Today, representatives of Electronic Arts and Epic Games gave evidence to Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. It was something of a spectacle, not least for exposing once again how woefully unprepared our politicians are for this conversation. It wasn't that the four games industry representatives had the best answers in the world: indeed, at times, they were flailing. But it seems like not one of our designated public representatives can be bothered to try something out before pontificating on it.
The focus was overwhelmingly tabloid-driven scare stories. The Daily Mail was referenced, alongside an inaccurate account of the current state of play in Belgium/The Netherlands with regards to regulation, and it was all topped off with some frankly bizarre claims about both Fortnite and FIFA's Ultimate Team game mode (where players buy-stroke-earn 'packs' of players to take part in basically fantasy football). The games were compared to illegal drugs, they were compared to casinos, and the recent issue of 'gaming addiction' was presented as a fact of life rather than the World Health Organisation (WHO) identifying a small subset of people who suffer from a particular disorder.
It might seem like I'm coming over as something of an industry apologist here. In fact it's the opposite: I am all for holding these companies' feet to the fire, and our government making informed decisions about future legislation and regulation. This? This was like the various MPs (and their researchers) had browsed reddit for a few hours, read the first few scare stories that came up after a Google search, and were completely unprepared to drill-down into the real issues.
But don't take my word for it. If you're a masochist you can watch the multiple-hour session below. If you're somewhat sane, then I've transcribed some of the choice exchanges below (Direct link).
The Electronic Arts representatives were Shaun Campbell, UK country manager, and Kerry Hopkins, vice president of legal and government affairs. From Epic there was Matthew Weissinger, director of marketing, and Canon Pence, the company's general counsel.
The committee began with a bit of nonsense around Prince Harry's recent comments, but the early theme was the idea of harmful levels of engagement, and whether EA and Epic had done any research in these areas. Rather unbelievably, both companies claimed they hadn't investigated such things (not the only implausible claim that the reps would make).
"We do not have anybody in the company who's a monetisation specialist," said Weissinger. "What we do have are people in charge of curating our item shop..." Note the use of 'in the company' - most F2P consultants work freelance. When pushed, Weissenger added that Epic did think about the issue, but "we've not commissioned scientists to go and study it."
After this the questioning moved onto the companies' knowledge of the age profile of people who play the game.
"We don't [collect that information]" said Weissenger. "We only collect info that's necessary around the game as a service."
But there are restrictions on age access to certain aspects of the game?
"There's a distinction between delivery mechanism [...] so if you're on PlayStation you create a PlayStation account and everything goes through Sony, so they're not engaging with us in that case. Unless you have an Epic account," said Weissenger, "we know very very little about you as a PS account holder."
This as well as frequent references to parental controls was characterised as shifting responsibility to parents, which is one of few times that the industry suits started to squirm. Because it's true: parental controls are a part of the solution, and very important, but they are far from the magic bullet when it comes to issues around very young players and monetisation.
"Instead I would characterise it as we provide tools and support tools that allow players to make decisions and provide information," said Weissenger, before adding that "for a game as mass and broad as Fortnite... there may be players who access systems where controls have not been set up."
Here it's time to take a breath and flag up the biggest problem with the DCMS committee. As soon as the industry reps mentioned something like PlayStation accounts, these then had to be explained in some detail to a roomful of questioners who should already know the basic facts. Not one of these MPs knew that you can't set up a PlayStation account unless you're 18, and the parent then creates a sub-account for a child, something that had to be explained by EA's Kerry Hopkins. This is fundamental when you're discussing age controls, not an irrelevance.
Nevertheless, the MPs were on the question of age like a dog with a bone. Epic's Canon Pence said that "it's our intention to collect the minimal amount of player data that we need." This was a pattern with the Epic reps' answers: the company emphasised again and again the low amount of information it had, and sought, about individual accounts.
As Ian Lucas MP then replied, in one of the rare spicy moments: "I'm surprised you've given that answer Mr Pence, because I think it's important to know the age of players [...] We're the House of Commons, this is exactly the place to discuss the issue [and] we have a responsibility to put in place laws to protect, for example, children."
