Video Games Will Rot Your Brain

For Damon Watson, playing games is serious business

Published in 2004 Southern California Rising Stars — September 2004

Damon Watson is a video gamer. A guy you could trade Tomb Raider tips with. A guy whose thumbs likely display the flattened quality that comes from pressing the same button thousands of times. A guy who actually knows what Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Lords is. Got a good mental picture in your head of who he is and what he looks like? Surprise — he’s no pale, pimply-faced 13-year-old sitting in his parents’ darkened basement. Watson is a 33-year-old attorney recently of Bryan Cave in Los Angeles who has fused his love of the video game industry with his knowledge of the law to create a unique and successful practice. Talk about a high score.

Watson deals mainly in commercial law, but it wouldn’t be unfair to call him a video game lawyer. Keep that term in mind, because it’s probably one you’ll be hearing more often in the years to come. The video game industry has gone from the humble days of simple blips, bloops and beeps to bling bling — it’s a multibilliondollar business. That comes as little surprise to the children of the 1980s, many of whom grew up with the likes of Pac-Man, Pong and Frogger. Many of them never gave up their gaming hobby as they grew up (studies indicate the average age of today’s gamers is 18), and now have their own children, who — you guessed it — play video games. The ever-growing audience demands a bigger, better and more diverse selection of games, and thus the creation of video games has become a complex and gargantuan process. There are companies that develop games, companies that publish and distribute them, Hollywood talent and properties, and a near-constant influx of new software and hardware.

This is where Damon comes in. His job is to keep the wheels turning, put the contracts together and basically make it all work for his clients. Which clients? Well, he's not really allowed to say. Turns out that most of his work is pretty secret, so it comes as no surprise that Watson works on a lot of confidentiality agreements. “One of my clients might be a software company licensing their software. I do [video game] developer agreements with publishers; I copyright licenses with properties to incorporate them in video games. I also do wireless deals,” he explains. “I’m basically a commercial attorney — I can do a lot of things in this field.”

Even though many gamers would trade their joysticks to get the inside glimpse of the industry that Watson enjoys, he doesn’t see himself as some sort of video game rock star. “The average workday isn’t incredibly sexy,” he laughs, perhaps sensing that anyone with even a passing interest in games or technology isn’t buying it. “On a normal morning maybe I’ll go over a software license or a wireless video game deal that I need to review,” he continues. “Toward the afternoon I’ll do a client conference call to go over an agreement or review a contract.”

Watson may try to be modest, but there’s no hiding that his life isn’t all stacks of white paper. His connections in the industry are such that he’s managed to finagle his way into many trade shows, including this past May’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, in Los Angeles. E3 is an annual event where game developers and publishers converge to show off their upcoming titles and technology. It’s Shangri-La for gamers worldwide, and needless to say, it’s not easy to gain access to.

So how does one become a video game lawyer? A lifetime of gaming experience can’t hurt. “I’ve always played video games — my dad was a tech junkie,” Watson says. “We had a Pong console, which still works, and an Atari 2600.” Undoubtedly the envy of the neighborhood, Watson also was lucky enough to cut his teeth on rare classic gaming consoles like the Intellivision and Colecovision (on which he enjoyed the seminal title Smurf Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle). This may be comforting news for loving parents whose kids would rather play Nintendo than study. Want to get your children interested in the law? Tell them about Damon. It’s not often that you find a lawyer who could say he does research on his practice area by firing up a game of Halo on his Xbox.

While growing up in Los Angeles and flexing his gaming muscle on younger brothers Marlin and Brandon, young Damon discovered he had a flair for speech and debate. This interest led him to Princeton, where he studied at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “I honestly didn’t know a whole lot about it before I went there, but it was a really good decision. I wasn’t down with the snow thing, though,” he says. From there,

Watson continued to Harvard. “I was ready to go to Berkeley, but I sent in the postcard [to Harvard] and the doors opened.” Watson barely hesitated before getting into the gaming business — he made a contact at game maker Konami early in his law school days and entertained job offers from companies such as Activision as early as his second year out of school. “Activision offered me the job a couple more times and I never took it, but it laid the groundwork and put me in the mindset of doing video game deals,” Watson says. After a stint with Sony Pictures and HomePage.com, he eventually settled in at Bryan Cave, which, after it merged with Robinson Silverman, counted Activision as a client. Watson’s niche has only grown from there, and he’s even taken it with him across the country – he recently moved to Columbia, South Carolina, to be closer to family. After joining up with Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, Watson’s practice is back in full swing. “When it comes down to it, I don’t see a lot of my clients, so it doesn’t matter where I am physically,” he says. “I’m going to keep working for California clients, and I could be a lot cheaper here.”

