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Amidst pandemic, the ESA focuses on positive impacts of gaming

Stanley Pierre-Louis discusses COVID-19 impacts, digital growth of E3, its lobbying responsibilities, and the industry's recent #MeToo movement

Though there's no E3 2020 to remind the general gaming populace of the Entertainment Software Organization's role in the industry this year. The annual gaming convention has always been far from the US trade body's only responsibility -- even if it's the most high-profile one.

For one, it just published the 2020 Essential Facts report, an annual survey of US households that gathers data about who is playing video games, how, when, and why.

The report has touched on a number of industry highlights over the years, from gender breakdowns to social play to esports. Comparing the 2020 report to recent years doesn't show too many massive shifts in how people play, but there are a handful of trends that ESA CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis thinks are particularly important to watch -- especially in a year with a global pandemic.

"I think that one of the big findings is that 65% of people play games together with other people, or in-person," he says. "But we also see that 30% of players met a good friend, spouse, or significant other through video games. And more and more, video games are defining the modern culture. It's becoming the fabric of what keeps people together, and nothing represented that more than COVID did.

"We're also seeing that more people are playing. And some of the statistics are incremental, but I happen to go back to some of our earlier reports in 2012 -- 49% of households had a video gamer. Now we're at 75% of households in the US have a video gamer. And so there's been incremental but steady growth in the excitement that great games bring to families, to communities, to players.

"You're also seeing older populations playing [games] more and more, and many people in their 60s have been playing for less than ten years"

"I also think it's interesting that you have a growing population of gamers -- we now have 214 million gamers in the United States. And that just speaks to the need that people have for the games and for the connections that games bring. You're also seeing older populations playing more and more. And many people in their 60s have been playing for less than ten years, which means that in their 50s they're playing games, and they're picking up games [for the first time] and continuing to play them."

COVID-19 came up often in the conversation. Though the industry has in many ways stood firm against the detrimental economic effects of the pandemic, it nonetheless had a massive impact -- human and otherwise. The ESA's role, Pierre-Louis says, has focused on spreading the messages of social distancing, handwashing, and staying at home, while individual companies have raised millions of dollars for relief efforts.

But the pandemic is far from over, and as the initial surge of messaging and outreach cools, what will the ESA's role be in supporting the industry for the long haul -- however long it may be.

"Many of the federal and state legislatures are very focused on COVID and COVID relief," he says. "There are issues that arise that impact industries writ large, even in the middle of this overwhelming crisis. And we're ensuring that we're still in touch with all the issues that are arising and addressing them. We're continuing our vigilance on issues that our industry really cares about."

Stanley Pierre-Louis

Stanley Pierre-Louis

Numerous games companies have told stories amid the pandemic of how their working habits, plans and needs have changed amid stay-at-home orders. The ESA is no different in having had to adapt to the shift, though Pierre-Louis says the trade body has managed to be flexible in a way that may be advantageous for its lobbying efforts going forward.

"[COVID-19] has changed how we do our work, but it has not changed the nature of what we do. For example, where we might travel to a state or walk the halls of Congress pre-COVID, we are now able to reach legislators, regulators and their staff through phone calls and video calls like everyone else. There are also video fundraisers where candidates are looking to meet with various industries to ensure that they have an opportunity to be heard with their concerns. And in many ways, you can create deeper connections by having one-on-one meetings with regulators and legislators and staff members, rather than all of the transactional costs of creating an in-person meeting.

"So we've had opportunities to deepen our understanding of what our issues are by having one-on-one sessions, and really be able to target the questions that people have in a setting that is without distraction. We continue our work to ensure that the concerns our industry has get addressed and get an audience. We just do it in a much more targeted way."

"One of the things about trade associations is that they learn to thrive and excel in any political climate"

Though the means through which it lobbies might have changed due to COVID-19, the ESA's actual responsibilities remain unchanged. I ask Pierre-Louis if the Trump administration -- which in November of this year will either be over or set for another four years -- has been a net positive or negative for gaming as a whole. He tells me that, effectively, one presidential administration is much like another for the kind of work the ESA does.

"One of the things about trade associations is that they learn to thrive and excel in any political climate, because that is the need of the industry it represents," he says. "And so with any administration, we will have challenges and we will have opportunities, and the goal for a trade association is to maximize those opportunities and limit the challenges as much as possible. And we've done that with this administration. We've done that but the previous administration. And we'll do it with the next administration.

