In recent months I've shed away my earlier shyness to discuss anything overtly political on this site. Originally it seemed like a frugal move, to keep my opinions as far from actually controversial issues as possible. But I broke that streak two years ago for the election (Jeez, it was really that long ago, huh?) and ever since then politics and entertainment have converged in unpredictable and oftentimes uncomfortable ways. And now that video games are on the political radar again something that hadn't been the case since the 2012 SOPA and PIPA cases its inevitable that we'd have to turn a tired, weary eye back to Washington for another few months, both because video games were blamed (again) for the mass shooting in Florida, but also because the FOR THE CHILDREN brigade have descended on the loot crate phenomenon.
To be honest, I'm not really worried about the former, even with Trumps meeting next week. Video games were just a number of scapegoats thrown out by right-wing politicians who don't want to upset their masters at the NRA. Not only will their lack of conviction fail to see anything done on the issue (we are far removed from the glory days of the old bogyman, Jack Thompson), but the kids still fighting their corruption wont long tolerate their attempts to shift the blame. And that's good. But the latter case has be a bit more concerned, but while I was dwelling on the issue in anticipation for writing about it, and the more I examined both parties the less interesting that discussion became.
Mainly, because its hard to really see a good guy on either side. As a gamer who hates loot boxes, there's pretty much no side I can decidedly root for. My hatred for loot boxes cannot be overstated, and yet, what politicians are proposing in Hawaii, where games that include such randomized elements be classified for 21+ audiences only, is a step way too far. It might be a satisfying, cathartic release to see Blizzard and other companies scramble to put their games back on store shelves (since the 21+ rating basically means retailers wont stock it), but in the end it would do far more damage than good. Particularly since the law could be expanded upon and it would set a terrible precedent for government interference in the creation of art, even if it is highly commercialized. And, there's no denying that video game companies at least think they need the extra income, so if there's no loot boxes, they'd either need a new system, or to just raise the price of games by 20 bucks for everyone.
So you'd think Id be rooting for the ESRB, then, and hoping that its recent half-measure to label all games that have some form of in-game purchase will satisfy legislators and prevent further action. And while I do honestly find that preferable to the other extreme I still don't like it. And not just because I hate loot boxes and think something needs to be done about them, but also because this whole mess has given me the uncomfortable reminder that the ESRB, at the end of the day, is effectively another lobbying group, like the ESA. It may have been pitched as a way to inform parents and protect children, but in reality, it exists exclusively to protect the industry from mean ol' Mr. Government. So it will take exactly however many measures they need to keep Uncle Sam off their backs, and not a thing more. Which is why, of course, it hesitated to point the finger explicitly at loot boxes, either when this controversy started or now.
I'm not rooting for either party. One is too extreme and misunderstands the medium. The other is a money-puppet that exists exclusively to enable the gaming industry to do whatever it wants. Its not so much being stuck between a rock and a hard place and being stuck choosing between an abusive dad and a wicked stepmother: both are evil, just, a different kind of evil. Stepmom might make you sleep in a cupboard and clean the house, but at least shes not screaming and beating you with her belt.
The problem with this analysis is that however accurate it is, it certainly puts every fight we gamers have ever had in a new, uncomfortable light. The aforementioned SOPA and PIPA was seen as a battle of the common man vs the evil IP holders at the ESA, MPAA, and RIAA, who were willing to trample free speech and content creation for the sake of stopping privacy. That was a fun narrative, a compelling one, but not an honest one. In truth, it was more a battle of Mozilla and Alphabet vs the IP holders. It was less about the rights of the customers and more about who would be earning the money, because web providers were able to make money off the content that SOPA and PIPA would have limited, which is why they bothered to get involved. Customers were important, but less as figures who could shift the momentum of the fight and more as volunteer pawns: things that Alphabet could hold up and tell congress we know you're it for the money, but you have to at least pretend to serve these guys, so take our money instead of the other guys money and you'll be doing right by these fellas.
Its a nihilistic and bleak outlook, but its not unwarranted: in fact, the same thing is happening with Net Neutrality. It obviously affects people, but the people don't matter: its a lobbying tug-of-war between Alphabet and Amazon and internet providers. Yes, there is one side that's objectively better than the other, and that's the side we support, but our support is more coincidental and convenient than anything. Its the money that speaks, all were really doing is standing behind it.
Same argument with the whole violent video games debate happening now. We can throw in our two cents, but its really the big wads being tossed around by the ESA vs the NRA that will determine what side wins.
And if we really stretch our imaginations, that's pretty much what all of modern life is: a series of picking whatever evil most floats your boat and hoping they decide to suck less this year. It basically defines the whole two-party representative democracy mess were in, where the people get to choose who gets in power but the party itself and whoever backs it financially gets to decide what their opinions and stances are. There are financial motivations behind (almost) every organization who is trying to change the world for better or for ill, and no matter what cause you back, at the end of the day, you're just lining someones pockets.
Am I saying that people are powerless?
I mean, kind of, yeah. The loot box controversy is about as close as we've gotten to having a genuine case of the people vs the industry, but to call it a controversy on par with SOPA/Net Neutrality just isn't right. Its a few concerned politicians suggesting bills and asking questions, and the industry gently pushing back and saying hey, don't worry about it, its all good. Its barely a scuffle, let alone a fight, and I very much doubt it would or should escalate beyond that point. And as far as the whole financial and government systems in the world at large, well, they're so bloated and unwieldy that untangling them would be nothing short of a mammoth feat: a feat that might very well lead to our ruin anyway, since so much of our economy is built on Randian philosophy (that men are only virtuous if they are true to their own ideals and values) that trying to separate it might just lead to collapse.
But while gamers might just be pawns in these big gambles for bigger paychecks, we don't have to be complacent in it. For one, there's no real shame of living in a lesser evil world, since its the only one we got, but for two, gamers have taken the intuitive in the past and come out stronger for it. Not only have we been able to cause industry giants like EA to reconsider positions they once held firmly (namely by voting with our wallets, because again, money is the only thing that talks in this whole world), but also by becoming our own force for good with things like the humble bundle and the Awesome Games Done Quick speed running charity events, which raise millions for charity with every single event. And yeah, that's more money, but at least there's no lesser evil in that equation: between cancer and not cancer, there's only one evil choice, and were working hard to beat it.
And as far as loot boxes go? As long as people stay mad and passionate enough about it, something will change sooner or later. The community might be a pawn, but remember, I said it was a WILLING pawn: which means if we choose to go against the person trying to use us, we can still kick them where it hurts. Bear that in mind when you think about what causes you want to support. We might not have the money we need to play the game, but were still more than enough to tip the scales.
And that's something money just cant buy.