Kenneth Tran wants you to believe that he is going to Washington, D.C. to solve gaming’s loot box problem. He is the director and founder of the National Committee for Games Policy, which announced its formation earlier this week with a press release that I reported on. At the time, I noted the sloppy language of the PR copy and tried to get in touch with Tran. Since then, I’ve spoken with him, exchanged several emails, and communicated with NCGP’s former vice chair, Jack Wegrich, who is a teenager. What I’ve found over the past week is that Tran is an ambitious 27 year old who references books like The Art of Persuasion and Rules for Radicals. I’ve also found that he has multiple startups running at the same time covering religion, education, Republican election financing, and more his gaming organization is his latest scheme.
The NCGP story nagged at me since I published it on Monday. I began looking into it more on Tuesday morning and, on Wednesday, Forbes contributor Erik Kain, published an excellent story that focused on some of the inconsistencies, quirks, and past comments of Tran and the NCGP. Kain found a blog post where Tran spoke about his plans to start a “public policy think tank” with “Jack” (who I’ve confirmed is the 17-year-old Wegrich).
Above: Kenneth Tran from his social media.
Image Credit: Kenneth Tran
“This is sure to get me brownie points in the Republican party,” Tran wrote in the blog post in September. “Oh, and we might even revolutionize the industry.”
But in his story, Kain wasn’t convinced that the NCGP is even real, and he isn’t alone. A number of gamers in online forums like Resetera and Reddit have voiced their skepticism. And Tran didn’t help his case.
“For those who don’t know, I’m a prolific internet troll,” he wrote in the Medium blog. “It comes with the territory of being a real radical.”
I’ve spoken with Kain throughout this week, and we’ve shared some of what we’ve found with one another. By Wednesday night, we both described Tran and the NCGP in the same way: a rabbit hole.
Let’s cover the facts first. The NCGP announced itself to the public on Monday. Tran is the director, and its most prominent member is Daniel Doan, who is the cofounder of indie publisher Black Shell Media. Tran has registered himself as an Orange County lobbyist, and I confirmed this with county officials. Tran also registered the NCGP as a 527 political organization with the IRS, which is a standard tax-exempt group that focuses on influencing elections.
In addition to those facts, however, are a number of obvious inconsistencies. Through Tuesday, its vice chair was 17 years old, and the NCGP didn’t disclose that. Its official site was NCGP.ga. That’s strange because “.ga” is a top-level domain for the country of Gabon. The organization also calls itself the first self-regulatory group for the video game industry, which ignores that The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) founded the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to regulate games in place of government oversight in the ’90s. Tran and Wegrich also both listed publisher Incuvation Games as their experience in the industry, but that company has never published anything on Steam or any other major distribution platform. It only ever purchased the rights to a completed web game.
And sure, the NCGP is registered as a 527 group, but that status is typically for political action committees or political parties. The ESA, for example, is a 501c3 nonprofit and not a 527 group.
Is this real?
Is Tran and the NCGP serious? Or is it trolling? Is it, as Kain suggested, just trying to trick the press into covering a make-believe political organization? Here’s how he puts it.
“Basically, the story is, whether you believe it or not, I used to — my uncle is a politician,” Tran told GamesBeat during a conversation earlier this week. “My cousin is as well. One is a governor in Vietnam. I was kind of born into this, or not born into this — but I’ve been around it.”
The NCGP director says that living around politically active people made him want to get involved. Tran told me he worked as a paid staffer for 2008 Orange County city council democratic candidate Paul Lucas, who is infamous in that area for his activism. I talked to Lucas, and he confirmed that Tran helped oversee voter turnout while he was still 17 years old.
Above: The updated NCGP homepage.
Image Credit: The NCGP
When we spoke, Kenneth Tran also claimed to have some rather impressive connections beyond his uncle and cousin, one of whom is a governor in Vietnam. He said another uncle is a multimillionaire.
“He’s a financier for a [California] state senator,” said Tran. “He’s put some people in office. He gives me his money sometimes.”
