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Unseemly Scuffle

The ESA's extraordinary outburst makes the whole industry look bad

What on earth is going on at the Entertainment Software Association? The industry's representative body in the United States has been part of the furniture for years, taking care of everything from running E3 through to fighting the good fight against censorious, unconstitutional legislation in states across America.

Now, suddenly, it seems that a week can't go by without the organisation raising eyebrows - in all the wrong ways. First came the news that its members are departing - four out of the original 28 members have left in the past few weeks, leading to a string of bad news stories and speculation over the ESA's future.

In the last couple of days, the organisation's senior director of communications, Dan Hewitt, seemed to decide he'd had enough of this. Rather than talking to the media and moving to reassure the industry about what's going on, however, Hewitt chose a rather more unusual PR approach.

Hewitt has launched a blistering and very public attack on the credibility of, after the site questioned the ESA's choice of keynote speaker for this year's E3. Noting that the site has been bought by the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA), he accused it of being "tainted with anti-ESA vitriol" and snarled that "calling GamePolitics a news site is as laughable as saying there's a Cuban free press."

Where exactly the problem lies between Mr Hewitt and GamePolitics, or between the ESA and the ECA, is utterly inconsequential. Anyone who has ever dealt with trade bodies knows that they tend to exist in their own little spheres of exaggerated politics, nursing the kind of rivalries and enmities which real corporations quickly dispense with for being unprofitable and time-wasting.

I have no doubt that at some point in the past the Entertainment Consumer Association (or its boss, trade body veteran Hal Halpin) has rubbed people at the ESA up the wrong way, or vice versa. I'm sure there is a lengthy and fascinating (a term I use with every ounce of sarcasm I can muster) history between these two groups which explains this week's outburst.

That, however, doesn't matter. What does matter is that, in full view of anyone who cares to watch, the videogames industry's premier representative body is answering its critics by hurling insults at established media outlets - while simultaneously haemorrhaging members from the organisation. People do care to watch, too. The Internet loves a fight, and there's been plenty of coverage online of this particularly childish squabble.

It's worth taking a look, too, at the criticism which provoked this extraordinarily unprofessional response. Hewitt's problem appears to be with a pair of GamePolitics pieces which questioned the choice of Texas Governor Rick Perry as the keynote speaker at E3 2008. The most recent of these was headlined with the fact that Perry has backed controversial statements from minister John Hagee, who claimed that all non-Christians will go to hell.

This latest piece, it's worth noting, came originally from outlets such as Wired and The Escapist, neither of which the ESA chose to mention or include in its scathing attack.

This is an absolutely legitimate item to report, and the ESA's decision to put Perry at the lectern as its keynote speaker is an absolutely legitimate thing to question. On one hand, Texas' support for its large game development industry is a potentially interesting model for other states and even nations to follow - even if it comes with mildly controversial strings attached regarding the content.

On the other hand, Governor Perry's religious views are unquestionably offensive to a vast number of people, many of them the very consumers games companies wish to reach. As they are a matter of public record, it's arguable that they cannot be entirely set aside in the debate over whether the ESA should grant him a platform at E3.

I don't actually have a view over whether Governor Perry is an appropriate candidate to keynote E3. His views are abhorrent to many, but whether that should inform the choice to have him speak on an unrelated matter - state government support for game development - is not something I hold myself fit to adjudicate upon. However, it's deeply worrying that the ESA seems to think this decision is not open to criticism, debate or discussion.

This latest squabble occurs in the wake of four ESA members leaving the organisation in a matter of weeks - and several other high profile publishers dropping out of this year's E3.

Activision, Vivendi, LucasArts and id Software have all left the ranks of the association. Other major firms, it ought to be noted, have given backing to the organisation - with EA's Jeff Brown and Microsoft's Robbie Bach notable in their support.

However, Brown was clear that "the onus is on the ESA to prove that membership is good for the company and good for consumers". Despite the incredibly important work the ESA has done in handling challenges to censorious legislation across the USA, the organisation has clearly failed to make its case to several key publishers in recent months.

Whatever has gone wrong in this process, the ESA needs to work to set it right. Each publisher who leaves the organisation is a further blow to its power to lobby politicians, lawmakers and media organisations - and idiocy like this week's public squabble doesn't help, either. That lobbying power, more than anything else, is the reason why the industry - and its consumers - need the ESA. It provides a US political voice that we're sorely lacking otherwise.

It's certain that behind the scenes, the ESA is working hard to ensure that its remaining members stay on-board. However, public perception of the body, both throughout the industry and among interested consumers, is at a low ebb. This, perhaps, is something the ESA won't be entirely comfortable with - trade bodies often don't appreciate the realisation that they can and should be the subject of media scrutiny.

It's something the association will just have to live with, though. Its critics, too, are part of the parish it has undertaken to represent. Rather than lashing out ineffectually, the ESA should grasp the opportunity to reach out, communicate effectively, explain itself - and in the process, reinvigorate itself.

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