I ask him if he can share any specific instances of positives or negatives for the industry during this administration.

"What was formerly the North American Free Trade Agreement and is now the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement -- being able to ensure that there were certain digital trade provisions that supported the needs of companies that are interconnected like video game companies was critically important. So that's an example of examining an opportunity where there was a trade agreement being negotiated. And there are opportunities to enhance the ability of our industry to secure rights in digital trade, and ensure cross-border transactions in ways that are advantageous to industry.

"On the other end, pushing back against a move to impose tariffs on video game consoles, which would have had a very negative impact not only on the console, but on software companies that create games for consoles. Because it would have increased the price of consoles by around 25%, which would have meant increasing prices of lots of other products and potentially impacting jobs. So being able to push back was critically important."

Another impending issue on which the ESA may soon need to make its voice heard is a recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which determined the EU-US Privacy Shield did not adequately protect the data of EU citizens from access by US public authorities.

"We know that the success of future [E3s] means having an enhanced digital experience"

The ISFE and the EGDF have both expressed concerns that the invalidation of the Data Shield would jeopardize free flow of data between the EU and the US in ways that would harm gaming companies, and Pierre-Louis says the ESA shares those concerns.

"The nature of the video game business is that it's global, which means that a company based in the US may have European offices and vice versa. And whether you are talking about your employees or video games, audiences, and fans who are on your network, it has an impact on cross border data flow. The decision certainly creates a significant issue with respect to data flow.

"They did leave standing one of the aspects of data flow, which was the standard contractual clauses that are created by the EU and allow for the flow of data, particularly a person's personal data. But it still is less than the ideal of having a Privacy Shield in place. And so we'll be reviewing how that impacts companies from the US side and seeing if there are any solutions we can help fashion. But this is a problem that's not unique to the video game industry."

Along with its political and legal efforts, another major issue the ESA has had to deal with lately has been the necessary cancellation or digitization of all events, including E3 -- which did not have a digital equivalent this year -- due to COVID-19. Instead of an E3, most publishers and hardware makers opted to hold their own showcases at various times and in different manners.

Long before the pandemic hit, reports circulated that the ESA was planning something different for E3 2020 -- more celebrities, more consumers, and direct marketing opportunities a pitch deck referred to as "queuetainment." It would have represented a pretty massive shift from previous E3s, though perhaps a necessary one as the show slowly bled major partners and companies.

"Many leading companies in this space have policies to ensure safe work environments. And the critical element is living up to those policies"

It is, of course, far too early for Pierre-Louis to talk specifics on what E3 2021 might hold. But he does say that the ESA has been watching the spread of publisher showcases that have filled E3's void and is "soaking that in" as they plan next year's show. And he adds that in the midst of the current global situation, the ESA is also recognizing that, as it thinks about what a physical show next year could look like, E3's largest audience is increasingly a digital one.

"We know that the success of future [events] means having an enhanced digital experience," he says. "So we're continuing to explore what that means and what that will look like in the next year, and convening our industry in a way that's exciting for fans, and creating a moment for everyone to be excited about what's new in games."

Finally, I ask Pierre-Louis for a comment on the recent wave of abuse allegations -- the second to occur in the last 12 months -- that has impacted every corner of the global games industry, including developers, publishers, media, personalities, and companies of all sizes. The ESA has yet to put out an official statement on the allegations, which began manifesting over a month ago.

"I would say that there's no place for harassment of any kind in the workplace or in society," he says in response. "Many of our leading companies in this space have policies to ensure safe work environments. And the critical element is living up to those policies, which represents the values of our industry. I think you're seeing efforts to remedy the missteps that have happened among various companies, but I think as a larger community, each stakeholder has to consider what they can do to enhance the community and the safety of the community.

"Each of us has to do our part to uphold the value that everyone should feel safe to engage within the community. And it doesn't matter if it's the workplace or interacting online. The allegations really stretched beyond a [single] company, and I think it's incumbent on each stakeholder to do their part to serve as a great ambassador for this really great industry."

Given that his response focused on what individual companies should be doing, I ask him what the ESA can do as a trade body to prevent more of these stories from occurring in the first place going forward. Pierre-Louis responds instead by outlining what he feels the ESA already does well: "represent the best in the industry."

"That's also meant identifying where we can do better," he adds. "And so we do that with our member companies. We do that with the stakeholders with whom we interact. And we try to ensure that people stand up for the values of the industry and we represent that through our actions."

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