Yet another uncle is a military leader.
“This strategy and stuff — if you look up on my uncle on Wikipedia, he’s a general from the Vietnam war,” said Tran. “I kind of approached it as it’s either poker or chess or something like that.”
Additionally, Tran said he studied campaigning at the Leadership Institute.
“I learned under Ronald Reagan’s secretary,” he said.
The Leadership Institute did confirm that he enrolled in one of its classes.
“Yes, Kenneth Tran attended Leadership Institute’s Campaign & Activist Workshop in May of 2014,” Leadership Institute executive Angel Chitnatham wrote in a note to GamesBeat.
The military uncle Tran brings up is Le Quang Luong, who served as a South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam) general before leaving the country to settle in Bakersfield, California, according to Wikipedia — although I have not been able to verify that this is his uncle.
I’m also still working to verify that his financier uncle founded the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, as he claims here.
“I chaired the 68th district of a Republican organization called the Republican Liberty Caucus,” said Tran. “That was a few years ago, while I was working at Incuvation Games. I was doing two things at once. I was doing game development in a producer role for indie games, and then aside from that, I was working within the Republican Party.”
I reached out to the Republican Liberty Caucus for confirmation that he held a position within that organization. The group says that it has no 68th California district, and the leaders don’t remember anyone named Kenny Tran. He is also not listed on the website, and he was not on the website at any time since 2014, according to Google Cache and Internet Archives. Separate from our conversations, Tran wrote in his biography on About.me that he was the chair of the California Republican Caucus, but that is unaffiliated with the RLC.
Tran also told me that he is on the steering committee for the Independent Game Developers Association’s special interest groups. But according to the IGDA, it has no evidence of him ever being active in its SIG, and while Tran was once a due-paying member of the IGDA, that expired six months ago.
So that’s his political history, but he’ll also need to understand gaming and business. What’s his experience in those spaces? Well, that’s also tricky.
In the first press release for the NCGP, the name “Incuvation Games” popped up repeatedly. Tran cofounded the indie publisher. Jack Wegrich also had it listed in his experience. And Jonathan Perez, another NCGP member, is its vice president. When I saw this, I figured that a small publisher was looking to establish a bigger name for itself by jumping into politics on behalf of developers that are not members of the ESA. That’s one of the reasons that I overlooked the typos and language of the original press release — it felt like some scrappy group of friends.
But now that I’ve looked more closely at Incuvation, “scrappy” isn’t the right word. My understanding of the publisher — at least under Tran, who has since sold off his stake in the company — is that it was a company that lived by the “fake it until you make it” credo. But it never quite made it.
The one game that the company published, Nemexia, it purchased from developer XS Software. This web game is on a few online portals, including SyFyGames.com. Way back in 2013, SyFy sent a press release saying it was adding Nemexia (among other releases) to its platform, but this predated the Incuvation acquisition.
Outside of Nemexia, the company seemed to spend most of its time looking for tiny indie games, swooping in to help with marketing. One game that Tran spent a significant amount of time on was Brutal Nature, which is a more complex Minecraft-style survival sandbox that is still in development.
Tran started working with Brutal Nature in July 2016. He reached out to the sole developer, Jamie Stapleton, and made some promises about building a web presence and getting attention online — but nothing about actually investing capital into development.
“Kenneth Tran is … lol,” Stapleton told GamesBeat in a chat conversation over Discord. “I can’t confirm [that everything] he says is a lie, but god damn, does he ever stretch the truth.”
Stapleton provide the the chat history between himself and Tran, and I could see how the relationship started with a lot of ideas in July 2016 before falling apart by this September. Over those 14 months, Stapleton would repeatedly ask for marketing and traffic to the website. In response, Tran would say that he’s coming up with a plan or that unpaid interns were working to drum up interest on Reddit or YouTube. But that never turned into hits for the Brutal Nature site.