Kerry Hopkins allowed in this regard that the DCMS's recent White Paper on Online Harms "is a good starting point [but] I don't believe the White Paper is there yet." Or in lawyer talk, nice try.
Canon Pence was then asked if Epic believes that Fortnite being addictive to younger and older players is a valid concern, or whether he would refute those claims. He wavered a little before making some strong points.
"I know it's highly compelling and engaging and people get very excited [...] there is a way to have an unhealthy level of engagement so I'm sure there are people who have an unhealthy level of engagement there [...] I wouldn't say [someone who is worried] is wrong about what they state."
"As a company we really care about our playerbase and our rep as a company," continued Pence. "That's not a thing we do in isolation [...] it's a thing we're willing and happy to have ongoing dialogue about. We don't have a sort of static position on that exactly. I do think it's unfair to put a game company that has a very limited relationship with an end user... to ask them to comment on the mental health of an individual player. That ought to be the domain of the medical profession."
To his credit, Pence – who was fairly good value despite being a born lawyer – came back strongly on multiple occasions against the idea that companies like Epic have a 'duty of care' to players: "That feels like far too broad a question... should there be a duty of care? What would that duty imply? [...] there are already existing obligations that aren't really up for discussion... ought there to be something between existing laws or regulation and some extreme version of walking into someone's house every night and asking how they're doing?"
Unsurprisingly things moved onto addiction, the WHO's relatively recent classification of gaming disorder, and whether the companies accepted this and had acted based on this classification. Should Epic care?
"I think the use of the term addiction unfortunately separately masks the passion that our players have," said Weissenberg, "the joy they get from playing our game, personally I think it is mis-characterisation to call that addiction."
"I do think that companies, good companies will care about their customers," added Pence. "So in the abstract non-legal sense yeah I think we should care [ but] to say I think this person is probably playing too much... I think that's a difficult one because I don't know how to define 'too much'. How much is too much for following football matches?"
As the committee pointed out, following football matches or reading books is not defined as a disorder by the WHO.
"I don't think it's fair to say that gaming is a disorder," responded Pence.
At this point things got a bit ludicrous. One of the reasons this committee was so profoundly unimpressive was a desire to draw sensationalist comparisons that, on the most cursory scrutiny, fall apart. Following the above answer, Simon Hart MP compared the games industry to the drinks industry, and how that had been regulated to encourage more responsible drinking. These are simply different social issues, and implying that 'gaming addiction' was somehow on-par with alcoholism (not least, given how little it's been studied) felt like this session's intellectual low point.
But wait! Even more ludicrously, developing games was later compared to a company making a harmful drug. Yep: FORTNITE IS CRACK OMG! Is this really the level of knowledge and engagement we expect from our elected representatives in 2019? The questions felt like they'd mostly done a quick google, read a few articles, and taken everything they saw at face value. No wonder Brexit's such a mess.
Anyway back on-topic. Hart later aligned Prince Harry's opinions with the WHO, which is unutterably craven but also quite funny (to be fair, Harry probably knows more about Fortnite than him at least).
Then we had the prize dunce of the day, Brendon O'Hara MP, who intended to ask about the ethics of loot boxes and the situation in Belgium/The Netherlands, but hadn't done any real research and was easy meat for Kerry Hopkins who knew the details inside-out, despite her cringeworthy re-naming of "loot boxes" as "surprise mechanics." At least she had a case to answer with FUT, however: when O'Hara put the same question to Epic, the simple response was that "Fortnite doesn't have 'surprise' mechanics." Well Mr O'Hara, I've criticised some of your colleagues for using Google, but at least they managed that.
Then came the exchange of the day:
Clive Efford MP: "Is it possible to disable text messaging in Fortnite?"
Weissenger: "Do you mean in-game chat?"
Efford: "No. Text messaging."
Weissenger: "It's not possible to text message within Fortnite."
Efford: "The info I have is you can switch off the in-game chat but not the text messaging."
Weissenger: "As part of our parental controls you can control what access any player has."
