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Won't somebody think of the children? | This Week in Business

The oft-derided plea of the overly concerned parent or disingenuous legislator is a cliché at this point, but there's a reason it keeps coming back

This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.

"Think of the children!"

There's nothing wrong with the phrase on the face of it, but over the years it has become a handy shorthand both for a group of people who want to do something they claim will improve kids' lives, as well as for another group of people who want to mock that first group.

Maybe I've just seen too many Simpsons episodes, but it's impossible for me to say the phrase unironically now. Hearing someone say it in earnest is a jarring experience, too, something that raises eyebrows and almost demands to not be taken seriously.

In gaming especially, the phrase conjures up a succession of games industry boogeymen who proved with alarming frequency to be ill-suited to be moral gatekeepers for the world's youth, like crusading attorney Jack Thompson (who would be permanently disbarred), former California state assemblyman Leland Yee (who would plead guilty to bribery and arms trafficking charges), and NRA head Wayne LaPierre (who is head of the NRA).

Clearly, a little skepticism of the phrase -- and those who would wield it as a rhetorical bludgeon -- is called for. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Think of the baby!)

After all, people should absolutely think of the children. And as obvious as that may be, calls to do just that have been -- and continue to be -- necessary. A century ago, the exhortations to think of the children were centered around child labor. And while that may seem like ancient history to many of us, the International Labour Organization in 2017 estimated there were nearly 115 million child laborers under the age of 15 around the world, 35 million of which were performing hazardous work. How many of us ensconced in relatively comfortable lives working in the games industry spend much time thinking about those children?

"When it comes to demonstrating that people in games are in fact thinking about the children, the industry doesn't always do a good job"

And while the calls to think of children in our industry are very different -- I don't think there are very many 5-year-olds doing death march crunch on AAA blockbusters -- there remain legitimate concerns around the impact games can have on children. From the WHO's recognition of gaming disorders to exploitative loot box mechanisms that sure do look a lot like gambling, the concerns of parents and politicians aren't entirely groundless.

So when it comes to demonstrating that people in games are in fact thinking about the children, the industry doesn't always do a good job.

When grilled about their loot boxes and gaming addiction by UK legislators in June of 2019, Epic Games representatives were asked what responsibility and duty of care they owe to players who might play their games excessively.

QUOTE | "We rely on our trade organizations to do that." - Epic's lawyer, explaining the studio wasn't in a position to answer any questions on that subject.

That would be our cue to go to one of those trade organizations and ask them, but we'd already heard from the head of the Entertainment Software Association Stanley Pierre-Louis a month earlier about just how seriously the trade group was taking the WHO's gaming disorder classification.

QUOTE | "That classification does not imply that gaming disorder exists." - ESA head Stanley Pierre-Louis metaphorically sticking his fingers in his ears and yelling when we ask about the WHO's gaming disorder classification.

But how does a trade group determine what problems do and don't exist? Well, our most recent interview with Pierre-Louis has an indication.

QUOTE | "As an organization we operate under a consensus model so we would only enter an area of public policy concern based on a consensus of members believing that we have that capability and unanimity of support from members." - Pierre-Louis answering a question about whether the ESA would be prepared to lobby on esports betting.

So to sum up, the game developer who is a member of the trade group says it's the trade group's problem. The trade group says it isn't a problem. But of course, the trade group only does what its member companies tell it to. Yes, those same member companies who defer to the trade group when asked what responsibility they have to players.

As UK MP Ian Lucas tweeted after the hearing with Epic and EA, "Quite extraordinary session of @CommonsCMS with Epic and EA games companies who appear to think they have no obligation at all to those who are addicted to games. They do not appear even to have considered it."

I bring this up because this week had a number of stories ultimately stemming from the "think of the children" crowd, from misinformed calls for banning a popular game to concerning knock-on effects of government restrictions on kids' playtime.

But it's worth considering why "think of the children" can be such a useful tool for the insincere and the ignorant. Because time and again, the games industry has had to be dragged into thinking about children, from the creation of the ESRB under pressure from Congress to the adoption of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act to Apple requiring lawsuits and regulatory pressure to do anything at all about exploitative free-to-play apps aimed at kids. (And shamefully enough, Apple has been one of the better platform holders on this front, from restricting data tracking in kids apps to requiring loot box odds disclosures years before other platform holders were pressured into it by regulator scrutiny.)

"Think of the children" keeps coming back in the games industry because there's such a track record of the games industry not actually giving the children much thought at all -- beyond their potential to generate revenue -- unless it is forced to.

