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An industry outsider takes helm at ESA

Mike Gallagher takes the helm of the Entertainment Software Association — the trade group that represents video games — at a time of rapid growth and unprecedented prosperity in the industry.
Entertainment Software Association president Mike Gallagher.
Entertainment Software Association president Mike Gallagher.ESA

Mike Gallagher takes the helm of the Entertainment Software Association — the trade group that represents video games — at a time of rapid growth and unprecedented prosperity in the industry. But Gallagher had virtually no name recognition inside the industry. He’s a former assistant secretary of commerce in the Bush administration – an attorney who’s worked in telecommunications, both in the private and public sector.

Gallagher’s ascension to head the organization coincides with the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), which kicks off today in Santa Monica. In our Q&A with the new president, Gallagher talked about the show’s new format, replacing ESA founder and president Doug Lowenstein, and how he plans to respond to those who seek to link video games with offscreen violence.

You’ve been in the public sector for the much of your career, mostly as an advisor in telecommunications policy. How has that prepared you to the head of the trade group representing the video game industry?

Between my leadership in public policy and my experience in converging technology and building successful policy in converging technology environments — those two factors put me in a good spot to succeed at the ESA.

I’ve had great success building and leading teams where you convince policymakers about the value of what an industry brings, and help steer policy. ... My entire policy career has been focused on convergence. In going back to 12 years when you look at the Telecom Act [of 1996] when convergence wasn’t very well-defined — today we’re living it. The video game industry is on the cutting edge of convergence in the home. When you take gaming and you combine its artistry and its story-telling capability and its technology and its content with the communications platforms that are out there and becoming very robust…that’s a very exciting marketplace.

Why video games in particular? There are plenty of other industries that are experiencing this same convergence.

Personally, it’s because I play the games. I’m an enthusiast of this industry, not only on the policy side but on using the products. I have a passion for what these companies do.

The reason I came to the video game industry is because of opportunity. This industry is poised for very significant financial growth, very significant customer growth, and very significant technological growth. You look at the Wii, “Dance Dance Revolution,” Guitar Hero…we’re beginning to see as a new interface between the video game players and the device. Plus you’ve got Wi-Fi technologies, broadband technologies, high-definition and surround-sound…all of these elements are going to redefine entertainment for a significant portion of our country. An opportunity to be a part of that, and a leading part of that, was just too good to pass up.

The video game industry is really exploding. What do you think about the growth we’re experiencing and what we can expect in the next couple of years?

The growth of this market place should be determined by the genius of the products created by ESA’s member companies, and by the size of the marketplace around the world. Are we making great stuff that people want to play? And if the answer is yes, the growth will take care of itself, so long as the markets are open to protect and allow the growth of our product.

I think the domestic market has a tremendous amount of headroom. It’s the number one video game marketplace in the world and it’s going to stay that way for a long time.

I’d like to get back to policy. You were a part of the Bush administration, which has a strong hands-off policy in terms of government regulation on business. Do you think the video game industry has enough regulation?

In my view, the industry would be well-served with less regulation than it has now, but it has to make that compelling case to policy-makers to reach that goal. The unfortunate instances where we have the states going after the industry based on content — that energy is focused in a very destructive way for taxpayers because it’s unconstitutional.

Those energies would be better focused on working with the industry to help promote the ESRB, the most successful media ratings board as determined by the FTC. [I think] the government [should] ideally adopt policies that enhance the growth of the industry and brighten the prospects and the prosperity it can bring to the communities where it operates.

We also need to make sure that the government respects, values and enforces the investment that is made in developing these games.

Your predecessor, Doug Lowenstein, was the first and only president of the ESA until now.  How would you juxtapose Doug Lowenstein’s role and his term with what is needed from you? How will you be different?

It’s clear to me that Doug was a pioneer, but the job and task of a pioneer is different than those who come later — not that any one is better than the other. Doug obviously was very successful in getting this industry established, but now this industry is reaching a point of maturity, which requires different systems and meeting higher expectations than perhaps were required in years past.

This industry is the fastest growing entertainment medium in the country. During the time where I’m the head of the ESA, we should be in a position to be a leader when it comes to the entertainment medium and make sure that video games take on that role that they’ve earned by virtue of their success in the marketplace and the growth expected in the years ahead.

Games get knocked a lot, though. There are a lot of folks that want to place the blame on games for any ill that pops up, and I’m speaking specifically of incidents like Virginia Tech. How would you respond in the face of such criticism?

You have to look at the truth, and the truth is that video games have nothing to do with those false stereotypes, and it has everything to do with mass market entertainment that is extraordinarily pleasing to the American consumer.

The science is also clear that video games have nothing to do with violence in the real world. There are a number of studies that speak to that issue, so to me, it’s a false stereotype. And the really unfortunate thing is that it distracts from the other 92 percent of titles rated by the ESRB that fall into the E, E10-plus or T for teen category. The top-selling video games are puzzles and adventure games and not the first-person shooter titles that get unfairly singled out for criticism. And I say that as someone who personally plays all of those types of games, including M-rated titles. It’s my goal that we outgrow those false stereotypes.

Mr. Lowenstein was criticized for keeping a low profile in the face of that criticism. The industry as a whole doesn’t respond to that criticism — not usually, anyway. Why hasn’t industry been more effusive in its defense of itself?

I think that’s a stage of growth, and I think video games are coming out of that adolescent stage. It’s a natural part of a social phenomenon that’s interesting and captivating, but now we’re going to move out of that.

I intend to have a responsible, targeted, effective profile on [this] issue. I will be visible and I will be very clear and I will make the case about this industry and the good that it brings to the American consumer public, but I’m not going to be drawn into losing firefights with people who lack credibility or [with] the media looking to fill a sensationalized or overhyped segment of a news program.

Moving on to the big event — E3. What was behind the move to the smaller-sized event?

E3 is 13 years old, and after 13 years of a show that was getting bigger and bigger, a number of players said — why are we doing this? What are the goals and objectives and are we achieving [them?]

We’re putting the top leaders in a very accessible mode where the logistics are easier — previous shows had 60,000 people — and here, if we hit 3,000 it will be a success. You’ll be able to play game without standing in lines that are 10-15 people deep, and talk to the people that develop the games and those that are promoting them and make it a deeper experience for the media. But this is an experiment, and we’re looking to make it the best experience for the stakeholders that come.