As the American video game industry prepares for its 25th Electronic Entertainment Expo, the new leader of its trade association says there’s never been a better time to be a gamer. But even amid rising revenue, a massive, steadily expanding audience and a cultural movement more open to embracing video gaming in positive light, the industry and its leadership must navigate a variety of perils that threaten to inject turbulence into its recently comfortable ride.
Sitting in his spacious corner office overlooking Mount Vernon Square, Stanley Pierre-Louis, the Entertainment Software Association’s newly confirmed CEO rattles off a lengthy list of positives. The ESA says 65 percent of American adults play video games. The technology to play those games is unsurpassed and preparing to take yet another leap forward. The stigma of gaming — the imagined basement dweller wasting away daylight hours blasting zombies — is evaporating as gaming culture creeps more regularly into the mainstream. Video game design and distribution is a burgeoning economic sector with plenty of high-salary job openings and its leaders are not to be trifled with in halls of power.
“It is a golden era of video gaming,” Pierre-Louis said. “It’s a great time to be in this industry, but also to be engaging in it.”
Seemingly everyone is engaging in it, or at least knows folks who are. More than 166 million Americans, nearly half the country’s population, play video games, and 75 percent of households have at least one gamer, according to Pierre-Louis. Tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix will all have a presence at the coming expo, known more commonly as “E3.”
Into that gilded future steps Pierre-Louis, the ESA’s former general counsel before formally taking over the trade group’s top job in May. Now he must face the totality of the landscape before his industry.
Amid the gaming industry’s sprawling successes, some of its aspects have drawn the attention of federal regulators and health officials. These bodies are applying increased scrutiny as video games simultaneously weave themselves inextricably into American entertainment’s social fabric. Resolving those issues will be Pierre-Louis’s first test as he helps guide the industry.
Perhaps the chief threat faced by the industry comes from Congress, which is taking aim at one of video games’ top revenue models. Freshman Sen. Joshua Hawley (R-Mo.) has quickly earned a reputation for bearing down on tech companies. In May he filed a bill with two Democratic co-sponsors, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, that would render illegal certain in-game purchases for games marketed to players under the age of 18, an action that would have a significant impact on some of the industry’s most popular and well-established titles.
The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act would bar video games from selling loot boxes — the name given to in-game prize packs available for purchase that can enhance a user’s odds of success — to players younger than 18. It would outlaw games targeted at minors from using “play-to-win” mechanics. Hawley’s office specifically sited “Candy Crush,” a free-to-play game available for download on smartphones, for offering a package of virtual goods for $149.99 that make the game easier to play. “Candy Crush” generated $1.1 billion in revenue in 2018, according to gaming industry research company SuperData. The bill could also significantly affect sports games, which, for a price, give users the ability to add star players to their fantasy rosters in popular games like Madden, FIFA and NBA 2K.
Hawley has referred to the tactic as part of “the addiction economy” and likened it to “placing a casino in the hands of every child in America with the goal of getting them desperately hooked."
Pierre-Louis called the bill a “dangerous step towards regulating not only our industry, but the online commerce industry writ large.”
“One of the great things about the new economy, generally speaking, is the ability to meet consumers where they are and to provide opportunities for value and engagement at different levels,” he said. “You’re seeing this across the board with in-app purchases and other online e-commerce vehicles. Video games have been part of that growing economy for the past 20 years."
He said the industry’s various revenue models have made gaming available to a wider swath of the population that cuts across demographics including income, race and gender.
Another pressure point comes from the medical field, as the World Health Organization in May added video game addiction, or “gaming disorder,” to the International Classification of Diseases, adding fuel to the fire over the debate about the amount of screen time appropriate for children.
A 2018 study from the American Heart Association found children and teens ages 8 to 18 averaged more than seven hours a day looking at screens.
The ESA has pushed back against the WHO’s classification. Pierre-Louis told The Washington Post in a private interview that the gaming community feels medical science has not “caught up” to the gaming phenomenon to sufficiently support an international classification. Pierre-Louis has called on the body to reverse its decision, but says the time it may take the WHO to do so may allow the stigma of games causing an addiction to linger.
“When the WHO gets something wrong, they ultimately correct it, but it may take decades,” he said. “For example, in 1945, homosexuality and gender identity issues were considered mental illnesses. ... It takes a long time to reverse course when they get it wrong.”
For now, Pierre-Louis is focused on the chief task at hand, hosting the industry’s marquee convention in Los Angeles next week.
“What E3 represents is the one moment of time where everyone in the video game world is paying attention to what happens in Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s an important convening for the industry, so it represents this moment in time where everyone wants to see what’s happening and be part of that dialogue.”