Last month, the Entertainment Software Association launched its Game Generation campaign to showcase the "power of play in building community, forging inclusivity, and inspiring creativity."
The campaign is one of unapologetic positivity, and highlights the many ways in which video games can affect our lives for the better, the communities they help build, and the stories they tell. But it also comes at a time when the games industry is facing newfound levels of public scrutiny and threats of regulation.
It would be unfair to suggest that Game Generation is a missed opportunity to seriously reflect on the wider social impact of games, and I don't take issue with the campaign itself; but given the current cultural context, Game Generation is an almost cavalier attempt to wash away all that unpleasantness with a nice little parade. Run the flag up the pole and sing the anthem -- all is good and right in the world of video games.
Speaking with ESA CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis shortly after the Game Generation announcement, I asked if the campaign was devised as a response to the intensified scrutiny around our industry with issues like loot boxes and gaming disorder.
"Quite the opposite," he told me. "We've been excited about the growth of our industry and its impact on society and the things that people use games for today. And we really wanted to take a moment and celebrate what games do. This was really the impetus for us."
As someone who cares about video games and the industry, it's maddening to watch the depths of denial that game companies and trade associations will sink to when facing the uncomfortable reality that games do not exist in a vacuum. If we acknowledge the positive influence of games, we must too recognise the potential harm.
If we acknowledge the positive influence of games, we must too recognise the potential harm
For all our sentience, and the supposed free will, humans are easy to manipulate; store prices often end .99 to make things seem cheaper, while free-to-play games adopt virtual currency to place distance between the player and their money. As a species, we operate largely on instinct and gut feeling. If the rise of populism and conspiracy theories teaches us anything, it's that people are easily led -- or misled as the case may be. As our world becomes increasingly complicated, and the problems more nuanced, our response has been to spin that foreboding grey into comfortable binaries.
Anyone who has worked in video games for half a second recognises that this industry is among the best -- and worst -- when it comes to spin. It's a closely guarded sector, which employs both the wall of silence and a deluge of beguiling but empty words in equally effective measure.
Of course, when we're discussing toys and entertainment, this practice is largely harmless. As long as game companies aren't deliberately misleading consumers, we needn't worry too much. But it's not just toys and entertainment any more; it's the biggest entertainment industry in the world, larger in America than all major sports combined.
This has been achieved primarily through the unparalleled ability of video games to drive engagement, and that's something we need to examine the broader impact of. It's hardly surprising that some players struggle to separate themselves from their game of choice, which is not only a compelling experience in itself, but also dangles extra rewards just out of reach.
Epic Games is a master of this with the Fortnite Battle Pass, which rewards players for completing a series of in-game challenges. Similar systems are found in League of Legends, Pokémon Go, and Destiny 2 among many, many others. Additional layers of gamification are the backbone of live service games, and have driven engagement to profitable new heights.
As our world becomes increasingly complicated, and the problems more nuanced, our response has been to spin that foreboding grey into comfortable binaries
But these reward loops are more likely to result in problematic gaming habits. Anyone who has played an MMO will be familiar with how compelling the grind can be, as you inch towards that next level and the hollow dopamine rush that comes with it.
Gamification has proven a powerful tool outside of the industry too, influencing everything from language learning apps to mindfulness. For example, a New York Times investigation into Uber revealed how the ride-hailing app uses gamification to meet the high demand for its service by keeping drivers on the road with in-app achievements and rewards.
"We show drivers areas of high demand or incentivise them to drive more," an Uber spokesperson said. "But any driver can stop work literally at the tap of a button -- the decision whether or not to drive is 100% theirs."
Sound familiar? Responses like this put the onus onto the user but fail to recognise that people are flawed and don't always make the healthiest decisions. That's why we regulate things like tobacco, alcohol, and gambling.
This is where issues like loot boxes and gaming disorder are of particular significance. In the last few years, the games industry has found itself fighting new battles with politicians, regulators, the media, and public opinion. Dr Jo Twist, CEO of UK trade body UKIE, even gave a talk at Develop: Brighton last year entitled "Help! Games Under Attack!" which explored this topic.
