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Steve Augustino, a partner at Kelley, Drye, Collier & Shannon, deals with game issues associated with telecommunications, so he has a lot to say about the legal and political issues surrounding the modern game industry. We chatted with him about his thoughts on these issues, and he believes that there are three vices and one virtue that the game industry deals with, but maybe not in quite the way that they should.
Vice 1 - Lawmakers and games: When the law and gaming are said in the same sentence, inevitably everyone thinks about violence in video games and the legislation that many states and the Federal Congress have attempted to pass. Augustino thinks that this legislation is largely ignored by members of the casual games industry who believe that the laws won’t affect them, but he feels that legislation does affect the industry and they shouldn’t be ignored.
On the other hand, Augustino thinks that political circles largely ignore casual games when they attempt to pass legislation, thinking that violent video games are the sum total of the video game industry. Augustino believes that the industry needs to get the message out that gaming is much more than just violent first person shooters or horror games, but includes family-oriented casual games.
Vice 2 - Gambling and games: The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, passed into law in 2006, is another political issue of the game industry that has made a lot of news. This act prohibited financial institutions from sending or receiving financial transactions from sites involved with unlawful Internet gambling. The question has now become, just what is considered gambling?
Augustino says that most state laws define a game of chance as one where skill predominates in some way in playing the game. But because this definition fluctuates between states, many skill-based game companies that deal in microtransactions, such as King.com and SkillCity, hire teams of lawyers just to make certain that their games are legal in each state the sites are available.
Vice 3 - Addiction: The American Medical Association met recently to decide whether to include video game addiction as a diagnosable disease. The controversy that ensued resulted in the AMA backing away from this idea and declaring that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence that video game addiction was a disease.
Augustino says that the controversy is not over, and the AMA has stated that they will be studying the issue over the next few years, and meeting again in 2012 to determine whether to revise their decision.
Augustino doesn’t believe that any game publisher or developer has yet been held legally accountable for the actions of an individual accused of a crime associated with so-called video game addiction, but feels that if the issue is not countered, the industry will start to see “creeping legislation” on the number of hours that a gamer can play a video game. Publishers and developers might be required to build time limits into their video games, or negative effects occurring after a certain period of time. He thinks that the industry needs to take an active role in determining the reality of whether video game addiction is scientifically valid.
Virtue - Net Neutrality: The ability of Internet providers to have an impact on the way that we can use the Internet is the debate of net neutrality. Traditionally, this debate has been between major telecommunications companies and big Internet companies, such as Google and Yahoo.
Augustino feels that the game industry has not been as active as they should be on this issue, especially considering that a large proportion of games, especially of casual games, are available on the Internet. This is also an issue with wireless devices, especially mobile phones. Mobile phones are usually locked to a particular provider, and often times only certain functions or features of the phone can be used according to the provider’s terms of service.
The FCC and FTC have moved tentatively in the direction of wireless neutrality by recognizing the issue and deciding to study it more thoroughly. More recently, the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing to examine the practice of locking wireless devices to a single carrier, using the iPhone as an example.
Augustino believes the government will move slowly in this issue. But he thinks that the signs to watch for are exclusive deals and pay for traffic arrangements between providers and the network owners.
D. Omaha Sternberg is the producer and host of the iGame Radio podcast.