A publisher and a community manager
One of the primary people that worked on Brutal Nature as part of the Incuvation team was Jack Wegrich. At the time, Wegrich was only 16 years old. He had some experience working as a community manager for a consumer robotics company formerly called Cut Throat Robotics (now Zozrobotics). Inventor Ken Miller founded Zozrobotics, and he confirmed Wegrich’s association with his company. But the Zozrobotics boss did not characterize Wegrich’s work as something that would qualify him for the vice chair position of a Washington think tank.
“He’s still in high school,” Miller told me during a phone conversation earlier this week. “We live in the same neighborhood. H[e] and one of his buddies helped me out. His buddy is more mechanical and was helping me build some stuff. So basically, just a couple of teenage neighbor kids helping me out.”
But while Miller is happy with Wegrich, the ambitious youth had a contentious relationship with Stapleton. The Brutal Nature developer said that Jack would try to throw community tournaments, and only one player would show up.
“I’ve gotten better results from individual posts on Reddit than all of what [Jack] did for me,” Stapleton explained. “I don’t know why [Tran] ever offered him to work on my game in the first place.”
Wegrich was supposed to work on a trailer for the game, but the end product came out useless.
“I got a video from him in 110 field-of-view and mouse acceleration turned up to puke-inducing 360-degree sniper noscope,” Stapleton explained.
So Wegrich fell off the project, but then he did something odd. In February, Wegrich appeared on the Indie Insider podcast from Daniel Doan’s Black Shell Media. As part of that interview, Wegrich said some harsh things about Brutal Nature. And he publicly blamed Stapleton for the game’s failures.
You can hear that exchange at the 28-minute mark in the audio file below:
Wegrich is still a kid, so none of this reflects on him poorly. I bet he’s going to end up doing exactly what he wants to do in the gaming industry. But he came across as unprofessional in this podcast, which makes sense for someone who is still maturing. I reached out to Wegrich multiple times for a comment about his work with Brutal Nature or Zozrobotics. He did not respond to my requests.
‘Black Hat’ marketing
But while Wegrich disappointed and frustrated Stapleton, Tran was annoying and confusing to the Brutal Nature developer. From the start of their correspondence, Tran would take little interest in what Stapleton was telling him. A lot of the time, it would seem like Tran was struggling to understand some of the more technical aspects of publishing a game. But that wouldn’t stop Tran from hopping into their chat to rattle off his latest, unrelated plan to troll Reddit.
Here’s an example from September:
Kenneth Tran: btw- i’m preparing a viral marketing campaign
Kenneth Tran: my last one went pretty well
Kenneth Tran: about 8,000 upvotes
Kenneth Tran: wanna know what this one is? :D
Black Moons: sure.
Kenneth Tran: I’m doing a reddit AMA where I announce that I have developed my own IQ test that is better than current ones
*** Black Moons readys the shit umbrella. ***
Kenneth Tran: “The Dragon IQ Test is a modern IQ test that is designed to be more accurate than older IQ tests. While almost all IQ tests assume a bell curve distribution of scores, The Dragon IQ assumes a bimodal distribution with a larger number of scores for below average intelligence and average intelligence. The Dragon IQ Test has a number of new features:”
Kenneth Tran: one of my fans thinks it might go viral even more than my last AMA
Kenneth Tran: “I have 140+ IQ and I designed my own better IQ test… AMA”
Kenneth Tran: then in the topic
Kenneth Tran: I’m going to call everybody
Kenneth Tran: a fucking idiot
Black Moons: you have fun with that.
Tran runs a blog called the “High IQ Society,” and he was using that to draw attention on Reddit.
And then you have this short exchange:
Kenneth Tran: btw
Kenneth Tran: did you ever see my art of war 2 AMA?
Kenneth Tran: if no then nvm
Black Moons: nope.
Kenneth Tran: okay nvm
Tran has since deleted his Reddit account, and many of these posts are gone. But his posts about “the sequel” to The Art of War did not go unnoticed by other users. Some people on the “AMADisasters” subforum for Ask Me Anything sessions that go horribly wrong preserved some of his comments.
