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Question Of The Week: Is Lowenstein Right?

For Gamasutra's latest Question of the Week, we asked if Doug Lowenstein's comments from D.I.C.E. were correct that game professionals were failing to stand up for their freedom, and what we should be doing to ensure that censorship isn't an issue in the industry.

The "Question Of The Week" feature, a specific industry-related question to be answered by professional game developers reading this site, is asking whether Doug Lowenstein's incendiary comments about the game biz at D.I.C.E. were on target.

Specifically, in his final speech as President of trade body the Entertainment Software Association, Lowenstein suggested that developers who make controversial game content often refuse to stand behind their games in public:

"The publishers and developers who make controversial content and then cut and run when it comes time to defending their creative decisions... 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."

He also directly criticized game professionals in the room for not joining the ESA-organized Video Game Voters Network, commenting:

"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."

Lowenstein concluded: "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."

Thus, the question for this week was:

"Is Doug Lowenstein fair in his farewell speech comments that game professionals are failing to stand up for their freedom? If he is, what should we each be doing to ensure that censorship is not an issue in the game industry?"

We now present to you your diverse set of ideas on Lowenstein's criticisms of the industry:

It is ultimately the responsibility of the publisher to defend their game. They are the most immediately affected financially, whether their game gets re-rated, dropped or they voluntarily pull it in the face of controversy, in their position of liaison with the retailer. Developers can gain some positive buzz from controversy, but the game not selling affects everyone.

Squeamish publishers should avoid controversial games if they cannot stomach defending it. Recognizing the disinterest in defending controversy would free the company to focus elsewhere, something more appropriate for how they want to be perceived. Voluntarily achieving this self-awareness would save a lot of people a lot of hassle in the long wrong, allowing developers to seek more appropriate publishers who, in their own self-discovery, realized they *do* want to be out there defending their titles.

The industry has to do this internally though, before it is done to us from outside.

-Anonymous

Not only is Doug Lowenstein right, he's damn right. His impassioned speech said so many things that needed to be said about the state of the industry and I agree with him 100%.

I thought what he said about creators not defending their provocative content and letting the ESA take all of the heat was particularly revealing and troubling. There can be no victory against censorship without solidarity. His wish for the gaming press to show some restraint by not invoking the name of a certain Florida attorney at every opportunity is a good first step toward keeping his ilk irrelevant. Unfortunately, video games will remain ripe for politicization as long as they are a relatively fringe past time.

Nintendo's efforts to appeal to the mainstream is a significant step toward removing the power of politicians who seek to grandstand on any speciously perceived negative impact allegedly caused by video games. When video games become something everyone can enjoy, the fear and populist demonization of them will be a thing of the past. Finally, the ultimate step toward preventing video game censorship is finally recognizing them as a true art form just as worthy of thoughtful analysis and academic study as cinema, industrial design, and modern art.

-John Leffingwell, Xot

I believe he was on target, but the picture here is bigger. The game industry can't defend creative decisions when it isn't in fact very creative to begin with. It's next to impossible to find a game plot, art style or character that hasn't appeared multiple times before in movies, literature or pop culture.

Are trash-talking street gangs really creative? Halo was based on a 1969 novel by Larry Niven called Ringworld. Prey was a rehash of the Borg from Star Trek. And mutants spawned by evil super-corporations? Blue elves? None of that is original, so how can someone be asked to defend it as such?

The real issue here is that the gaming industry needs a massive influx of new, creative, bold thinking. We have been handed the drivers seat of this generation, but have instead chosen to keep sitting in the back of our father's station wagon.

-Anonymous

I agree with Lowenstein that it's totally lame that only a few hands in the room went up saying they are members of the Video Game Voters Network. That kind of apathy from the industry is stupid. Do you want Jack Thompson to make the rules? Do you want every politician looking for easy votes to attack an easy target—one that parents and non-gamers are quite open to regulate?

The ESA has won major victories all over the country for freedom—freedom of artistic expression by industry folks and freedom of choice for gamers. This is a no-brainer. Do you want freedom or regulation? Do you want to push the envelope in games or make another kids platformer?

