Is Electronic Arts really the worst company in America?

Oh this? No big deal, carry on! (Photo courtesy Mike Baird)

Oh this? No big deal, carry on. (Photo courtesy Mike Baird)

For the second year in a row, a reader poll from Consumerist.com has found Electronic Arts, a well-known and highly successful video game distributor, to be 2013’s “Worst Company in America” for the second year in a row. Much of this can be attributed to the rather severe backlash against Mass Effect 3, the third and final game in the wildly popular and critically acclaimed Mass Effect series, which many long time fans felt was severely lacking as a conclusion. The second major grievance consumers have lodged against EA concerns the recent release of the highly anticipated new SimCity game which came with a requirement for internet connectivity in order to be played at all. While it would be hard to deny that EA has been guilty of some questionable business practices that definitely make them a strong contender for worst video game company in America, but worst company in general? Not even close.

Granted, EA has consistently proven that they’re more concerned about profits and curtailing piracy than providing a good service to their customers – but they only do it because most people who have enough money to lay down $60 for a game will keep buying their games, and they know it. If gamers are so upset then they simply need to stop patronizing them; there are so many talented individuals and groups making games out there right now that EA does not have a monopoly on the industry by any means.

A $60 holocaust. The worst thing to ever happen to Americans since Twinkies were discontinued.

A $60 holocaust. The worst thing to ever happen to Americans since Twinkies were discontinued. Clearly.

That said, Electronic Arts is not even close to actually being the worst company in the US. Not when you’ve got companies like Exxon and British Petroleum (BP) creating man-made disasters and destroying ecosystems and communities because of negligence and corner-cutting that skirt the letter of the law. In the final bracket EA was up against Bank of America – who has become notorious for gambling with their customers’ money, losing it (and in the process causing that mortgage crisis in ‘08), and getting bailed out with taxpayer dollars so they can go and do it again – but in the “Worst Company” poll they lost to EA. Not even Carnival (another company in Consumerist.com’s bracket), which has been getting boat loads (pun intended) of bad press for the various ship malfunctions afflicting cruises and in some cases even stranding people. But Carnival pales in comparison to the worst of the worst – Coca Cola and Nestle who steal water rights out from under farmers all over the world, or Monsanto, who is trying to control what those farmers are growing (and what you’re eating), to name just a few.

Electronic Arts, to the best of my knowledge, has destroyed no ecosystems and flooded zero communities with tar sand oil from their poorly built and maintained pipelines. As far as I know they also had no hand in a practice by private banks to hand out mortgages like candy to anyone who could fill in their name on a form to later foreclose on them because they were unable to weather the housing collapse. They’ve also probably not contaminated thousands of miles of water table all over the world. What they are guilty of is publishing some disappointing games and being a bit extreme in their counter-piracy measures – if you don’t like it, don’t buy their games (I don’t). Video games are a luxury item; mortgages mean the difference between a home and homelessness. The Gulf of Mexico will never be the same and the loss of natural life will likely take decades to measure. But I guess a bad video game ending is so much worse, right?

Nothing EA has done has ever been visible from space. (Courtesy NASA)

Nothing EA has done has ever been visible from space. (Courtesy NASA)

So why was Electronic Arts singled out and chosen over all the other companies listed in the bracket (many of which weren’t the really bad ones I’ve mentioned)? Well, the common explanation given in this circumstance is that the communities on sites like 4chan and Reddit lead a campaign to get people to go to Consumerist.com and vote for EA as an act of retaliation, for the (let’s face it, relatively minor) grievances I’ve already noted. But clearly there’s a real kernel of outrage against EA – that seems to supersede the outrage against truly offensive companies, because this is not the first time we’ve seen such a negative response to an entertainment company in the US – remember a few years ago when Netflix changed their subscription price by a few dollars?

It seems clear that the American public has an incredible knack for ire and outrage – but seem to exercise it only when it’s an issue of immediate concern in their lives (or as perceived that way). There is a very strong culture of selfishness that is not especially new but in more recent times has, I would argue, become much more observably obtuse and ubiquitous in the United States.

American consumers are more focused and genuinely upset over EA’s video game’s ending than about a company like Monsanto which has made no secret of their efforts to manipulate and control much of the world’s agriculture by genetically engineering and patenting seeds (not only socially questionable but extremely dangerous, scientifically). So what’s the difference here? Though the latter’s acts do end up directly affecting the angriest video gamers, it’s not as immediate or as obvious. And it’s a substantially more difficult problem to tackle.

In this country we’ve allowed ourselves to nurture and develop two incredibly dangerous attitudes: A righteous commitment to the self even at the cost of others and a strong aversion to difficulty. We see this in the way economic inequality has been allowed to widen and the ways we’ve been just fine with allowing worker salaries to match neither their bosses’ salary growth nor match the rising costs of living – while shouting “moocher” in the faces of those who struggle because of it. Instead of solving these hard problems so many Americans would rather not even discuss them and instead focus their ire on something inconsequential like…a video game. People starve in the streets (a very solvable problem), our government engages in wars in every corner of the globe, business interests allow the poisoning of entire echo systems and the flooding of communities – but truly Electronic Arts is the worst offender here.

EA puts copy protection on their games. Monsanto puts them in their seeds. (Photo by fishhawk)

EA puts copy protection on their games. Monsanto puts them in their seeds. (Photo by fishhawk)

There is so much energy and organizing effort in the country and so often it is exerted on projects like punishing who don’t “satisfy” us – not those gouging us, or exploiting us, or slowly poisoning us. I don’t know whether to blame the existing activist groups for being so incredibly uninspiring and failing to get their messages out or simply the ubiquitous American apathy (probably an unpleasant combination of both), but many of us need to take stock.

Next time you’re watching an address from President Obama and instead of finding outrage over what he says, you’re more upset that he’s confused the Vulcan mind-meld with the Jedi mind-trick, go ahead and slap yourself for me. Because you need to wake up. Yes Star Trek and Star Wars are great but they’re fiction. There are real issues to focus on.

There’s a lot of people who will tell you that it’s the government or the media’s fault so many Americans can’t focus on the real issues, and while there may be some stock in that argument, there are plenty who don’t seem to be needlessly distracted – I’m not, you’re not (I hope) – and so choose to be. Distractions and entertainment are important; I’m not asking people to sit around fretting all day. But when that’s all your life is – your highs, your lows (and once in a while express distaste with the truly offensive American companies…often when it is far too late, or even over misinformation) – things are going to end up exactly as they are, with big business doing as they please and making government ineffectual.