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Gaming disorder diagnosis puts industry at risk - ESA

Acting president Stanley Pierre-Louis discusses World Health Organization's gaming addiction concern, loot boxes, unions, and more

Later today, Entertainment Software Association acting president Stanley Pierre-Louis will deliver a presentation at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas. It will be Pierre-Louis' first public address since he assumed the acting president role in the wake of Michael Gallagher's departure last October.

Last week, Pierre-Louis spoke with GamesIndustry.biz to discuss the subject of his speech--the World Health Organization's decision to include gaming disorders in its latest revision to the International Compendium of Diseases--and an assortment of other topics currently of interest throughout the industry, including loot boxes, labor conditions, unions, and more.

"We're in an incredible place as an industry, not just in terms of the enormous economic growth, which is all true, but also on the political, innovation, and creative sides we are continuing to grow in ways that impress policy makers because we are a positive job growth story, an innovation story, international trade story," he said. "We check every box that every party wants, because we're doing things in a really sustained and positive way.

"We're doing things in ways on the creative side that are also very exciting. If you look at the visuals of new games, the exciting ways games are created, the storyboarding… consumers, players, gamers and even fans outside coming in are excited about what they see. And more and more, everything we do is becoming gamified, whether it's education or health, everyone wants to use the technology to enhance engagement because we're a leader in audience engagement.

"The concern raised by what the WHO is doing, particularly given the lack of scientific evidence and consensus behind their proposal, puts that at risk."

Addiction and loot boxes

Pierre-Louis said there's no dispute that gaming is a perfectly healthy form of recreation for the vast majority of people who play worldwide, but he did concede that there are individuals who play to an unhealthy excess.

"We want to make sure that anyone who needs help, gets help," Pierre-Louis said. "But to get the help they need for the issues they face, not for a manifestation of an underlying symptom. And that's what we've been urging in our discourse of the topic."

So if Pierre-Louis is right and excessive gaming is not the root of these people's problems, what responsibility does the games industry have toward those who find themselves self-destructing through games?

"I think the market is responding to the fact that they want compelling engagement by their audiences, but they want it in a healthy way"

"One of the things we're proudest of as an industry is that we provide tools for consumers and especially parents to employ in the use of video games," Pierre-Louis said. "Every major console maker, for example, provides users and parents the ability to limit the amount of time you spend on games, limit the amount of money you spend on games. It can also be used to stop the kind of games you're worried about on an age rating system. More and more, we're seeing all handheld devices do that, both [from] members and non-members. So there's an effort by the video game innovation/creation side to provide consumers and especially parents with tools to manage the amount of gameplay that occurs."

During the discussion, Pierre-Louis doesn't throw the word "addiction" around lightly. Given how common it has been historically for publishers to tout the "addictive" qualities of games like Tetris or Civilization, we asked if there had been a concerted effort to curb that particular angle in marketing campaigns.

"From our perspective, addiction is a medical term that has a very prescribed use," he said. "And that's why the major medical associations have not accepted it for video game play. For example, the American Medical Association has rejected coining a term 'video game addiction' or 'gaming disorder.' So have the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. So they've each looked at this and said, 'Let's ensure we're using these terms properly because they mean something very specifically in medical science, and let's not extrapolate that for uses that are not accurate.' We certainly follow that guidance, and I think the market is responding to the fact that they want compelling engagement by their audiences, but they want it in a healthy way."

The addiction discussion seems inexorably tied to the discussion over loot boxes, given how they lend themselves to deep engagement and there's no limit in many cases to how much money a player can pour into them. The ESA has made its position on loot boxes clear before, but we ask Pierre-Louis how big a concern they are for the ESA in light of rumblings from legislators and regulators around the world. Perhaps underscoring how the two issues dovetail, he referred again to various platforms' parental control systems.

"I've got a 12-year-old. If my 12-year-old wants to make a purchase, his settings are different from mine," Pierre-Louis said. "I can just make a purchase, but he's got to get an OK from me every single time. So there are ways of employing these controls so with different users they apply different ways and you're able to control that spending. Loot boxes are like any other means of creating value for a game. It's another way of creating value in a game and the tools apply equally."