QUOTE | "The game Fortnite is directly against lofty values, especially religious ones. This can trigger disrespectful behavior between religious communities and encourage acts of violence." - Indonesia's Minister for Tourism and Creative Economy Sandiaga Uno calls for a ban on Epic's game after finding a user-created map depicting a building resembling the Kaaba of the Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca and claiming players could destroy it in the game. (Epic pointed out that's not actually a thing players can do.)

QUOTE | "Anyone who refuses or fails the face verification will be treated as a minor, and as outlined in the anti-addiction supervision of Tencent's game health system, and kicked offline." - Tencent talks about its recently launched facial recognition technology to prevent children in China from playing games between 10pm and 8am.

QUOTE | "We're working on a longer term solution for existing and new players under the age of 19 in South Korea and will have more to share on this later this year." - Microsoft explains that while South Korean laws have led it to require Minecraft players to have an Xbox Live account (which has a 19-and-up age restriction), the situation is hopefully temporary.

QUOTE | "We had announced Griezmann as our Yu-Gi-Oh! content ambassador, however in light of recent events we have decided to cancel the contract." - Konami explaining that it had severed ties with FC Barcelona forward Antoine Griezmann after a video surfaced showing him laughing as fellow player Ousmane Dembele mocked a group of employees in a Japanese hotel room fixing something for them.

QUOTE | "While we won't go into specific details about individuals, any employee that had allegations and remain at Ubisoft has had their case rigorously reviewed by a third party and were either exonerated or underwent appropriate disciplinary actions... We do not and will not tolerate abuse, harassment or discrimination." - Ubisoft, in a statement released after receiving criticism because some of the senior leadership announced for Assassin's Creed Infinity had been accused of inappropriate behavior during last year's wave of abuse and harassment allegations at the publisher.

QUOTE | "They told me how one of the biggest offenders at Quebec is Assassin's Creed Odyssey creative director Jonathan Dumont. According to multiple sources, Dumont is an abusive and controlling figure who in many ways embodies many of the problems currently facing Ubisoft. They claimed Dumont often uses his physical presence to intimidate people by slamming doors, punching walls, or throwing objects, and has verbally abused staff members -- reducing some to tears -- using offensive terms and homophobic slurs. He allegedly also targets women, telling them how to dress or when to smile." - A Gamasutra report published last August that names Assassin's Creed Infinity executive producer Marc-Alexis Côté and creative director (for the Ubisoft Quebec studio) Jonathan Dumont as two leaders in the company employees had problems with.

QUOTE | "Although Ubisoft has taken this situation very seriously, making every effort to remedy it and has demonstrated its resilience, the Group cannot provide an absolute guarantee that this type of risk will be controlled." - In a public filing made last month, Ubisoft said it has a "zero tolerance" policy for abuse, but its stained reputation as a result of last year's stories could hurt the business.

QUOTE | "Then there are lesser-known incidents like the subsequent removal of Cytus II -- a music game by Taiwanese studio Rayark Games -- in China, upon mainland Chinese players' discovery of a pro-Hong Kong message hidden in morse code inside a song by its music director Wilson Lam. The composition was only uploaded to his private Soundcloud, and isn't featured in Cytus II." - This feature on how mainland China is increasingly shaping development in Taiwan on Hong Kong shows it's not always direct action from the Chinese government that prompts developers to change their games.

QUOTE | "Our goal is to take a significant chunk of the game engine market. We don't think it's super healthy to have a market that is completely dominated by two big players. We want to see a lot of experimentation in the game engine space, allowing developers to create games that feel unique and stand out." - Our Machinery co-founder and CEO Tricia Gray talks about the company's new engine The Machinery, designed to be a "hackable" engine where much of the core functionality is handled by plugins that can be replaced and modified at will.

QUOTE | "We know that if we grow the userbase, we know that the money and revenue will come. The main motivator for us as a company is not cash, it's entertainment -- we're entertaining vast numbers of people." - Avalanche Studios' Pim Holfve explains why the company's Contraband will debut in Xbox Game Pass (besides the money).

QUOTE | "By going single-player, we're able to focus on building a strong story... We can put ourselves in a single viewpoint that is facing the story. And knowing that you're working with a team of characters who are unique individuals and very unpredictable, it allows us to start playing with that to build a stronger narrative." - In a discussion about the origin story of Eidos Montreal's upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, senior narrative designer Mary DeMarle explains why the game about a team of super heroes only lets players directly control one character.

QUOTE | "You would not believe the abuse I got from gamers. But Epic Mickey was built on the same philosophy as Deus Ex, Ultima Underworld, Thief, Dishonored... They either didn't see it, or they didn't want to see it" - Warren Spector is the latest guest on "Five Games Of," our podcast in which veteran developers talk about five projects from their past.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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