Asked to describe a typical video gamer, you might imagine a young man planted on a couch, face bathed in the blue light of a computer or tv screen while he feverishly manipulates a console with Doritos-dusted fingertips.
The characterization is irresistible, and for many it’s as fixed as concrete. But Stanley Pierre-Louis ’92 would kindly ask you to reconsider what you think you know.
As CEO and president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), Pierre-Louis can point to surprising facts about video gaming, which has evolved over the decades from dorm-room Pong tournaments to a global phenomenon. For example, he notes, more people today play video games than baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, and football combined. According to the ESA, 46 percent of U.S. video gamers are women, and just as many 50+-year-olds play video games as do people under the age of 18.
Statistics don’t tell the entire story. Multiplayer “esports” competitions routinely sell out arenas, the events accompanied by as much frenzy and pageantry as a Final Four basketball tourney. Top professional players can earn millions annually, sometimes before they’re out of their teens. ESPN reports on esports on its website, and the Overwatch League streams its games to more than 100 countries. Video gaming is under serious consideration for inclusion in future Olympics.
That man on the couch is no solitary figure — he’s a movement. Pierre-Louis puts it another way.
“Our industry has become the dominant form of entertainment in the United States.”
Pierre-Louis was encouraged to look at the big picture when he came east to Clark from his home in Columbus, Ohio.
While he was performing as principal double bass player in the Clark Chamber Orchestra, then-Dean of Multicultural Affairs Catherine Maddox-Wiley urged him to take fuller advantage of the opportunities Clark had to offer. Pierre-Louis went at it full tilt: becoming vice president of the Fiat Lux Society, earning membership in Phi Beta Kappa, joining a band, and managing the orchestra. He pursued his degree in history, completed an internship in Washington, D.C., and spent his junior year at the London School of Economics.
After Clark, Pierre-Louis enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School, which led to a position clerking for a federal appellate judge in Cincinnati, followed by a position at a law firm. (His brother, Lloyd, a 1994 Clark graduate, would also pursue a law career.)
But lawyers need a specialty. For Pierre-Louis, it was time to focus.
“This was the first time I had to reckon with what I wanted to be as a professional,” he recalls. “I had to make some choices about where my career would go.”
Reflecting on his music background, Pierre-Louis sought to align his personal passions with a legal practice centered on entertainment and technology. “I remember taking some time to think through what I was like before I went into law school,” he says. “I started to look for opportunities to express my interests through the law.”
With the Clark University ethos as his guide — he describes it as “hustling for good” — Pierre-Louis represented clients looking for fair compensation for their artistic endeavors, like a young playwright who was marketing his new work. He also did pro bono work for an author’s widow.
Pierre-Louis eventually went to work for the Recording Industry Association of America, representing record labels in their legal actions against websites like Napster, which were making copyrighted works available without authorization. From there, he worked for Viacom for eight years, where he litigated legal, policy, and intellectual property matters for its subsidiaries like MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and Paramount Pictures, among others.
Pierre-Louis’ umbrella widened further when he accepted the position of general counsel for the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group that lobbies and advocates on behalf of the booming video and computer game industry. The position meant a move from New York to Washington, D.C. It also provided him the opportunity to become a member of the newly formed Washington, D.C., chapter of the President’s Leadership Council, an initiative to engage Clark alumni in major cities across the country.
In May 2019, the Entertainment Software Association announced Pierre-Louis’ promotion to president and CEO. Four months later, he was hit with a career-defining challenge: Back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, left 29 people dead and scores injured. The attacks were quickly followed by a familiar political refrain blaming video games for fomenting a culture of violence that sparked the attacks.
Pierre-Louis monitored the press conferences, online takes, and op-eds with consternation. He knew that throughout U.S. history, lawmakers have scapegoated cultural touchstones like comic books, movies, rock ’n’ roll, and hip-hop music as societal threats. His organization vigorously refuted the narrative that the violence in video games had any connection with the horrific events in El Paso and Dayton. Pierre-Louis notes that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the ESA on this point in 2011 — a position, he adds, recently reaffirmed by the American Psychological Association.
“We buttressed our traditional message by demonstrating that video games sold in the U.S. are sold in every other country in the world, yet only the U.S. has a gun violence problem,” Pierre-Louis says. “As we continue to demonstrate this fact, policymakers can now have a counterpoint when video games are blamed for real-world violence.”
Have attitudes changed?
“I perceive policymakers as increasingly receptive to our message because they see the impact video games have on their daily lives,” he says. “They see it with their families, they see it with their friends, and many times they are themselves video game players.”
Leading the Entertainment Software Association is a daunting job. Its members include video game and software giants like Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Activision, Nintendo, and Sony Interactive Entertainment. The health of the $43.4 billion gaming industry relies in part on the trade association’s ability to successfully fight intellectual property battles, lobby lawmakers, and make decisions on behalf of the 164 million Americans who play video games on their consoles, computers, and mobile phones.
As the stakes grow, so do the complexity and potential rewards of the video game industry that the ESA supports.
A February piece in The New York Times Magazine titled “How to Make Billions in E-Sports” detailed the rise of “lifestyle” gamers, who compete in games like Fortnite and Call of Duty in arenas and on digital channels like YouTube and Amazon’s live-streaming service Twitch. Lifestyle players not only are exceptional at the gameplay, they also curate appealing personal brands that can build their fanbases into the millions. Seven-, even eight-figure earnings are becoming more common.
What video gamers earn is one thing, but the broader question of what video games are is another. A hobby for many, certainly. A job for some. Often a form of escape.
Yet the revolution that video games have undergone, both in technological and aesthetic sophistication, has shaped them into a distinct art form, Pierre-Louis contends.
“Our number-one priority is ensuring that policymakers and society writ large understand the value of this important artistic form of expression,” he says.
Stanley Pierre-Louis understands that his industry — at least its more flamboyant elements — will always be scrutinized in the public square given its reach and popularity. But he is also quick to champion the less-publicized use of video games in areas like conflict resolution, health care administration, and education by world-health organizations such as UNICEF and in American public schools (the learning game Minecraft is the biggest bestseller in history).
So what does the most powerful video gaming advocate in the nation play for his own enjoyment?
Pierre-Louis, who took a hiatus from gaming after high school, has returned to the ring, these days competing mostly against his teenage son.
“We are known to have Super Smash Bros. Ultimate battles on our Nintendo Switches,” he says with confidence that’s rare for a parent treading the virtual world — though understandable for someone who is immersed in it every day.