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Post SOPA and the E3 Blackout: A Q&A with James Portnow of Extra Credits

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(Photo: Courtesy Extra Credits)

How do you fight an organization that has no physical goods or services to sell? How do you protest a lobby’s support for a bill when they have no obligation or care for the consumer?

Last week was perhaps one of the most interesting weeks in a long time, politically speaking. We saw the public tensions grow over SOPA/PIPA and the internet ceased being an abstract resource. Popular information resources like Google and Wikipedia suddenly gained a voice and took action to influence a public that all too often seemed politically apathetic.

Not only was action taken to the politicians, but awareness was raised about what organizations supported or were fighting SOPA/PIPA. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) was among these supporting organizations. Despite the fact that some member companies of the ESA disagreed with the bills, the video game lobby only stated its continued support.

That’s why last Wednesday we saw an amazing video emerge starring the faces behind Screw Attack, Extra Credits, Loading Ready Run, and Red 5 Studios. It was called “Stand Together: The Gaming Community vs SOPA and PIPA” and it directly called for a media and developer boycott of E3 until the ESA rescinded its support for the two bills.

 

I immediately started trying to get in contact with some of the personalities from this video for a Q&A about the E3 boycott. James Portnow of Extra Credits was more than gracious in responding and had some amazing answers to my questions.

If you don’t already know, Extra Credits is a weekly video game discussion created by Daniel Floyd and James Portnow with animation by Allison Theus. It started in 2009 and has remained one of the most intellectually fascinating video series on the web. Each video focuses on a particular topic and breaks it down into an intellectual discussion about the medium, and what we can learn from it.

That’s why I was thrilled when James agreed to the Q&A. He is a professor at Digipen: a university in Washington considered one of the best for game development education. He also works as a design consultant for developers. Coupled with his writing for Extra Credits, It’s an understatement to say that he has been influential in both the industry and the culture surrounding games.

But enough introduction, let’s get on to the questions.

Armed Gamer: Why don’t we start off with a little bit about the ESA? Originally it seemed like they were champions of the industry: both for the developers and the consumers. Was this merely an illusion, or has something changed?

James Portnow: While it was never their mission statement to be a champion of consumers, Doug Lowenstien is a man who I have a great deal of respect for and whom I consider one of the heroes of this industry. He saw clearly that there is no industry without the consumer, and thus to defend the industry meant to defend the consumer.

Without him we would be facing government regulations on the content of games. It was really his work, with corporate dollars, that lead to the recent landmark decision to consider games art. Unfortunately, when he was replaced as the head of the ESA by President Bush’s former technology adviser we saw a radical right turn in the ESA’s policies, which is how we got to where things stand today.

AG: E3 is a publicity event on an impressive scale for the game industry. Is there an event out there big enough to replace E3?

JP: The funny thing about e3 is that it is sort of an anachronism. More and more game companies have been pulling out of E3 not because of any SOPA related issues, but simply because the return on investment isn’t there. Like with 3D graphics, major companies got into an arms race over who had the largest and most impressive booth at E3. So, over time, the cost of having a booth that would actually get noticed at E3 ballooned to the point where it really wasn’t worth the price. This, coupled with the explosion in internet use meant that companies had a lot more efficient ways to get their products noticed and known.

So, is there an event that will take over for E3? I don’t think so. I think we’ll see other things just as grand on a different scale, like MAGFest or hybrid events like Gamescom, take its place as the appropriate event for this age in gaming and the change in game culture. I believe you saw the first steps in this direction a few years back when they tried to drastically scale down E3.

AG: The recently formed League For Gamers, formed in part by Mark Kern of Red 5 Studios, claims to be an organization “open to both developers and games.” Do you know much about the intentions of LFG? Can they balance the business interests of the developers with those of the consumer? Is it an organization built around this singular issue, or do they hope to be a more consumer/industry rival to the ESA?

JP: I really don’t know too much about it, but it’s my hope that it becomes an advocacy organization for the consumer; it’s high time we had one.