Join the Video Game Voters Network! I get about one or two emails a month. It's not a major commitment, but it is a vehicle to show the government this industry not only makes a lot of money, but also has plenty of people ready to support it.

-Belinda Van Sickle, GameDocs

Lately it seems that game professionals are condemned from the moment of a game's conception. Let's compare that to a child: a child is born from developers, who all worked hard and labored for many months, and the child is given a name and status. Outspoken ambulance-chasers condemn the child and all of its "family members." Videos and snapshots are used to cast the child in a terribly negative light. History is used as a valid precedent to predict less than desirable behavior, convincing some group that the child is not fit for society.

Instead of a family backing up their naturally born offspring, born of natural human causes from natural human needs, the child is forced to straddle the fence with their family, with no way to reach equilibrium or compromise without a lobotomy. Not only does the family not care for the child's development and experience, but they prove through indecisiveness their indifference (or cowardice) for the end result.

That simply does not equate to art, nor does it equate to a valid professional practice. Lowenstein fairly pointed out these failings of professionals. While society will need filters for every type of media, the game industry has no choice but to keep to their word as creators and businessmen the ethics of their visions and remarks on society as they see it. Art exists to clarify life from a person's perspective, and to hold an audience without bias.

-Alice S., Mittlemarch Studio


This is not a black and white/yes or no question. I do agree that game professionals should stand and answer to the work they create and build but I also see that in many areas publishers and developers are slowly beginning to "get it."

From my perspective, working with the individual developers who make up each team, more people are telling me they want to work on games that they can play with their children. This is happening on all levels of skills from artists to programmers to designers and producers, these people are "stepping up" to their values and wanting to make something they are proud of.

I was there when Doug made his speech, and it was moving and well received, at least from the people who where around me, and those I've spoken to since. It was a good way to start DICE. In every area of "entertainment" from movies to music to stand up comedy to art and books and even sports this is an issue.

Yes, we should be more responsible, but so should all these other creative "artists." The game industry is still maturing but it is definitely not in childhood anymore. It's more like we're in young adulthood. I have great faith in this group of creative "geeks."

-Jill Zinner, Premier Search Inc

I really don't know what he's talking about. I am unaware of developers that have "cut and run," maybe because they are not in the press that I read. I am in the army — I wrote letters to the governor before and after he signed that stupid bill. I have written several letters in addition to those.

Please define censorship, is it banning the sale of a game or preventing young kids from buying games (as rated by the ESRB) they are not mature enough to play? We took a big step with the ESRB, and my only problem is law makers forcing a different sticker on your package depending on what state you're in. The movie industry would never allow that. We need to back the ESRB all the way and let the law makers know that one standard rating system must be at the core.

-Anonymous

His words definitely sounded heartfelt. So perhaps he could have taken a little distance and speak more objectively. I don't hold it against him, though. He was our champion, battling censorship in the legal arena... for twelve years! Now that takes fire, the kind he showed in his speech. He sounded like a father who gave a lot of himself to ensure his childrens' well being and realizing they don't seem to care. Under this light, I understand how difficult it would be for anyone to remain objective when confronting the ingratitude of those he fought for.

He sounded weary and disgusted, and I somehow feel that we let him down.

He referenced the debate around Bully, no doubt. And Rockstar's silence in the matter. Artists should be responsible for safeguarding the moral integrity of their creations against the public's misinterpretation, lest we return to the era of witch hunts.

Today, watchdogs and politicians claim to protect our children but it's only the first step. The day might come when the FBI busts through our studio front doors with a court order to forbid us from practicing our craft ever again. That's far fetched, or is it? Without a legal body to protect our rights, what would become of us in the foreseeable future? Now that Doug's gone...

-Pierre-Luc Lachance, Ubisoft Montreal


Rockstar's Bully

He couldn't have been more correct. Game professionals are horribly apathetic when it comes to working together for a common cause. There is so much stupid 'Hollywood-like' rivalry going on between companies in the game industry, it's often seen as business weakness to collaborate in any form.

The funny part, is that without some form of close collaboration, Lowenstein is dead right - they will fail to win the fight, and the gaming industry will remain a minor secondary entertainment medium, at the mercy of lobby groups to push it into a social mold rather than an expressive art form.