Above: The phrase “The Art of War 1” is funny on a cosmic level.
Image Credit: Reddit
He says that “The Art of War 2” was the end of his trolling, and he used it to satirize his family who were in the military. You can read the Art of War 2 here.
Tran’s frequent diversions would come while he was floundering to find a way to promote Brutal Nature. In one exchange, Tran — who is the publisher and marketer for this game — asked Stapleton for help finding YouTubers who would play it.
Kenneth Tran: I haven’t worked out your streamer marketing plan yet
Kenneth Tran: its like typing code with no plan
Kenneth Tran: can you pay 50 bucks?
Kenneth Tran: oh shit
Kenneth Tran: this is our guy? this is the streamer that does minecraft? ragegaming? lol
Kenneth Tran: okay let me work out a deal with them
Kenneth Tran: dude this would help if you just told me who was a big name in minecraft gaming/youtubers
Black Moons: no clue I hardly watch much youtube.
Black Moons: some random searching on youtube
Black Moons: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiufyZv8iRPTafTw0D4CvnQ
Black Moons: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCH8Eirtdko5wjPmuOp6wb_Q
Black Moons: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClyfWhFlnrt3oBs2Zs2dH6w
Black Moons: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNvzD7Z-g64bPXxGzaQaa4g
Black Moons: just basically anyone making videos about survival games shrugs
Kenneth Tran: okay ill check these guys out
This exchange highlights Tran’s inexperience, and to compensate for these shortcomings, he would devise elaborate “black hat” marketing schemes. While that term typically refers to search-engine-optimization specialists that try to trick Google’s algorithms, for Tran, black hat marketing is more about creating controversies for attention.
The plan that he pitched to Stapleton would have had him attempting to get coverage from a site like Kotaku by positioning Brutal Nature as a hyperviolent game.
Kenneth Tran: lets say theoretically
Kenneth Tran: well okay have you heard of the politicians blaming video games for violence?
Black Moons: vaguely\
Kenneth Tran: i guess you don’t hear much of it in canada
Kenneth Tran: question then, do you think BN would get more publicity/press if it got labeled a violent video game?
Black Moons: shrugs theres so many shitty violent games out there
Kenneth Tran: like “It’s like Minecraft, but with gun violence. Definitely not for children.”
Kenneth Tran: I just became Chairman of a political organization, The California Republican Caucus
Kenneth Tran: and I’m looking to stir up some controversy that would make it into Kotaku
Kenneth Tran: for example- http://kotaku.com/warming-up-on-onsen-plumbing-nagano-japan-by-jonas-j-1803126135
Kenneth Tran: oops sorry- http://kotaku.com/5982842/oh-come-on-67-of-polled-voters-say-video-games-are-a-bigger-threat-to-safety-than-guns
Kenneth Tran: So how can I help you?
Black Moons: and what was the plan here?
Kenneth Tran: 1. you are looking for exposure for your game
Kenneth Tran: 2. I get brownie points for forwarding the Republican agenda of video games are violent
Kenneth Tran: are points 1 and 2 true?
Kenneth Tran: If so…
Kenneth Tran: I think we can help each other
Kenneth Tran: that’s the plan
Black Moons: Id have to think about it..
Kenneth Tran: How much attention do you think your game would get if the Republican Party specifically listed your game as being “violent”.
Kenneth Tran: I’ll give you an example
Kenneth Tran: http://techland.time.com/2012/10/10/maine-republican-party-playing-world-of-warcraft-makes-you-unfit-for-office/
Kenneth Tran: that story made it into TIME
Kenneth Tran: the poll made it into Kotak
Kenneth Tran: *Kotaku
Kenneth Tran: I can understand if you don’t want that level of PR
Kenneth Tran: I’m now on the Steering Committee for the International Developers Association, Business and Legal Special Interest Group
Black Moons: So iv been thinking about it… I think im going to have to say no to the violent video game article thing.
