Shadow Player
The Face of the Video Game Industry Steps Into the Spotlight at Electronic Entertainment Expo

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

LOS ANGELES, May 10 Every parent with a child who plays video games should know Doug Lowenstein, the same way that everyone here at E3 -- the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the annual Lollapalooza for gamers -- should know him. He's the architect of this weeklong convention, the Jack Valenti for the PlayStation-Xbox-Nintendo set, the public face of the fastest-growing entertainment industry in the world. The guy. The video game guy.

Except not too many folks, even gamers, know who he is.

"He's a behind-the-scenes kind of player," says Ted Price, head of Insomniac Games, home of the best-selling "Ratchet and Clank" series.

When Lowenstein walked into the Los Angeles Convention Center Wednesday morning, pumped to give his annual version of the State of the Union address to a packed hall, he didn't turn any heads.

But Lowenstein wasn't the least concerned.

"It's not my persona to get in the limelight," says Lowenstein, 55, a Washington insider for more than 30 years. "I don't want to be seen as, 'Here's the guy who defends hideous violent games. Here's his story.' "

* * *

Everybody watches movies, everybody listens to music, but not everyone plays video games -- at least not yet. Lowenstein oversees a 30-year-old industry (worth nearly $30 billion worldwide) that's at a crossroads, at once mainstream and misunderstood.

One week he's defending the industry from a bipartisan group of high-profile pols on Capitol Hill who decry violent games. The next he's speaking with industry bigwigs at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose about advancing content beyond sports franchises, shoot-'em-ups and medieval wonderlands. One month he's issuing a press release challenging Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's proposed legislation to curb the sale and rental of "violent and sexually explicit" games to minors. The next he's co-hosting a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for Friends of Hillary Clinton in Washington.

Jack Valenti, former head of the Motion Picture Association of America and someone Lowenstein calls a mentor, says: "He's got a really tough job to do. But Doug listens, and listens very well. Too many people in Washington think they're the repository of all wisdom. Not Doug."

In 1994, Lowenstein founded the Entertainment Software Association. Aside from representing the likes of Electronic Arts, Take Two Interactive and Activision -- companies that publish more than 90 percent of games in the United States -- the ESA fights piracy, lobbies Congress for intellectual property laws and works with the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which was created by the ESA in 1994 to provide ratings for games (participation is voluntary for game publishers, most of whom use the ratings). More than anything else, the ESA fights for the rights of game developers to make the games they want to make and to help raise the visibility of the industry as an entertainment medium on a par with movies, music and television.

Last year, U.S. sales of games, hardware and accessories reached a record $10.5 billion, according to NPD Group, a research firm. The release of the Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii later this year, in addition to new accessories for the Xbox 360, guarantees another solid year. Price Waterhouse Coopers, a consulting firm, predicts the game industry will surpass the music industry in global revenue by 2008 -- $55 billion to $33 billion.

"Look, there's a fusion of entertainment right now, okay, and video games are at the center of that," Lowenstein says. "If you're a young recording artist now, you want to get your stuff into games. If you're in films . . . you have to be much more cognizant of this video game audience and what they like and what they're interested in because that's your future filmgoing audience and they've adapted to another medium."

He's saying this in a recent interview in his spacious Washington office, in front of an original Lichtenstein, the Oval Office in bright yellows and blues. Nearby there's a framed poster of his "beloved" Grateful Dead, right next to a ticket stub from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup that his "beloved" New York Rangers won.

"My parents didn't get the Grateful Dead. For a lot of people today who are growing up, video games are their rock-and-roll."

Lobbying on the Hill

A bipartisan issue seems a rarity in Washington these days, but violent video games have gotten Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Clinton (D-N.Y.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on the same side of the aisle.

It's also the thing that can get Lowenstein to narrow his eyes, purse his lips and press the "here-it-goes-again" button.

Lieberman, who likes to joke that he's the reason Lowenstein has a job, has been the most vocal and consistent critic of the game industry. For the past 10 years, he's stood alongside David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, to issue a "video game report card" that offers a snapshot of the game industry as it relates to kids.

In the past two years, after the release of titles including "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," "25 to Life" and "Postal II," politicians at the local, state and federal level have lambasted the game industry.

It's "the current bad boy of pop culture that politicians love to beat up on," says Karen Sternheimer, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. Last year, 79 bills were pending in 28 jurisdictions.

Friday one of those will get a day in court. A judge in a California federal court will decide whether a bill prohibiting the sale of "ultraviolent" games to minors is constitutional. Written by State Assemblyman Leland Yee, and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year, the bill is "narrowly crafted," says Yee, defining "ultraviolent" games as ones in which "another human being is hurt." Though Yee says that the jury is still out on the effects of violent games on the kids who play them, "the fact that you have children who are practicing the behavior of pulling the trigger, hitting heads with a shovel, killing other human beings" gravely concerns him.