AG: Many game journalists seem to be resentful of this call to action. Dennis Scimeca, a freelance journalist for many large publications tweeted, “Working journalists have much to lose by not attending E3 over a boycott which arguably will do -nothing- to hurt the ESA./Some, not all of the people asking journalists to boycott E3 have *nothing* at stake by not attending E3. Having trouble squaring that.” Ben Kuchera, recently hired for Penny Arcade, wrote “I’m going to attend E3 because it would be a disservice to readers not to, but I’m still going to take action in more direct ways.” Do game journalists have a responsibility to take action in the community, or should they, as Stephen Totilo (editor at Kotaku) put it, “cover protest movements but not be a part of them”? If boycotting E3 is out of the question, what “more direct” action can consumers ask them to take?

JP: I don’t know if it’s many games journalists or simply Dennis being very loud. I’ll confess, I’m a little biased here as he was incredibly rude not only to me and everyone else on the video, but also to the folks at Penny Arcade, who should have been no target of his ire.

In our case, his journalism was remarkably sloppy. He knew nothing about us and even said he couldn’t find a way to contact us (and so he tried to bait the guys at PA instead) even though we have contact info attached to every video… bah, but it doesn’t matter. Here I am falling into the trap.

You know what: you’ve asked, and you’ve asked in a way I respect. It’s a good question that deserves an answer, so:

As far as I go, I make the majority of my money by running a design consulting firm. I do all our business development and get most of our clients by going to conventions. I would have attended E3, and there is a financial cost for me to not do so. As to the rest, I respect Ben and Stephen very much. I don’t think one does a disservice to the community by not attending E3. After all, it’s not like a lot of revelatory exclusives come out of E3.

Every site simply puts up the same content because that’s what the companies provide. So either nearly identical coverage will be easily available to your community through other sources, or you’ve made a real impact and developers/publishers are going to have to get that info out anyway through other channels.

That said, I know Ben is passionate about the people he writes for, and so I say do what your heart tells you. I’m certainly never going to hold it against him that he disagrees with me.

Stephen’s point is interesting. It’s an attitude I have a lot of respect for and I can certainly concede that he’s probably in the right on this one. Here, though, I have to follow what I believe in. To me you simply have to ask “At what point does my objectivity as a journalist become of less value to society than my ability to speak for a large group of people about what I know, in my heart of hearts, is right?”.

For me, it was SOPA. I’ve read and reread the bill and all I could see was this crashing end to what has perhaps been one of the most startling and productive waves of innovation in human history. I couldn’t let that happen without a fight.

AG: The ESA has recently rescinded its support of SOPA in a public statement. It stated, “Although the need to address this pervasive threat to our industry’s creative investment remains, concerns have been expressed about unintended consequences stemming from the current legislative proposals.” Considering the timing of this statement (Editor’s note: The statement was released two days after SOPA was shelved), do you believe the ESA will continue to not support similar legislation in the future? What does this mean for the E3 boycott?

JP: I honestly believe we had an effect. By we, I don’t mean the five people who appeared in that video. I mean the tens of thousands of people in the gaming community who fought to help see that this bill would never come to be law and, in turn, asked the ESA not to support it. After all, without that, even with the death of the bill, you wouldn’t have a statement of this nature from the ESA.

From here, I would just say what I’ve said above: follow your conscience. If you believe the message has gotten across, go. If you feel there’s a statement you have to make by not going, don’t go. I think both these things are right. Personally, I won’t be attending: not because I think we need to boycott at this point, but because I feel as though I made a promise to all the people who helped make sure we didn’t need one; I feel I owe them at least that.

AG: What do you think is the biggest take-away from the SOPA/PIPA protests, or the protests against the ESA? Will companies and politicians start taking the concerns of consumers more seriously?

JP: Got to dash, but off the cuff, I think the biggest take away is that democracy works; it’s different in a post internet world, but it still works.

 

Again, I would sincerely like to thank James for this Q&A. He has been one of the most interesting and sincere people I have spoken to, and his answers were superb. Make sure to watch today’s Extra Credits on Penny Arcade’s PATV. It’s an in-depth look at SOPA with mentions about ACTA: the EU’s SOPA-like agreement getting signed Thursday.

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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