There’s no question that it’s Watson’s attorney know-how, his ability to put deals together between industry giants, that’s putting food on his family’s table. But Watson can see the forest for the trees. He hasn’t forgotten what brought him to the dance — his passion for gaming.

Watson is making a name for himself in the video game world not by racking up high scores on Space Invaders but by discussing the societal impact of a rising genre of game — the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or “MMORPG” for short. In this type of game, a player goes online into what is usually a swordsand-sorcery fantasy world, where the player controls and develops an avatar, usually a warrior or sorcerer, and embarks upon grand adventures with other player-controlled denizens of the continually evolving virtual world. Think Lord of the Rings, except that you’re in control of Frodo, and your buddy Legolas the elf is actually some guy sitting at his computer in Cleveland.

The MMORPG brand of communal escapism has become popular with a segment of the gaming population. Some capitalistic players have sold their virtual characters on eBay for thousands of notso-virtual dollars. Others have been known to sit at their monitors day and night, taking breaks only to hit the bathroom — and sometimes not even for that. Indeed, some become so immersed in their virtual lives that the line blurs between their avatar and themselves — for instance, some gamers have gotten married in real life to people they met and adventured with online. (Damon, however, took a slightly more conventional approach to dating — he was set up by a mutual friend on a blind date with his wife of eight years, Bunnie.)

It is this MMORPG fanaticism that has drawn the attention of concerned parents worldwide. At what point does a player of a game like EverQuest — nicknamed EverCrack, it’s perhaps the most popular and well-known game in the genre — put his virtual life above his real life? Is addiction a problem? These are the issues at the forefront of the MMORPG debate. Watson chimed in on the topic at the 2004 Game Developers Conference. “I wrote that article [“Perfect Game or Dangerous Addiction?” from Game Developer magazine] to discuss if addiction in these games is real and if there is liability that might attach to game developers. For example, a guy committed suicide and when he was found, EverQuest was on his computer screen,” Watson explains. Befitting the gravity of the issue, Watson’s presentation drew some attention. “The International Game Developers Association program director read it and ran two roundtable sessions,” he says. “Some academics even showed up.”

Despite all the talk of MMORPG dependency — support groups like Spouses Against EverQuest and Online Gamers Anonymous flourish on the Internet — Watson says that addiction is perhaps not quite the right way to look at it. “I’m not entirely convinced that people are addicted to them. They are very engrossing games; people get really involved in them and can tend to play irresponsibly,” he explains.

If Watson’s name seems familiar, that’s probably because you’ve seen him quoted in the press (or maybe he just rules the high-score listings at your local arcade). “I talk to Chris Morris [a CNN/Money reporter] a good bit,” he says. “I’ve also talked with Reuters a bit. Chris will always call when he’s working on something.” More recently, Watson has gotten a fair amount of press for coining the term “Joystick Corridor” in reference to a stretch between Los Angeles and San Diego that’s home to more than 70 companies in the video game biz.

Watson has lent his expertise mainly to articles relating to the attempts by lawmakers to censor video games or limit their distribution to protect children from their content. “The problem with all these laws is that they don’t pass constitutional muster,” notwithstanding the unconvincing nature of studies purporting to show harm to minors caused by video games, he explains. The gaming industry polices itself with a ratings system much like the film industry does, and although many a distraught parent may not like it, the content in games is protected speech, says Watson. However, he remains wary about the future of the debate. “The issue hasn’t hit critical mass yet,” he says. “The powers-that-be are very tenacious and committed. I’m not sure that we’ve really seen the full extent of what’s in store.”

Watson has made his living in dealing with the gaming business, completed some of the toughest games out there, and is even beginning to make an intellectual impact on the industry with his thoughts on the societal impact of games. So is there anything left in the virtual world for him to conquer? As it turns out, yes. There is one particularly fiendish challenge that no game player has yet completed, Damon included — the task of getting one’s significant other interested in video games. “That’s a tough nut to crack,” he laughs. “She’s sometimes interested in some RPGs, or games like The Sims. But that’s okay.” Watson may be taking solace in the fact that he could soon have a new gaming buddy — his 1-year-old son, Li Christopher, will soon be developing the small motor skills necessary to grasp a game controller.

Just don’t tell mom.

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