Black Moons: its not really an adjenda I want advanced and the california goverment is scary since they actually get stuff done… crazy stuff, Like putting warning stickers on powercords that end up all the way here in canada saying they might cause cancer.. if ya yaknow, ate them.
Kenneth Tran: Lol
Black Moons: the rest of the US states never get anything done/passed.
After months of these interactions, Stapleton stopped hiding his frustration. He wanted traffic, and Tran wasn’t delivering. And then in September, around the time of the Medium blog, Tran told Stapleton about the NCGP.
Kenneth Tran: you’ve invited as an international member
Black Moons: Yea sorry your all over the place and don’t stay dedicated to any one thing long enough for me to want to spend any of my time on them.
Kenneth Tran: they’re all interconnected…
Black Moons: I noticed since you hired jack, the guy who never did shit
Black Moons: and jonathan, the guy who took 4 weeks of nagging and another week of ‘work’ just to compile my game, to then say he wasent actually going to do any work on it.
Kenneth Tran: i see your concerns
Kenneth Tran: okay then, there’s no mixing of you and them so i understand
Kenneth Tran: but please note, it appears as though I’m all over the place, but my work is all connected
Black Moons: Talk to me again when you have actually stayed with something long enough to make it successful, as in thousands of hits per day successful
Kenneth Tran: then thats already done
Kenneth Tran: i write for the news…
Black Moons: you write independant blogs on webspace provided by news sites
Kenneth Tran: http://www.business.uspa24.com/contact-us.html
Kenneth Tran: you only think about things in terms of traffic…
Kenneth Tran: look. there are 5 things everybody wants in life- Money. Power (Influence). Fame (Traffic). Love. Freedom.
Black Moons: I only think in terms of traffic because I could have the best website on the entire internet, where every single visitor bought my game, and it still wouldn’t amount to a hill of beams
Black Moons: beans
Black Moons: because my traffic is that low
Black Moons: and the fact that none of you guys get the fact you NEED TRAFFIC period, pisses me off to no end.
Kenneth Tran: YOU DONT NEED TRAFFIC DUDE
Kenneth Tran: and you asked for something I stuck with I’ve been in politics for 10 years
Kenneth Tran: Do you play RTS games? Because you don’t understand how strategy works
Kenneth Tran: Look, your goal is to either find a AAA gaming job with stable income
Black Moons: Im playing an RTS game with no resources. its not fun.
Kenneth Tran: or make a lot of money on BN
Kenneth Tran: I’ve worked in AAA, you know how the majority of people get their jobs?
Kenneth Tran: The ones who walk in and say I made a successful indie game are the minority
Kenneth Tran: The majority “know people”
Black Moons: they get in by knowing someone. I know nobody so im fucked and honestly don’t give a shit anymore.
Kenneth Tran: EXACTLY
Kenneth Tran: let me do something for you
Black Moons: like?
Kenneth Tran: go to https://blackshellmedia.com/
Kenneth Tran: Contact Daniel Doan
Kenneth Tran: Tell him you just joined the National Committtee for Games Policy, and you’re a friend of Kenneth’s
Kenneth Tran: and ask him if he can give some tips on getting traffic OR if he can be the publisher for BN
Kenneth Tran: does that work for you Mr. Black Moons
Black Moons: maybe, im not sure why id want to join that committee though
Kenneth Tran: you would be “International Member”
Kenneth Tran: Because it’s your chance to network
Kenneth Tran: We’re recruiting everyday. We only opened membership up a few days ago…
Kenneth Tran: it’s basically a giant networking group
Kenneth Tran: but we limit membership to only veterans
Kenneth Tran: Or you can cold call Daniel Doan
Kenneth Tran: and say “this is black moons and I fucking hate Kenneth Tran and his stupid NCGP. can you help me market my game?”
Stapleton responded to this proposal by linking to some complaints about Black Shell Media. Stories about that company note that it attempts to get revenue by signing on to indie games as a publisher without actually investing any money into the games.
