Games Industry Lobbyists Praised Trump, and No One Should Be Surprised

It doesn't matter if Republicans or Democrats are in power. In the end, it's about money and the status quo.

Sep 26 2017, 8:02pm

Image courtesy of Entertainment Software Association

More than a few people winced yesterday when the Entertainment Software Association, the Washington, D.C.-based trade organization representing the video games industry, issued a press release in which they praised President Trump for "bold leadership in computer science education." This followed a Fast Company report detailing how the administration would work to expand "access to STEM and computer science education" with $200 million in annual grant funding.

"By expanding opportunities for America's youth interested in the creative tech sector," said ESA president Mike Gallagher in a statement, "we can generate thousands of new American jobs and achieve new levels of innovation, invention, and economic success. We look forward to working with the Administration and industry partners."

Only a few months ago, Trump's budget had proposed enormous cuts to STEM.

The chaos and division caused by Trump and his associates has many, understandably and reasonably, on edge. Applauding a racist, sexist political demagogue because it managed to do something right is like congratulating a broken clock for getting the time right twice a day. (And to be fair, the ESA issued a similarly praise-worthy release when President Obama, early in his first term, announced a new focus on STEM programs and computer science.)

The ESA has taken mixed positions on Trump in his first year as President, having been one of many technology-focused industry groups to publicly respond to the administration's proposed travel ban from early this year, a way for Trump to make good on a promise to ban Muslims from entering the country. (The proposal itself remains tied up in the courts, and it's unclear where it'll ultimately land.)

To call the ESA's response "opposition" to the ban would be giving them too much credit, though; in their statement, they asked "the White House to exercise caution with regard to vital immigration and foreign worker programs" and said that "enhancing national security and protecting our country's citizens are critical goals." No one's going to argue the ESA was exactly spitting hot fire at Trump here, though it did argue for Congress to pass immigration reform on "economic and humanitarian" grounds after Trump killed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program earlier this year.

From the ESA's perspective, it makes sense to get on Trump's good (or neutral) side, even if it's over the administration nailing the equivalent of an uncontested layup: they represent a bunch of video game companies whose primary interest is making money, not taking political stances.

This does not, however, mean the ESA is apolitical—it just plays both sides, knowing full well both the current Republican and Democratic ruling class are, campaign-targeted populist rhetoric aside, largely backing of and reliant on maintaining the status quo, a decades-long philosophy of corporations Having Your Best Interest In Mind. The ESA's, economic-focused response to Trump's xenophobic travel ban made no appeal to the moral questions raised by the singling out of a single group of people. No, it was money.

Would you be surprised to learn they supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

In 2017, the ESA has made three political contributions, according to a search of the Federal Election Commission database: $50,000 to the Senate Majority PAC, "dedicated to building a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate;" $50,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund, "exclusively dedicated to protecting and strengthening the Republican Majority in the House of Representative;" and $50,000 to the Senate Leadership Fund, meant to "protect and expand the Republican Senate Majority when Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer, together with their army of left-wing activists, try to take it back in 2018."

You'll note that leaves out a contribution to House Democrats for 2018, but it could be an oversight or forthcoming. (The ESA didn't respond to a request for clarification. Update: The ESA told me the search is in error, and they gave equally to both parties this cycle.) In 2016, for example, the ESA contributed $200,000 to both parties across the Congressional chambers. Prior to 2016, ESA political contributions were rarer and leaned Democratic, with $10,000 to the California Democratic party in 2008, and $2,500 to Florida's Democratic party in 2006.

(Lobbying is different than electoral contributions, and wrote a good article a few years back about the ESA's lobbying efforts.)

The ESA has been party to noteworthy milestones for video games, like their participation in Brown v Entertainment Merchants Association, which formally established the medium as protected speech under the First Amendment in 2011. It's true that everyone who's a fan of games benefits from that decision, it was first and foremost about establishing and maintaining power for companies. Its benefit for the artists behind them was secondary.

And while most people might associate the ESA with the excitement and adrenaline of E3 every year, it's easy to forget the anti-consumer stances the group has taken over the years.

It was only after intense pressure, protest, and scrutiny in 2012 the ESA dropped support for Congress to pass one of two aggressive pieces of copyright legislation: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), from a Republican-controlled House, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), from a Democratically-controlled Senate. Legal scholars worried SOPA and PIPA would bring the equivalent of Internet censorship to the US, granting copyright holders powerful tools to shut down websites they judge to infringe on intellectual property. It would have allowed them to go further than issuing a takedown, and dismantle a website's ability to generate revenue.

Though the legislation was targeted at websites outside the US, there were concerns it could be leveraged here, as well. If a copyright holder chose to throw their weight around, it could have impacted mods, Let's Play videos, unofficial game guides, and more.

In announcing its initial support for the bills, the ESA noted they were "mindful of concerns raised about a negative impact on innovation," yet argued "rogue websites—those singularly devoted to profiting from their blatant illegal piracy-–restrict demand for legitimate video game products and services, thereby costing jobs."

The ESA spent as much as $190,000 lobbying for SOPA to happen, according to a report by Kotaku. After places like reddit and Wikipedia went dark in protest of the proposals, a bunch of Senators started shifting positions on the bills, and the ESA dropped support, too.

"Although the need to address this pervasive threat to our industry's creative investment remains," said the ESA in statement, "concerns have been expressed about unintended consequences stemming from the current legislative proposals."

And in 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on defending digital rights, revealed the ESA had pushed back on its request for an exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which would have allowed museums, academics, and fans to safely and legally archive video games left behind by the industry, specifically with a focus on online games where the servers are eventually shut down by the companies operating them.

Here's what the ESA said in response to the request, according to the EFF:

They [ESA] say that modifying games to connect to a new server (or to avoid contacting a server at all) after publisher support ends—letting people continue to play the games they paid for—will destroy the video game industry. They say it would "undermine the fundamental copyright principles on which our copyright laws are based."

ESA also says that exceptions to Section 1201's blanket ban will send a message that "hacking—an activity closely associated with piracy in the minds of the marketplace—is lawful." Imagine the havoc that could result if people believed that "hacking" was ever legal! Of course, "hacking" is legal in most circumstances.

So far, no exemption has been granted, and the ESA's stance remains. Dedicated game enthusiasts continue to spend thousands of hours reviving discarded online games, but there is zero legal protection for them. Any day, a copyright owner could shut them down, even though the game is no longer in operation, let alone making the owner any money.

It's why we shouldn't be surprised when the industry's "compromise" to voice actors striking for better compensation, safer work environments, and participation in the financial success of projects (aka residuals) results in little more than the bare minimum of improvements. Unsurprisingly, the companies had little interest in offering residuals, and absent real bargaining power, the kind that would only come if an entire industry realized the only way to actually bend massive corporations is through unionization, breadcrumbs are acceptable.

The ESA, like most consolidations of corporate power, isn't your friend. They want you to cheer for trailers at their glitzy events. They want you to buy games the companies they represent sell. They want laws protecting the same companies. In the end, it's about money.

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