"It's 'observational learning,' " says Yee, who is also a clinical psychologist.

Lowenstein's twofold response is that ESA's ratings board offers parents detailed descriptions of what's in a game. (Though Yee says the board is far from perfect; just last week, the "teen" rating for the game "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" was changed to "mature" after the board discovered more "intense depictions of blood and gore.") And second, the reality is most games that get in the hands of minors are bought by their parents -- as noted in a Federal Trade Commission study released in March.

Lowenstein says he's on the Hill routinely to do "some basic tackling and blocking" and to clear up "a lot of the misunderstandings about who we are."

Such as to point out that the average age of a gamer (which includes those who play solitaire at Pogo.com) is 30 years old. That the gender breakdown of gamers is 70 percent men and 30 percent women (most of them casual online gamers). That the vast majority of games in the market are rated T (for teens) or E (for everyone). That a few objectionable games can't represent the entire game industry, just as "Sin City," "Kill Bill" and "V for Vendetta" can't represent the entire film industry.

Not everything goes smoothly.

Lowenstein attended a reception for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and made a $500 contribution. A few weeks later, his check was returned. "Stuff happens" is all Lowenstein says when pressed about it. Obama's office confirmed that the check was indeed returned but declined further comment.

"If you're a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, people understand the product. But what Doug has to do is explain the industry and explain the medium itself. He's not simply justifying ESA, he's also justifying games themselves," says Aaron Ruby, co-author of "Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution."

Video games, Lowenstein argues, are fully protected speech. That argument has served him well so far. Not a single piece of legislation introduced to regulate games has made it past the courts.

Growing Into the Game

He's not a techie. In the early 1990s, "I couldn't tell a floppy disk from a CD-ROM," he says.

He plays games -- his consoles are in his basement -- but doesn't consider himself a gamer. "Never was," he says. "Never will."

Still, Lowenstein has grown up with the video game industry.

He was raised on New York's Upper West Side. His mom, Marie, stayed home to care for three children; his dad, Larry, was a restaurateur. He's the nephew of former representative Allard Lowenstein (D-N.Y.), the antiwar and civil rights leader who started the "Dump Johnson" movement and years later was gunned down by an assassin.

"That was very, very extremely traumatic for me," says Lowenstein, who lives with his wife, Shelley, an education writer, in Chevy Chase. They have two daughters. Margot, 24, is a third-grade teacher; Emma, 19, is at Boston University. Emma was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes five years ago, and Lowenstein is an active member of the local chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

He was a newspaper reporter through the 1970s and early 1980s. He missed his graduation day at Washington University because he had to show up for work at the Buffalo Courier Express. Then he served as legislative director for Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), rubbing shoulders with Bob Dole on the Senate floor. He moved on to lobbying in the late '80s through the early '90s, signing up with the firm Robinson Lake, and handling accounts with MTV, CBS and Electronic Arts.

The early 1990s was a turning point for games, at least on Capitol Hill. Lieberman and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) held a hearing in late 1993 that denounced the street-fighting game "Mortal Kombat," and Lowenstein, with his legislative experience, was asked by an ad-hoc group of game publishers to start the ESA -- or something like it -- to help them navigate Washington. The job intrigued him. New industry, new challenge, new chapter. Next thing he knew, he was sitting on the floor of an empty office at 18th and I streets NW, looking at Xerox brochures.

It was June 1994, a lifetime away in video game history.

A Huge Market

This is a transition year for games, which extends its convoluted family tree roughly every five years. It's a fickle market out there.

At the Nintendo news briefing at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles this week, Nintendo showed off a game controller that a player can use as a golf club, sword, tennis racket or drumsticks. Soon playing with the controller is a workout.

In his E3 speech, Lowenstein noted that online role-playing games are helping drive the need for even faster broadband and DSL connections. He also noted that according to an ESA-sponsored study, video games directly and indirectly contributed $18 billion to the nation's economy in 2004.

"Think about this: In the year 2010, there will be 75 million Americans between the ages of 10 and 30 -- as many in this millennium generation as in the baby-boom generation," Lowenstein told the crowd. "And everyone of them will have grown up with video games as a central part of their DNA."

At the back of the packed room, sitting on the floor and biting his nails, 23-year-old Mathew Andrysiak, who had flown in from Minnesota, was nodding. And nodding. And nodding. He's a TV technician by day and a writer for Warcry.com, a site for online role-playing games, all the time. He's a lifelong gamer.

"Nothing he said sounded all that new to me," Andrysiak said, but Wednesday was the first time he figured out who Doug Lowenstein was.

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