Tran had already fizzled out of Incuvation back in December 2016. He sold his stake in the company back to his partner, Ghassan Gholmieh. I spoke to Gholmieh, and he told me that they weren’t making any money.
“We didn’t have any marketing money or connections,” Gholmieh told GamesBeat.
But while Tran was no longer working with Incuvation, he was still working Stapleton. On December 15, 2016, Tran said he was moving to Vietnam but that he was also planning to start his own gaming company. To get things going, Tran suggested that he should merge his as-of-yet unformed startup with Stapleton’s company.
“I don’t want anything to do with that really,” the developer told Tran at the time.
The last time Stapleton talked to Tran was in late September of this year. The NCGP director once again pitched the idea of working with Black Shell Media.
“I don’t want to have anything to do with Black Shell Media, as I have previously stated, as their online reputation is basically near-scammers,” Stapleton told Tran.
To be fair to Black Shell, it was not pursuing the Brutal Nature developer, according to Black Shell chief executive Raghav Mathur. And the publishing boss acknowledges its reputation on Reddit.
“We don’t offer upfront lump sum capital investment in development,” Mathur told GamesBeat in a message. “But we do help devs cover costs like trailer production, events, graphics, and paid marketing. We’ve talked about this publicly before and don’t hide it by any means. As for the Reddit threads, we’ve talked about that so much on Reddit that I don’t think there’s anything new I can say here. I would just encourage people to read both sides of the story, and actually listen to BSM and people who have worked with BSM, rather than people who are just commenting after hearing the story from a third party.”
It’s worth noting that trailer production, events, graphics, and marketing were all the services that Incuvation was promising to Stapleton without an upfront investment.
Ken Tran, confident man
A Kushner family friend
After Incuvation, Tran wanted to leave the gaming industry. He had plans to get back into the EB-5 investment business, which is something he had worked on in the past. EB-5 is a type of visa that the U.S. government grants to foreign investors. If you spend at least $500,000, you can get a visa to come and stay in America. If this sounds familiar, that’s because this program made headlines when news organizations reported that EB-5 agents in China were using the likeness of Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, and actual visits from Kushner’s sister, Nicole Meyer, to sell these investment visas. The Kushner organization is under investigation for these practices.
And guess who claims he worked for the Kushners during this time.
“I worked for the Kushner family,” said Tran. “I was a finance agent. Basically, I would be fundraising for their projects. I did that for several months overseas. I don’t know if you follow politics, but there’s the whole Kushner … event, or whatever.”
Tran alleges that he worked as a contractor for the Kushner Real Estate Group (KRE Group). It was his job to find investors in the Vietnamese market to fund projects for KRE in exchange for EB-5 visas. He claims that his contract position was done through a company called New York Immigration Fund. This is a different entity than the U.S. Immigration Fund corporation that reports have already linked with the Kushner Companies.
“I was their sole guy working in Vietnam,” said Tran. “I was doing the Vietnam market, fundraising from there. But so New York Immigration Fund and Kushner real estate have a joint venture company. It’s like they formed a company where they each own part of it. Then that company hired me. If you call Kushner, they — I received a letter where it’s like, blah blah blah, you can’t mention Trump and stuff like that, you know what I mean? I think that was in the news too.”
Despite that alleged letter, Tran has repeatedly referenced both Kushner and Trump when talking about his work with EB-5 visas. He used the phrase “working for Kushner (Trump family)” in an email to Erik Kain and myself.
I’ve spent the last half of this week trying to verify this particular claim. The NYIFund told me that it does not even operate in Vietnam and that it had no record of a Kenneth Tran. I’ve reached out to the Kushner Companies for verification as well, and it has not responded to my request. I also checked with the U.S. Immigration Fund, which has done some work in Vietnam, and it claims it didn’t work with a Kenneth Tran.
I spoke with multiple people at the NYI Fund, and it said that it has never worked with someone named “Kenneth Tran” at any of its companies. And after multiple requests, Tran has not provided GamesBeat with sufficient evidence to back up this claim.
