One of the tensest moments at the GAMA Special Membership Meeting held on Monday in Columbus came late in the day, when GAMA Retail Board Vice-Chairperson John Stephens spoke from the dais, where he was sitting in for Retail Board Chairperson Dawn Studebaker, who was attending remotely.  He spoke to the concerns of retailer members who he said frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the organization.

"I’m a member of the largest membership block in GAMA and I get the opportunity to speak with many of my colleagues regularly," Stephens said.  "Frequently I hear, ‘What does GAMA do for us?’  And more and more the only answer I can offer those people is ‘I get to meet people.’  GAMA provides no useful benefits to me or my business after five days in March.

"If GAMA is set on being a publisher organization then I would encourage you all to be honest with retailers.  Many of the people I speak with feel we are the customers of GAMA and GAMA exists to sell me to publishers.  ‘I am not a member of this organization’ is how we are made to feel.  The retailers I get to speak to regularly want to see GAMA provide us trade organization services and benefits that last beyond those five days in March each year."

His comments, including charges that the home office leadership "failed to care about the largest membership block outside of collecting our dues and selling us to PMMs five days a year," drew immediate sharp reactions from both a publisher member of the organization and Executive Director John Ward.

Loren Coleman of Catalyst Game Labs (he also owns Rather Dashing Games and two retail stores) returned to the podium and personally apologized if he’d ever made Stephens feel disrespected.  "But I also think what you said was personally insulting," Coleman continued, "that we don’t care about the retailers except for five days a year and that we don’t do enough for the retailers…  I think the GAMA support for retailers is insane…  I don’t see another organization that gives more to retailers in that five day period, the very insane, awesome deal you get and that my stores get at the show."

Executive Director John Ward also returned to the podium to defend himself and his staff.  "Loren’s not the only one who’s insulted," he said.  "I don’t sell retailers, I work hard to support retailers interfacing with manufacturers at a great show.  And the home office?  If you’re talking about the staff, how dare you.  They bust their butt every day to support this industry.  If you’re talking about me, man up and say it.  Talk to me offline; I’ll be happy to talk to you.  But I’ve had enough of that.  I’m done."

The tension arises from a natural stress point in the GAMA structure.  As the name, Game Manufacturers Association, implies, only manufacturers can be full voting members.  Manufacturers have granted distributors and retailers representation on the board of directors by including the chairpeople of the boards of the retail and wholesale divisions as board members.  But while the tiers share interests on some issues, on others their interests diverge.  At those points the governance, which is heavily weighted toward the manufacturers, can feel non-representative to the other tiers.

The structure for trade associations in other consumer products businesses varies, but in businesses that are big enough, there are often separate associations for manufacturers and retailers.  The book business has a retailer organization (which originally ran BookExpo America, then sold it) and a publishers association.  The toy business has an organization run primarily by manufacturers that puts on a trade show that retailers attend; but it also has a retailer association, ASTRA, that puts on its own show.  In the comics business, which is a little smaller than the games business, there’s a retailer organization but no publishers association.

It’s unclear that the stresses between the tiers are enough to lead to a structural change at this point.  There are more immediate issues at GAMA, including a dispute over who the Executive Director should be (see "GAMA Executive Director John Ward Gets Vote of Confidence") and lingering concerns over the board’s decision regarding the Gen Con incident involving organization President Stephan Brissaud (see "Mike Webb Resigns from Board").  And everyone, including Stephens, agrees that the GAMA Trade Show, one of the two big annual initiatives of the organization, has high value for retailers.  But to see this kind of tension flare in the midst of other issues shows that the inter-tier stresses are real and are among the factors that have brought the governance of GAMA to this point.