Working conditions and unions

Labor conditions for developers have been a big point of concern over the past year, with scandals at a number of companies, including ESA members like Take-Two (by way of Rockstar Games) and recent addition Riot Games. In announcing Riot's as one of six companies added to the ranks of the ESA members last week, the ESA press release talked about the organization's desire to nurture the next generation of creators. In light of that goal, we asked Pierre-Louis what the ESA's role is in ensuring that next generation is properly nurtured rather than burned through, exploited, or subjected to abuse in the workplace.

"Our members want a healthy, productive, and compelling environment for all of their employees and all the people who work for them"

"Our members want a healthy, productive, and compelling environment for all of their employees and all the people who work for them," he said. "And we've seen efforts to ensure the workplace is a healthy place to be. I'm not sure what I can say beyond that because that's what we've seen in working with our members. We know that's the goal they each have."

Hand-in-hand with the discussion over workplace conditions has been a growing call for unionization throughout the games industry. French gaming union Le Syndicat des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Jeu Vidéo (STJV) facilitated a weeks-long strike at Eugen Systems about a year ago, which was closely followed by the formation of Game Workers Unite at the Game Developers Conference in March. Late last year, the UK chapter of Game Workers Unite became an official branch The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. In light of these developments, we asked Pierre-Louis what the ESA's position is on unionization in the industry, a question he deferred to his members.

"Workplace decisions are really within the province of each member company," Pierre-Louis said. "And we leave it to them to decide, based on their independent judgment, how best to proceed on workplace decisions."

E3 without Sony

The Electronic Entertainment Expo has been running for decades, and it's had some massive changes over that time frame, and plenty of people proclaiming it doomed at various points. It's had big publishers skip the show, and platform holders opt against a press conference or take their activities off-site. But the revelation that Sony would be skipping this year's E3 in its entirety was still unprecedented. We've never had a platform holder just skip the show entirely, and certainly not one with a market-leading console during a period when the industry is by most accounts thriving.

"We expect this E3 to be as or more exciting than any E3 we've seen before"

So what does Sony's absence from E3 2019 imply about the show's future?

"We expect this E3 to be as or more exciting than any E3 we've seen before," Pierre-Louis said. "We're actually very excited about what's developing. We've seen tremendous support from the companies who are coming, and internally we've felt tremendous support from all of our members about a successful E3.

"The way we view E3 is it's an opportunity to tell our story in a bigger way as an industry, and to provide that amplification for the new titles and products being introduced, and the new announcements people have. So we focus on making that gets amplified as loudly as possible, and we have full support from all our members on that front."

Focus on the positive

Beyond the issues above, there are plenty of issues the ESA concerns itself with in recent years. Net neutrality, internet privacy, US immigration policies, STEM [Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education, and of course, the recurring fights over violent video games. But when asked what the most crucial issues facing the ESA are, Pierre-Louis talks about the need to push a positive message about games to the world rather than playing defense against any looming threats to the business.

"Our most exciting opportunity is telling the world more about the power of video games," Pierre-Louis said. "Being able to tell the story of the graphic design and what that means for consumers. Telling the story of new innovations, including the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which was probably the most moving Super Bowl ad in a really long time.

"And talking about the opportunity to inspire students to get into STEM through video games and then have long lasting careers that are sometimes based in the video game industry, but other times based in related industries where game technology is transforming how people look at product development. To us, the most important thing we can do is tell our story in a way that enhances the video game community to a national audience."

He added, "We are becoming a benchmark for other industries in terms of five different areas: job creation, innovation, creative expression, consumer engagement, and consumer protection. And we do that at a seriously high level, and telling that story allows us to not only reorient the positioning of video games in a national story sense, but also in an innovation sense, in creating jobs… We've got this opportunity in this moment to tell the greatness of the industry, and we should use it."