The illusion of influence
If you look into Kenneth Tran’s history, you will find multiple projects, startups, and schemes that he was heading up.
He is the registered owner of the greatsage.org domain, which is a website for an online Buddhist college that he started earlier this month. In a September 8 LinkedIn post, he announced the formation of the Southern California Chamber of Commerce, which he is the president of. And back in February, investment firm EB5Agents.co, founded by managing partner Kenneth Tran, brought on Riley Worcester as a partner.
Riley Worcester is also the Treasurer of the California Republican Caucus. The chairman of that group? You guessed it: Kenneth Tran.
This last one is especially revealing because you can see how Tran uses it to build himself up. In his conversation with Stapleton, Tran made it sound like he just won an election for chairman of the California Republican Caucus. He never mentioned he is the founder of that group. He registered and owns its domain, and he filed for its 527-organization status.
He has deleted the Facebook group for the CRC, but a Google Cache reveals this post where the organization introduces him as its new chairman.
Above: Hi, Kenny!
Image Credit: GamesBeat/Jeffrey Grubb
And on the Twitter account for the California Republican Caucus, you can see a link to the deleted Facebok account. And then another post asks followers to donate to the “Republican War Readiness Fund.”
— CA Republican Caucus (@gopcaucus) September 6, 2017
Between all of these organizations and efforts, Tran was looking for money and power. That is something he admitted to me. That’s his goal here, which brings us to his latest and most successful effort.
The future of the NCGP
Since Monday, the NCGP has changed a lot. It now has a dotcom address at thencgp.com. It has removed Wegrich as vice chair — although he is still on the steering committee. Tran has also shifted the membership model from invite-only to one where anyone can apply. And he is using social media to directly address the public’s concerns.
The NCGP is getting attention, and Tran is pouring effort into positioning it as a serious, respectable organization. I wanted to hear him out. So I asked how he plans to repair the group’s credibility after its rocky start. For Tran, a big part of that is recruiting a diverse membership and working with established organizations.
“Next week I’m meeting with one of the triple-A publishers that does microtransactions,” said Tran. “We’re going to do a little something together because they’re interested in what we’re doing. Meeting with them. I have — we still need to actively recruit and expand more members. That’s probably priority number one. And the self-regulation, that is — so, I’m still going over the legal for that, what legal remedies we can do. I mean, I have so many lawyers. I have four or five lawyers.”
Tran wouldn’t disclose which publisher at this time, and I’ve requested to speak to his lawyers. Tran has not yet put me in touch with his legal staff.
On the think tank side, the NCGP wants to get its insight reports written up soon so it can start distributing them in Washington.
“Those will go straight to the office of a congressman, who is our member in D.C.,” said Tran. “So that’s one of our priorities.”
Tran said he is leaving it up to the congressman to identify themselves as an NCGP member. But again, with the benefit of the doubt, I asked how the group would put together its insight reports and whether it would use sound data-collecting methods.
“I mean, every — in The Art of Persuasion, everything is always a multi-pronged attack or approach,” said Tran. “You’re going to have a better chance of convincing somebody of something if you have, in addition to the data, expert opinions, anecdotal experience. You have things of that nature, because — how many times in the news do you see an anecdotal case that actually swung a legislative vote even though it’s counter-intuitive to the data?”
— National Committee for Games Policy (@TheNCGP) November 29, 2017
Fake it until you make it
You could see Tran as an opportunist who is looking for any opening to capitalize on and to improve his status — particularly in the Republican party. I asked Tran directly if he would describe himself as an “opportunist.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I have my—just like everybody out there, anybody you talk to, they all have their own agendas, because that’s what makes us all human, right? We have to look out for our own survival before the collective, just to survive. But—I feel as though it’s killing two birds with one stone. I can accomplish my goals, moving up the political ladder, and then at the same time I can help out the community of which I’ve been a part of. I used to run game servers in high school with like 10,000 players. I’ve been in the game for a while. So far I don’t see any conflict of interest. If there was, then I would have to be like, oh, well, I’m going to be a Republican or I’m going to be a game developer. But so far I don’t see any conflict of interest. I’m more independent than anything. But you have to pick a party if you’re going to move up.”
