Doug Lowenstein doesn't do many video game interviews these days. Formerly one of the most visible video game industry figureheads, the ex-president and co-founder of the Entertainment Software Association left over two years ago to help start up investment industry trade group the Private Equity Council -- an organization with no direct ties to interactive entertainment.
The relationship between Lowenstein and the games industry today represents an interesting disconnect. He founded the ESA in 1994 as the Interactive Digital Software Association -- at its inception, the IDSA was an unfurnished office occupied by a group of motivated entrepreneurs who felt the games industry was in the midst of a crisis brought on by its own expansion.
Over the next 13 years, the ESA trade body sought to organize a scattered and growing industry, taking on issues like piracy, tax incentives for game developers, the E3 Expo, First Amendment Rights, and lobbying for the interests of the games business.
Now, the group's figurehead, the man who was so involved with and supported games for so many years on professional and personal levels, barely keeps tabs on the industry.
"I read about the games industry, when there are stories in the papers about it -- the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and so forth. It's a little bit in my DNA now," he says. He's not refreshing gaming blogs every 10 seconds, or keeping a close eye on his video game RSS feeds, by any means.
But now the exec, who will be recognized in February with an Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Lifetime Achievement award, speaks with the wisdom of an industry veteran and the fresh perspective of an outsider.
A "Very Different" Environment
When Lowenstein gave what would be his farewell speech -- or what could be categorized as a parting shot -- at the 2007 Las Vegas D.I.C.E. Summit, one thing he reiterated was the importance of First Amendment rights. A journalist during the 1970s, he became known by game industry watchers for his outspoken fight against numerous legislative attempts that he believed would infringe on the First Amendment rights of game creators, whose commercial and creative livelihood depends on the ability to express their artistry freely.
To Lowenstein, although the rash of attempts to restrict sales of video games have died down in recent times, the industry still needs to make First Amendment defense the top priority. "I personally feel that any industry that is dependent on creative expression -- which at the core, are what games are all about -- should allow for unfettered opportunity to pursue whatever artistic vision one may have," he says.
"This industry and any sort of entertainment industry must defend this to the fullest extent possible. If there's any erosion of that, it's a classic slippery slope. The First Amendment needs to stand tall. The industry can never get lazy about defending those rights."
Moves to enact laws restricting the games industry seemed to be an everyday occurrence, particularly during the final years of Lowenstein's tenure as ESA boss. The "Hot Coffee" fiasco involving Take-Two and Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas did its part as a catalyst for legislation to restrict the sale of games to minors. Several states attempted to enact such laws; all the ones that the ESA fought failed the First Amendment test.
"I'm not as close to the ESA or what other folks in the industry are doing, but what seems fairly clear, and this is viewed from a distance, is that the environment the industry is in today is very different than it was even three years ago, when there was still ongoing litigation and controversy around game content," says Lowenstein.
"It seems … that there is more acceptance and tolerance, if you will, across the political spectrum for the game community in terms of the content it creates. It doesn't appear that there's the same level of effort to regulate games and game sales," Lowenstein continues. "It doesn't appear that politicians are routinely announcing games and game violence and its allegedly corrosive effect on young people and other users."
He adds, "It doesn't appear that the gadflies and the critics of the industry have the same traction that they did three years ago. It doesn't seem that the media is as obsessed with the industry in terms of the negative bias that it brought to theses issues."
It could be a sign that, despite their relative youth when compared to other media like TV and movies, video games are becoming accepted as a mature form of entertainment, perhaps faster than we could have expected.
Even Fox News, home of the Mass Effect "SexBox" debacle of early 2008, was relatively tame when it recently moderated a debate between an ill-prepared games journalist and the CEO of Common Sense Media over the "No Russian" scene in the newly-released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Maybe it's just not interesting to be a Cooper Lawrence or a Jack Thompson or a Leland Yee anymore. As interactive entertainment gains a stronger foothold in the fabric of our culture, maybe game-hating is truly becoming passe.
"It's quite historically common for new forms of media to be the subject of a great deal of hand-wringing and controversy as they emerge," Lowenstein points out. It's a well-worn point, but one worth making again. "You can look at movies and their transition from silent films to sound. Comic books, television, rock and roll -- all of these forms of expression at one time or another faced an enormous amount of controversy and criticism."
"[Being in the games industry] wasn't always the most pleasant place to be in terms of the kinds of attacks that people were facing," he continues. "But I thought it was always important to understand that the generation that was growing up playing games would emerge in positions of leadership throughout the culture."
"As that happened, and as the industry grew deeper roots, people would eventually get tired of the attacks, or they would become more accepting of the form of the expression."
A Relevant Association
Does this mean that the games industry has won -- that the ESA has become less relevant now that legislative salvos against the games industry have become more scattered and less potent?
"I think anybody that thinks the ESA isn't an important and necessary part of the industry is really way off base," Lowenstein says. "The worse thing you can do in any industry is become lazy and passive, and take things for granted." The music and film industries, for example, have their own trade groups that have remained relevant for decades and decades. "These things move in cycles," he adds.
"The games industry is still very young," he continues, and there are more issues that must be wrestled with in such a technologically-driven area such as video games: intellectual property issues, regulation of the internet, mobile regulations, and of course piracy will remain areas that the ESA will watch closely years from now.
"Each and every of these developments has potential implications for public policy and self-regulation," Lowenstein says. "The ESA has to continue to exist, because people in the industry are rightfully focused on exploiting technology and opening new markets. And they don't get up every day wondering, 'What's in that telecom bill?'"
"Even when you're not in the midst of some intense controversy that goes to the core of what the industry is, the absence of that doesn't make the association any less relevant. When people start thinking that, that's a very dangerous and myopic point of view."
He may not be the head of the ESA anymore -- that job now belongs to current honcho Mike Gallagher -- but it's an experience that he looks back on fondly. "The ESA was an enormously gratifying experience," he says.