I think his points about journalism are especially well founded. He didn't say it, but its obvious what he's talking about too - professionalism. A massive majority of the gaming news sites 'live off' fanboy rhetoric and news feeds, this breeds a very un-professional following and set of critical analysis of the business. Even Gamasutra is horribly guilty if feeding the fan flames - all in the name of some click-money.

Lets hope people take his concerns seriously and produce a close-nit community to back the industry so many here, love to work in.

-David Lannan, Eidetic Technology Pty Ltd


Doug is absolutely right that game developers need to stand up for their first amendment rights. Games are an important medium of expression that have so far only scratched the surface of their potential.

To the shock of many, I also believe that game developers have no responsibility to make games with any important meaning or message--it's just nice when they do. Our first amendment rights offer protection for all speech--both important and baseless--and it's the unpopular speech that needs protecting more than any other kind. Anyone who truly embraces the first amendment (rather than merely giving it lip service) will tell you that. If unpopular speech isn't protected, then it means the wrong people are deciding which speech is ok and which isn't.

Incidentally, a lot of games that the public seems to think offer no socially redeeming values actually do. Fighting games are on the surface about violence, but they are actually tests of skill that promote a meritocracy and self-improvement, rather than teaching kids that if they spend time at something, they are "entitled" to rewards. To me, this is clearly on the list of "good lessons" and cries from parents about "violent video games" toward fighting games are completely misdirected.

Grand Theft Auto, a favorite target of anti-free speech activists, teaches you that if you cause trouble, the cops come after you in greater and greater force. More than that, it's a sandbox that lets you actively explore and do whatever you want. For some reason, the critics only ever want to beat up prostitutes in that game, which says a lot more about the critics than players such as myself.

In closing, I would draw the line of socially-redeeming game in a radically different place than someone with only a superficial understanding of the medium. But we don't need to quibble over where that line is, because ALL speech, especially unpopular speech, needs to be protected and free from government regulation. The next time the marketing department of game company decides to cave on an issue like this in order to keep more people happy, they should consider that they've lost my business, and I hope they've lost yours too.

-David Sirlin

As one of a few hundred people that was at DICE last week, and witnessed his speech, I have to say I thought it was a good message to send. While I do think he allowed some whining to bleed into the overall tone, I think his points were good. This industry does have a tendency to work in a vacuum sometimes, and I think Doug's frustration is interesting if not entirely warranted.

There are good, stand up people and companies in this industry, and their are assholes. Doug was simply calling out the assholes. At the end of the day, it doesn't make any difference. It won't change anything. And, he did this at the END of his tenure. He basically made a scene and left. Is that really taking responsibility?

-Sutton Trout, IGN

Lowenstein had a lot of really good points to his speech and as President of ESA its clear that these issues have been bugging him for sometime.

Even though the points that he brought up had a lot of credibility, there are just things that can't be changed in the long run. Even though its not always the case, it's a dog eat dog industry and when something is in jeopardy, its easier to back away from the situation and place the blame on others where as they will be the first to claim credibility upon a games success.

We are indeed an army that is capable of doing great things, but in the end its a business. No one wants to take a stand to fight the tide of controversy when its easier to jump on the bandwagon that someone else paved through fighting the tide.

Things will change if his words are heeded but things are too complicated now. It's a double edge sword -- risk taking is often not considered because the gamble is too great but risk taking in the end is the very thing that will preserve the industry's future.

-David Rodriguez, 7 Studios

Doug Lowenstein is absolutely correct. I will name one developer which I feel should take his address seriously: Rockstar! I choose this company because the whole "Hot Coffee" debacle is the perfect example to illustrate why he is correct and doe snot need explaining. Did Rockstar stand up for their decision? No, they didn't but decided to instead make excuses and remove copies of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It's time game developers stood up for themselves and defended the decisions they make. It's this wish washy attitude and passing blame that actually enables people like Jack Thompson. The developers make themselves and easy target.

