With every single gaming scandal that breaks I see the same thing: threats to boycott a company until they change policy X or to lobby them until they release game Y. I can’t fault people for this, if it’s done in the right way and it’s for an issue or game you feel passionately about then people should feel free to take action.
Sometimes groups can even become well organised, that’s the power of the internet.
The problem with protests like this is always the same though: lack of exposure. It’s not even a lack of exposure of the protests, it’s a lack of exposure of the issues. This isn’t the fault of the groups or even the gaming media, the countless number of words that have been written about issues like DRM and microtransactions make this clear.
No, the problem is one of isolation. While interest in games has certainly grown and some websites clock literally millions of unique visitors a month, you have to wonder how many of those are really engaged in gaming news and how many are just looking for the latest information on the next Call of Duty DLC, or whatever game is their particular vice.
Although I know a lot of our readers are very engaged in what’s going on day to day in the gaming world, there are many more people who self identify as “gamers” and who pick up games on a reasonably regular basis without grabbing hold of every nugget of information. They simply don’t know about concerns about a game’s DLC or why a title’s lack of certain online features has people riled up, nor do they really care about it.
Perhaps you think they should care, that they should take an interest in the future of something they love. That’s probably true, particularly at a time when the industry is in such a period of flux and change. However, you only have to look at the number of people who aren’t engaged in politics or major global issues to understand that the problem isn’t unique to games, many people are content to go through life without knowing the ins and outs of things that have genuine importance.
I’m certainly guilty of this. The most significant conflict since the Second World War has probably been the constant rumbles from the Middle East, and I know almost nothing about it. I mean I know that the region’s basically a powder keg waiting for someone with a match, and that it’s been an exceptionally tense region for millennia, but that’s where my knowledge stops really. I don’t know any of the significant aspects of the region’s politics or anything about the religious variations and the way they align with or against each other, even though more and more it looks like I really should.
When ignorance of significant issues like these is widespread can we blame people for not really understanding why they should care about SimCity’s DRM or server issues? Their ignorance may come back to bite them when they can’t play the game they’ve plumped down money for, but it should be obvious why they weren’t amongst those rallying against the issues before release – they simply didn’t know such issues existed.
Until something changes and people become informed about these issues, until enough people really start to care about these types of problems, then it’s unlikely that a boycott will ever become powerful enough to really damage a company and force them to change. Gaming coverage in mainstream media is getting better, particular when it becomes a consumer rights issue, but it’s almost always post-release when something’s gone wrong, it’s rarely pre-release.
Of course I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try and confront issues in games that you have a problem with, it’s certainly better than sitting back and doing nothing. All I query is the way in which it’s approached. Boycotts are complex things – they’re hard to arrange, and it’s even harder to prove are having an effect on a game’s sales.
No the way to create real change is via legislation and regulation, although that’s not an easy route either. Pushing a political representative to even draft legislation on an issue can take years, and then years more for it to move through the whole political process. However, even gathering support for regulation or a code of conduct for video games publishers and developers can effect real change, it can make the industry nervous that they’ll be fined or lose revenue through increased regulation. It forces them to engage with consumers, and that’s when you really start to get somewhere.
The thing is, whatever approaches advocates take will take time to be effective. It will be years or decades before there’s a viable solution, and that’s if we ever get to one. The other route is that we live with things for so long that they become the norm, that people stop rallying against them. I’m hoping we don’t travel down that road.