The tiny consumer pressure group known as FairPlay, of which this reporter was a part, fought two bitter and hard publicity campaigns in the early 2000s, both pitting a small handful of individuals against gigantic global entertainment industries.

Huge amounts of attention were generated, with front-page stories in broadsheet newspapers, national TV and radio coverage and interviews, and countless website features. The effectiveness of the campaigns have been debated at length and over several years, but in these terms alone the reaching of many millions of readers, listeners and viewers was a remarkable result in its own right.

A third campaign was conceived and prepared (the initial drafts can be seen on the preceding page), but was never executed. The "Consumers=Criminals" campaign didn't see the light of day because it was going to be a lot of trouble and expense, and after the vast amount of hatemail from the public that the previous two campaigns had attracted for the organisers, it really didn't seem worth it. Consumers seem to be aggressively determined to be ripped off and taken for mugs by greedy, cynical businesses, and hey, at the end of the day who were we to interfere?

But the two campaigns FairPlay did run were nothing if not eye-opening experiences, and in reality achieved all we could ever have hoped to achieve. The game-pricing one caused a massive stir, gained more media coverage for the subject than anyone could have dreamed, and genuinely gave the games industry a massive fright. You only have to look at the weight of scorn and bile that was hurriedly poured on it to see just how scared they were.

Was the campaign a factor in GAME's catastrophic share-price collapse, whose timing mirrored the campaign almost to the hour? There's no way of ever knowing for sure. But the fact is that videogaming has never been cheaper than it is now, and whether by coincidence or otherwise the big slide started at almost the exact same moment FairPlay1 did.

Now you'd have to be an idiot not to be able to pick up AAA games discounted to half the supposed retail price within a month of release, or even on the day of release, and there are all manner of ways of playing brilliant games on current-gen formats for  (literally) pennies, whether it be through the App Store or Xbox Indies or PSP Minis.

And amazingly enough, the people selling those games are doing rather nicely out of it. iPhone games selling at an average of under 1 are generating BILLIONS of dollars for Apple and publishers, and hefty amounts of profit. Cheap games make money, and quality doesn't have to be sacrificed to do it.

As for the fruit-machine campaign, that succeeded beyond our hopes. Getting no-win gambles outlawed completely was always an optimistic aim for a couple of blokes taking on a multi-billion-pound industry, but having the new warning notices put on every machine that used the fake "gambles" was a real and tangible achievement. I still get a little thrill every time I go into a pub and see a fruity with one of "our" warnings on it, at least letting players know what they're up against.

(The introduction of the warnings also destroyed the arguments of the detractors who repeatedly claimed that the lose-lose gambles simply indicated a failure in emulation and that the real-life machines didn't do such things.)

The FairPlay story had a strange footnote, providing an ironic twist ending. A couple of years after the fruit-machines campaign, the domain registered for the group expired, and was bought up by someone by the name of Mel Smallwood. This alert entrepreneur had noticed that the publicity generated by the campaign had led it to be the No.1 Google search result for "fruit machines".

With an admirable eye for a commercial opportunity, they left large chunks of the original pages intact (because removing them would have destroyed the search ranking), but cunningly inserted advert links for online casinos and the like into the text, fooling unwary readers. This carried on for over a year until it was spotted, and a polite notice pointing out the unlicensed use of copyright material saw the entire site deleted.

Then, even more strangely, a couple of weeks later it came back. The domain-jumper had completely redesigned the site, pinched a different Fairplay logo from somewhere else, and pasted all the text back into the new-look pages. And weirdly, whereas the first version had only copied some of the pages from the fruit-machine campaign, this one had lots of pages from the original videogame one too. I've mirrored it for posterity here. (Note especially the cunning way the "Latest News" page has had all the dates changed from 2002 to 2009 in an attempt to appear to be current.)

But anyway. This page has one final function to perform before we go, and that's to document some of the more interesting media coverage FairPlay attracted, but which didn't get the attention it deserved at the time as we battled through a storm of people asking for interviews and quotes and the like. Here's a small selection of the choicer snippets.

Fairplay UK - The folly of European socialism in the video game industry (from World Tech Tribune)
You've got to love Americans, and the adorably charming way they use the word "socialism" the way the rest of us say "paedophile ring". Calling us "New Labour" was a bit harsh, though.

The Reality
(from Penny Arcade)
See above. Still, you know you've made a mark when you get your very own Penny Arcade strip, from a country the campaign wasn't even running in.

FairPlay Campaign Calls For Game Buying Boycott
(from The Indie)
Indie retail was largely pretty supportive of the campaign, which was arguably quite surprising. This restrained and balanced short piece is a model of fair and professional reporting.

Video games biz hits back at rip-off claims
(from The Register)
This nasty, one-sided little hatchet-job, though (penned anonymously by GI.biz's Rob Fahey) shames The Register's normal respectable standards of journalistic integrity.

Students Demand Fairplay over Video Game Prices
(from Student Direct)
What I like about this one is the quote from the unfailingly stupid Miles Jacobsen of Sports Interactive:

"If the campaign works it's more likely to make more of the smaller companies go under and leave us with a non-creative software industry. And that would suck."

Yeah, because left to its own devices, the industry has really protected the smaller companies since 2002. And the arrival of ultra-cheap gaming (on the iPhone, XBLA, Xbox Indie etc) has really harmed the creativity of small games developers too. Man, how dumb do WE feel?

Revisionist or Radical?
(from Project Reality)
This guy didn't entirely agree with the campaign's aims or approach, but made an entirely admirable and thoughtful analysis of it and offered a possible alternative, which is more than most of our detractors did.

Is This Fair Play?
(from MCV)

The best thing about this piece is the following passage, which frankly justifies all our work by itself:

"Former Nintendo and Sony analyst Nick Parker, who worked with the MMC when it investigated the industry, was outraged."

Row Erupts Over Fairplay Campaign
(from Computer & Video Games)
And on a similar note, the steadily-increasing RAGING FURY of the then ELSPA general secretary Roger Bennett here is fun:

"But when charged with the accusation that games are a rip-off, Bennett finally lost patience.

"Look, let's get one thing absolutely straight," he ranted."


So that was FairPlay. Sometimes "a bunch of lunatics from the internet" (source: MCV November 2009) offering up a few simple truths is all it takes to cause a kerfuffle whose ramifications are still being felt and discussed the best part of a decade later. As a wise man once said:

"Had I even suspected then the truly horrifying suffering and amazing loss of life that would be caused by our well-meaning enterprise, I'd have done it anyway. Only more so."

- Stuart Campbell
 Media Initiator, FairPlay, 2002-2004
 

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