Lowenstein is also spot on the gaming press which often times I feel like is run by high school students. Often times, very chauvinistic high school students that take the overall industry for granted! I'm appalled by how many editors treat the women within the industry alone and often act shocked at female involvement (that's a whole side topic). They do treat the industry overall like a child's hobby, not a business which average buyer is now over the age of 30 but as something only people under 21 are interested in. There is not a single game related news magazine out there that is worth the paper it's printed on as far as respectable and responsible journalism and news goes. If it were not for sites like Gamasutra, I don't think I'd have a realizable and responsible source for news related to the industry.

I also want to make a note on the Video Game Voters Registry which is unfortunate for them, has nothing to do with how they run their organization. I do not like their requirements for registration. I should not have to submit my social security number in order to join such an organization. It is why I am not a member and likely never will.

-Anonymous


Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

He is bang on. If members of the industry are unwilling to 'join up' on something as simple as the VGVN then how is the industry to fight any meaningful sort of battles? If producers are going to release increasingly controversial content and back down or run and hide from the fall out, how is anyone going to take the industry seriously? The video game industry is constantly being dogged as a children's arena, full of childish people. A big step to changing that image is to get up and actively participate in a meaningful manner.

Frankly, censorship is always going to be an issue. It is an issue in Hollywood, it is an issue in print media, it is an issue in music. It is a constant grinding battle to combat censorship and the only way to effectively fight that battle is en masse. A wise move would be to make connections with other industries that deal with censorship issues, and form lasting partnerships with them. There are lots of solutions, but not a single one will be successful without the backing of the community as a larger whole.

-Marcus Riedner, Verse Studios Incorporated

Yes he's right but it's not like this is news. Industry professionals don't even stand up for their rights as employees so what chance is there that they're going to stand up for their creative rights. People need to be more politicized and a little more militant and stop being afraid that rocking the boat will end in dismissal. If enough people rock the boat the captains have to listen or the boat's going under. In the UK there's a resource crisis, our pay rates are so poor that most of our really talented people end up in movies or crossing the pond but it never occurs to them to do something about it. I will, of course, be posting anonymously for fear of dismissal..

With regards to censorship the biggest worry for me is developers and publishers self-censoring and avoiding any kind of contentious issue or subject matter in case they offend anyone. Video games for me are a powerful medium capable of equaling the emotive and informative weight of cinema if used correctly, but they rarely are. If we refuse to tackle issues and remain purely a thing of fluff and fizz then interactive entertainment will never have the gravitas of its cousins.

-Anonymous

Heck yeah!

Absolutely on target. The people out here in blogs, newsgroups, the voter's network and other outlets are people concerned for the future of the art. Among those people I have not seen anyone for the teams we have to defend on a daily basis from the legions of the uninformed spurred on by Sen. Clinton and Sen. Lieberman. Letting these people dominate the arena of ideas means your job or the job you dream of getting.

Unless you dream of writing "Hello Kitty Adventures #489", then got right ahead and be silent.

-Anonymous


I agree with the vast majority of what Lowenstein said. In the twenty-odd years since the implementation of the ESRB, no new organizations nor new blood has come to the front to defend video games as a creative medium; industry response to proposed legislation at the city/state/nation level has been essentially to hunker down and pretend it didn't exist.

I don't see the type of response that occurred when the PMRC threatened the music industry in the early '80s; I don't see Frank Zappas and Elvis Costellos and articulate, passionate speakers stepping forward to defend our craft and livelihood.

I'm not saying we need to draft Will Wright and Peter Molyneux as spokespersons, but we do need to be vocal and defend (and legitimize) games as a creative medium, in the same way that film, photography, traditional art and music have defended themselves before restrictive legislation.

-Michael Eilers, University of Advancing Technology

I just think we should make the games we would want to play and let the ESRB rate them. Easier said than done.

People need to understand that video games are not just for kids. They need to learn that games have ratings, and if you wouldn't let your kid see an R rated movie, then why in the world would you let your kid play an M rated game?

My sister knows this with her children. They cannot even play T rated games. As more parents learn, I think we will see many different games. The problem right now is that a lot of parents are just ignorant to it, especially the older parents. This is like rock and roll. Right now it might be controversial. But 10-20 years from now, it will be something else.

-David Demaree, The Guildhall @ SMU

I never cease to be amazed by the technical genius, artistic talent, incredible work ethic and creative brilliance of the games industry. But I see censorship as only one small aspect of the industry's inability to stand up for itself.

