” he continued. “I’ve heard people say that I’m leaving the ESA because I’m upset with what happened with the E3 decision…I’ve got to tell you, this stuff is stupid, and it’s wrong, and it’s just lazy reporting. And I think the games industry press is capable of much better, and I hope you ask more of yourself.”
“It drives me crazy. You know who gives Jack Thompson more attention than anyone else? The games press. The games press legitimizes Jack Thompson. Everyone gets so upset that Jack Thompson has so much ability. I just,” he loses his composure, just for a second, “…I just think it’s nuts.”
“I thank you all for the support you’ve given me over these twelve and a half years,” he added. “If you take nothing else away from this, sign up for the Video Game Voter’s Network, get into the game yourselves.”
The History Of The E3
Earlier in his speech, Lowenstein presented some informal impressions of the history of the ESA-run E3 event, which has been downscaled as of this year. “I have a great deal of sympathy for those who say E3 was too loud,” said Lowenstein, whose first attempt to recruit ESA members came at a small 10’ x 10’ booth at CES. “We were located right next to a game company, I forget which, and they had a full-sized tank that went into battle mode every thirty seconds or so, and shot straight at our booth with a very loud speaker.”
Lowenstein discussed the beginnings of E3. “Setting up E3, which was no easy task, was one of the most important things we did,” he said. “It put the industry on the map in a way that nothing else could have done. We never could have drawn the mass press to the industry without an event as large as E3.”
“I remember when we first were trying to get something set up we went to CES and said, hey, we want to do a trade show, you do trade shows, we’d like to partner with you on this.” The offer CES made to the ESA was to throw a party on-site with the ESA’s name, with $100,000 sponsorship from exhibitors. The ESA considered this offer, and ultimately decided to start E3 on their own instead.
On The ESA's Beginnings
Another poignant part of Lowenstein's speech was his discussions about the founding of the trade body: “Twelve and a half years is a very long time, and I remember back to some of the early days of the ESA. I don’t know if many people remember the catalyzing event that caused the ESA to be created.” The event was a U.S. senate hearing on video game violence.
“What happened is Howard Lincoln, representing Nintendo and Bill White representing Sega were testifying about the emergence of some of these more violence video games, such as Mortal Kombat. Howard was talking about how Nintendo was the socially responsible company, that in their version of Mortal Kombat there was no blood, and they were taking the high road, and he was trying to position Nintendo as this responsible video game company. And as he’s going through his remarks, from below his seat Bill White lifts up and holds up for everyone to see a big red gun peripheral from a Nintendo system.”
“And suddenly you have this explosion of multimedia effects inside this senate room. The senators are delighted, but outside people are mortified... We came together, and we tried to create something that would represent this industry in some meaningful way.”
Lowenstein ended: “I would like to think that the ESA had something to do [with changes the industry has seen]. First of all, perceptions about this industry are very different from twelve-and-a-half years ago. In 1994, this industry was unknown; it was backwater, it was the stepchild of entertainment.” Things have improved a lot in twelve years, he said. “We matter now. People pay attention to what we say and do.”