It's easy to forget the speed at which the loot box debacle escalated; less than one week after Star Wars Battlefront 2 released, the Belgian Gaming Commission had launched an investigation into whether loot boxes constituted gambling, while multiple US state legislators proposed action. The first damning reports arrived from Belgium and the Netherlands in 2018, which were followed next year by a UK government inquiry, and an American state senator proposing a ban on all exploitative game mechanics. It's worth noting these examples barely scratch the surface of the last few years, but to to catalogue everything would simply take too long.
Star Wars Battlefront 2 was ground zero for the games industry's new role as the Emperor Palpatine of entertainment
Despite Electronic Arts ultimately backing down, Star Wars Battlefront 2 was ground zero for the games industry's new role as the Emperor Palpatine of entertainment. Things may have slowed down since, but it was less than six months ago that the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recommended that the UK government regulate loot boxes under gambling. What will come of those suggestions, and other legislative proposals, is still unknown.
The response we've seen from game companies and trade bodies over the past two years is largely one of avoidance and deflection. The DCMS report even called out game company representatives for being "wilfully obtuse" during discussions. After one inquiry session, I spoke with the committee chair Damian Collins who was notably unimpressed with how the game companies had handled themselves, and said they were only "paying lip-service" to the problem. A strategy of avoidance doesn't solve anything, it only makes it worse.
If gaming disorder is an overblown reaction to a problem that doesn't exist, we need to prove it. If loot boxes are just fun "surprise mechanics" and not a problematic recreation of gambling, we need to prove that too. You could argue that the burden of proof shouldn't be on the games industry, and you'd probably be right. But that doesn't abate the concerns raised, and it doesn't put this mess back in the box.
This is what Pierre-Louis said when I asked if the ESA recognises gaming disorder: "The WHO specifically identified gaming disorder as a very rare instance, and even in some of the statements they made, it was clear that the scientific consensus was not there.
"And they were also very clear that what they were creating is not a diagnosis, but a classification for national health ministries to examine... What we have said, and continue to say, is that anyone who needs help or feels like they need help should seek it. And that we promote healthy gameplay -- we think that video games should be part of a healthy lifestyle, and that includes doing all of the things you should do to stay healthy."
If gaming disorder is an overblown reaction to a problem that doesn't exist, we need to prove it
The stance that there is a lack of scientific consensus on gaming disorder is a fair one. We still don't know enough to say with absolute certainty one way or the other, but the proactive next step is to help establish a consensus through funding research. One argument against this approach is that industry-funded research would be compromised -- much like if the tobacco industry funded a study which found that smoking is good for you. Preregistration, the practice of registering a study before it is conducted, should inoculate against this, however.
Meanwhile, academics in the UK have made repeated requests for developers and publishers to share their data for the purposes of research. I asked Pierre-Louis whether game companies have a responsibility to share their data with academics in this way; he responded that it was an issue which emanated from the UK, and so it wasn't his place to offer comment as a representative of US organisation.
"It is very nation-specific, because it emanates from one place right now. I don't want to engage in hypotheticals because there is a very direct, real life example and my focus is on US industry concerns."
While, yes, the conversation around sharing data with academics originated in the UK, the discussion of gaming disorder is a global one. The question of our industry's responsibility is not confined to the UK, but that was Pierre-Louis' stance, and there is nothing more unshakable than an executive with a line. Which is very much the problem.
UKIE is more open on this matter though, and publicly supports industry, government, and academics "coming together to support robust research into games."
A UKIE spokesperson told me that this would likely come with a few important caveats from the industry: the sharing of data should managed through an independent framework following relevant academic principles; shared data should only used for research purposes; and the data should be made available for exploring the full impact of games, rather than a handful of topics.
This last point is of particular interest, especially given the Game Generation campaign which aims to highlight the positive aspect of gaming. The ESA shaped this campaign off the back of research around how games can promote playfulness; that games can foster understanding and empathy; the positive influence games can have on cognitive development; and that playing games can improve creativity.
So while I respect it is the role of organisations like the ESA to cheerlead, a failure to address the more negative concerns is a strategy of denial that leads us down a dark path. The whole thing feels like living in a haunted house, but instead of acknowledging the blood dripping from the walls and doing something about it, the family patriarch is hosting a lavish ball.