The IGDA is a wonderful organization, and the Game Developers Conference clearly demonstrates the strength and vibrancy of the developer community. But somehow it seems that the collective genius of the games industry sometimes can’t see the forest through the trees.

While censorship and game content have long been recurring discussions, I see them merely as a distraction to a larger issue. The issue is for game developers to take more control over how their work reaches the public. For two decades, the game development community has continued to allow proprietary hardware manufacturers to dictate the marketplace. The history of this transformation could fill a book. But the fact is that the circumstances that made this arrangement so necessary and successful no longer exist. Today interactive content is far more important than the hardware. But the games industry has continued to allow Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony to call the shots.

The game business is always looking for parallels to Hollywood. As frequently as possible it is pointed out that the video game business grosses more money than Hollywood. But Hollywood never would have become Hollywood if the manufacturers of movie projectors took 40% of the movie business’ revenue. It sounds silly, but there is your parallel. Even sillier, imagine movie projector manufacturers dictated what could be shown on their projectors. That’s censorship!

Anyone can make a video or movie that is easily disseminated to the general public. Any musician can create content for everyone to hear. Certainly writers have no trouble reaching their audience. But the most talented artists in the world have been divided and conquered by a few hardware manufacturers.

Even more important to the development community than their fight against censorship should be the fight to distribute their work on an open platform; a platform that allows developers to be rewarded for their effort, and not destroyed for their failures. This is a realistic goal that everyone in the game development community should be working towards.

-Eli Tomlinson, Gamix

Censorship only becomes an issue if we make it an issue.

Freedom is not defined by an enforced lack of or an increase in the restrictions being placed upon the censor, but by an abundance of options which facilitate working with the censor as an acknowledgment to those who purchase the games in terms of their freedom, as consumers, to choose from an equally vast collection of options or alternatives that are being provided to the consumer in terms of what is or is not available for the consumers' respective consumption.

Examples can be easily drawn from those who create cinematic or televisual programming. Why do people prefer to buy the option of viewing an unrated version of any given movie or television program? Typically those are purchased, not because the unrated version might be any more entertaining, but because they are perceived as being more likely to reflect the original "spirit" and "focus" of the screenwriters and/or directors that created the entertainment itself.

Scenes or portions are not deleted only because they might be too "risque" for general consumption. If any of us have sat through a collection of deleted scenes, with the directors' commentary "on", then it becomes much clearer as to why the director chose to snip any given scene.

As to the philosophical and ethical aspects of developing any given form of entertainment, I am reminded of inscriptions said to still be prescribed across the entry arch to an ancient temple, one devoted to the goddess Diana. The inscriptions I am thinking of go like this: "As above so below." and "Do all things in moderation."

A New Paradigm -

By facilitating creative choices throughout production, game professionals can do nothing but stand up for their freedom as an expression of their creative drive. This can be accommodated and facilitated by simply making the choice to participate in the creation of entertainment, nothing else is necessary.

The question then becomes, "Can game professionals adopt this new paradigm, or will we limit our freedom of choice and our freedom of expression by continuing to fight with the censors about what is or is not considered art?"

In closing, censorship can, if we wish, be perceived as an attack against "the artist", "art" or as a means by which the art itself can be made available to and appreciated by a much wider audience. The choice - once that choice has been made, can and may be a means by which we as game professionals can and may promote and facilitate not only our freedom, but the freedom of our clients.

-Paul Garceau, NewDawn Productions

I am for any censorship. If every man could say what he thinks, do what he wants, and if every man could hear thoughts of other people - nothing good would happen, I think.

Man has conscience, common sense, which can be interpreted as special cases of censorship. So, it's an ordinary thing.

On the other hand, I don't understand why little children must not play Doom? For now, the main lesson, that children have to learn - do not believe everything what remains on the other side of the screen.

But if it is A MAN on the other side, and your children shoot him, they could do it much more easily in the real world. We must have GAMES FOR KIDS, which teaches them, for example, that shooting other people is bad. And we must have GAMES FOR ADULTS, which can allow us to do what we must not do in the real world.

-Anonymous

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