Efford: "They can both be switched off?"
While this is a painful exchange to read, it highlights one thing. That despite being an elected representative with legislative responsibilities for our industry, Efford couldn't be bothered to spend 15 minutes playing or even watching a game of Fortnite. His line of questioning was based entirely on second-hand knowledge and woefully inaccurate terminology.
Efford then went on to give Epic's reps the opportunity to expand on the development of Fortnite, which of course they did at length, describing the holistic and organic process by which this modern miracle came into being (yes I am joking).
He further went on to claim that addictive play mechanics could be built-in to games to ensure players would get addicted... as if he was talking about a food additive rather than a creative product. Just add this element to your game and you'll have 250 million players! Maybe Tencent should hire this dude.
After the division bell temporarily suspended the session, everyone returned for some more pootling around the notion of addiction. One might think that some sort of medical expert might be useful in such a context, but instead we got Giles Whatley MP who, to his credit, at least knew what a CD-ROM was:
"Now we have open-ended gaming, the issues that we've established quite clearly of addiction, we had a young man before us on this committee who was an undergraduate and managed to play 32 hours straight [...] a 9 year old girl who wet herself playing Fortnite [...] clearly the games industry has developed massively since those days of the CD-ROM and clearly regulation is behind the curve [...] you're creating a fun game and everything but inadvertently you're creating a monster. In the future are you going to take corporate responsibility over duty of care? So that in the future we can safeguard the vulnerable."
"I certainly acknowledge that there's more the industry can do," replied Pence. "We ourselves on the Epic side do and have made improvements there and I anticipate continuing to do so both for ourselves and with other industry groups."
And the idea of duty of care?
"As any lawyer ought I have to understand what I'm signing up to before I sign up to it but certainly I can say we as company do care [...] I do acknowledge we have room to grow there. I wouldn't presume that you wouldn't be able to come up more questions there in the future."
"I don't think we can agree to say that games are addictive," added Hopkins, "and I don't believe the WHO definition uses the words 'addiction' or refers to games ads being addictive
This is a slight sleight-of-hand. The WHO definition may not include those exact words but it undeniably describes addictive tendencies (as the committee chair pointed out), and so Hopkins expanded.
"What it doesn't say is that games are inherently addictive – it says some people have a disorder. They said it was something a doctor would need to diagnose. It's a new designation and the industry does have a responsibility to follow... I would also say it's a changing industry and we're trying to change with it."
"I would tell you EA is already a very responsible company [...] We aren't able to go out an diagnose individuals, we aren't able to go to their house and advise them on how they play."
The conversation moved on to a Daily Mail report on a school in Cornwall which had taken it upon itself to warn children about Fortnite, and the risk of predators using it to contact and communicate with children. Unfortunately this got bogged down when it became clear the committee had trouble distinguishing between an AI program that could potentially identify nuance in language, and a simple 'banned words' list of the kind we've been familiar with for decades.
That stood for this 'grilling' as a whole. There were certainly uncomfortable moments here for the industry representatives, but through a combination of legalese, evasion, and having to explain basic concepts to a bunch of people who had clearly not prepared properly... both EA and Epic emerged not just unscathed but, for anyone watching it, looking like the ones that were schooling a bunch of MPs.
The DCMS members are boastful. One made several references to the fact he was a lawyer. Another said rather grandly "this is the House of Commons" for no really good reason. Not one of them seems to have taken the time to play Fortnite or FIFA, and it shone through various lines of questioning that, essentially, got nowhere and told us very little.
Does our industry need regulation, particularly with regards to chance mechanics and personal data and safeguarding children? Absolutely. The fact that this group will ultimately be responsible for regulatory recommendations should fill every parent in the country with dread: because not one of these MPs was in command of the detail, not one seemed to have even a broad understanding of contemporary monetisation techniques and, most damningly, not one of them seems to have bothered to try learning about the topic.
Would you trust the DCMS to protect your children from rapacious digital corporations? Fair enough, but I wouldn't trust them to watch my kid for ten minutes while I went to the shops.