And I think this is the truth. Tran is probably trolling, but it’s 2017 … trolling and saying anything to get ahead is a viable political strategy. And it’s not like you have to prove that you are coming to Washington to lobby in good faith in order to have an influence. Based on the reaction he’s getting — including this story — Tran could stop dividing his efforts across multiple startups. He could start pour everything into the NCGP. If he does that, maybe he could get the attention of some GOP staffers looking for an issue to get young voters energized.
Tran describes his approach as similar to poker. The goal is always to win the hand, and everyone at the table, including Tran, share that desire. But while some people are playing the numbers and others are holding back and trying not to make mistakes, Tran is throwing out bluffs so often you may not realize when he is actually holding something in his hands.
“You have the media there, and you have the gamers there,” said Tran. “And I’m playing poker, right? It’s Hold ’em, and I see the cards and raise half my pot, right there, because I’m going to come out of nowhere immediately and just be like, I’m going to do all this stuff. I’m going to change the industry. I’m going to bet half my pot on that. So everybody’s going to be like, oh, this guy’s bullshitting. They’re all going to call. They’re all going to put in the pot too.”
And if everyone does continue to pay attention to the NCGP, Tran is making a specific promise. He says he’s planning to work with The Entertainment Software Association. I’ve reached out to that group to confirm that. But Tran also called out another group.
“Let’s say I can accomplish more than what the IGDA is doing about this gambling crisis,” said Tran. “Just doing that with my small organization versus an organization of 12,000 developers, I think that would set the tone for a movement going forward.”
I reached out to the IGDA, which explicitly represents game creators, for a response. The news didn’t phase them.
“The IGDA is proud of its track record of more than 20 years of supporting game developers around the world,” interim IGDA director Jen MacLean said in a statement provided to GamesBeat. “We’ll continue advocating for game developers on the issues that matter most to them, and working with the interactive entertainment industry to support game developers in their craft and in sustainable and fulfilling careers.”
So maybe the NCGP will do more than the IGDA about loot boxes, but that’s because that issue isn’t something the IGDA’s members care about. But that shines a light back on the NCGP. Who is it listening to?
“It depends on what the community wants,” said Tran. “It’s a collective. It’s not really a dictatorship or anything. It’s like the NRA, [but] we have more people than them. We have more money than them, collectively, in terms of revenue. We’re just as crazy about our passion as they are.”
The problem with that, of course, is that the NRA’s business members and private members are almost always on the same side of every gun-control issue. In gaming, an individual donor is probably more likely to stand in opposition to a company like Electronic Arts. And if the NCGP had to decide between gamers and publishers, which would it choose? Or, to put it another way, whose money does it want more?
“Um, it’s — I guess you would say – huh,” said Tran. “That’s actually — I think I’ll just leave that question up in the air. We haven’t really gotten to that point yet, where we’ve become that big of a force. But so far, with the resources we have, we can do what we set out to do. Maybe not as grandiose as some would portray it, but enough to—the only promise I can make is that we’ll do more than the IGDA does, and they have 12,000 developers. That’s about it.”
More than starting weird online Buddhist colleges or saying anything to get ahead, it’s the most unsettling to hear a lobbyist admit they don’t know whose money they want to take. An organization like this needs funding, and this is a question any such group would have already figured out.
But if Tran isn’t even sure if he wants your cash or EA’s donations, who is going to give him anything at all?
Of course, if this falls through, maybe Tran will come up with another half-dozen ideas to throw against the wall. Or maybe he’ll take the advice of Gholmieh, his former partner.
“He’s very talented,” he said. “He’s a good person, but he needs to focus on one thing. But, hey! I think he’s working right now. Is he still with that company?”
He told me that he works as a webmaster and marketer for a major company. According to his social media account, he started that job November 6. So yeah, Gholmieh, he’s working.
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