A Huge Disconnect

Game politicians discovered the gaming industry in 2005. A small bit of forgotten code buried deep in the bowels of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas turned out to be an interactive sex game, confirming the worst fears of parents fed a daily media diet of terror. First came the media, pushing out tut-tutting reports about sex and violence in games. The parents came next and, following in their wake, so did the politicians, promising a governmental solution to all things parental. An industry still in its growing pains found itself staring down the barrel of a legislative gun. The noise machine turned on us.

Concerned fans in search of information on this new threat faced a real lack of sources. Politics just isn’t as cool as flaunting the latest exclusives, at least to most of the gaming press. If you want to know whether the Oklahoma legislature is considering a measure to make selling violent games that are “harmful to minors” a crime (hint: it passed), there’s very few places to turn. One of them is GamePolitics.com, a blog and news site chronicling the doings of politicians and legislatures, with a focus on items of interest to the gaming crowd. Dennis McCauley, editor of GamePolitics.com, is one of the few gaming journalists on this particular beat, and I was fortunate enough to corral him for a chat about legislation, politics and their effects on the industry.

“Prior to launching GamePolitics in March 2005,” he says, “I wrote about games, mostly from a product review standpoint for a number of publications. I did the sports column for Computer Gaming World in 1996 and 1997 and I’ve written a weekly game column for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1998.” GamePolitics stems from an interest “in ways in which games exist within the larger culture. There is a huge disconnect between gamers and non-gamers, and this is nowhere more evident than in the political arena, where the debate is largely driven by non-gamers among the ranks of parents, activists, politicians and the media.”

Naturally, I ask about his political background. “I’m a registered Democrat and consider myself somewhere between moderate and liberal,” he responds, adding, “I think George W. Bush and his crew are an unmitigated disaster. But I wasn’t too impressed with John Kerry, either. If the Democrats had their act together and presented a solid candidate, they could have spared the country four more years of the worst presidency in modern history.”

With the political cards on the table, I turn the conversation to the industry itself. “How are things going for Our Side?” I ask, looking for a brief rundown. Anyone checking the Legislation Tracker on GamePolitics would be concerned. The number of red pins (legislation going through the process or passed) and green pins (legislation in effect) are quite alarming. “Things are not going well for the gaming business,” he says. I ask if there’s any legislation we should be particularly concerned about and he responds, “It’s not that any one piece of legislation needs [to] be more feared than any other. The problem is that the sheer volume of legislation shows just how much concern and mistrust mainstream America has for videogames. That’s largely a result of the industry’s failure to be proactive in managing its image and failing to do enough to assure parents that it has children’s best interests at heart.”

“Certain segments of the industry have worked very hard at demonstrating they don’t care what the mainstream thinks,” he says. Indeed, 2005 was the year the mainstream turned on the gaming industry, with an army of bills marching through legislatures, flanked by politicians and talking heads decrying this new threat to America. He continues, “However, the business must now pull together to prove that it does care. Violent and/or sexist marketing hurts gaming’s image, sure, but the business has really shot itself in the foot over content issues. Hot Coffee and the corporate lying that accompanied it was the obvious cause of 2005’s unprecedented string of successful state-level legislation – three laws passed in one year. Games like Manhunt resonate with the public for years after the fact. Bully may not be as naughty as some critics expect it to be, but releasing a game with a bullying theme is incredibly tone-deaf marketing. Who’s the genius at Rockstar that decided, ‘Let’s take an issue that child psychologists, guidance counselors, teachers and parents are all going to hate and try to market that’?”

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While he’s critical of the industry, he’s no fan of censorship. “I’m not saying that game design needs to hew to some type of mainstream or censorious agenda, but if you want to make the Manhunts and Bullys, be prepared to take the fallout. And the fallout hurts the entire industry, not just the individual publisher.” For solutions to these problems, he looks to the industry as a whole, saying, “The ESA has to think about innovative solutions. Allowing some parental representation on the ESRB would be a good place to begin. As it stands now, the ratings board is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the videogame business. Opening it up a little would make parents feel like they had a voice.” Interestingly, this is the system the MPAA uses – movies are rated by a board of parents – and though there are certainly quibbles and controversy, the film industry is under much less legislative fire than the gaming industry.

Mr. McCauley has some suggestions of his own, saying, “Some – myself included – have suggested changing how we refer to M- and AO-rated titles from ‘games’ to ‘adult interactive’ or some other term that clearly indicates those titles are not meant for younger players. These are just ideas, but the industry needs to clean up its image.”

Talking about the industry’s image brings us to our political opponents. Although “they’re politicians” is the default answer, I ask him what motivates them, looking for insight beyond the standard answer. “There are many motivations,” he responds and, though the cynical among us may smirk, McCauley feels “some politicians really approach this from an altruistic viewpoint. Love them or hate them, Joe Lieberman, Leland Yee and Hillary Clinton all believe very strongly that violent game content can negatively affect children. Naturally, there are also some elected officials who are using the issue to score points with voters. Police are very influential with politicians, and the law enforcement lobby has contributed in large part to the 25 to Life public relations disaster.”

A list of gaming’s opponents wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Miami attorney Jack Thompson, who’s sparred with industry figureheads, detractors including webcomic Penny Arcade, and anybody else who has gotten in his way. Gamers may demonize him, but McCauley believes Thompson is a genuine problem for an industry already under siege.

“He is a threat to the gaming industry, in the sense that some elected officials who don’t take the time to know any better allow him into the legislative process,” Mr. McCauley says when I mention Thompson’s activities, “[and] Jack certainly understands the value of staying on message. He spouts the same propaganda over and over; for example, calling Bully a ‘Columbine simulator’ or saying young killers ‘trained obsessively’ on Grand Theft Auto. What’s scary is that you hear some politicians, like Rep. David Hogue, author of Utah’s ludicrous ‘games as porn’ bill, parroting Jack, word for word.

“In all honesty, it’s not hard to see how a politician might get hooked up with Jack.” The scenario he sketches out is an entirely plausible one. “Imagine you are a legislator trying to push a videogame content bill. You don’t really follow the game industry. Out of the blue, a lawyer with a national profile on the topic calls you up and offers his services, gratis. Even offers to help write your bill for you. A lot of politicians would jump on that.” If I may make a minor comment here, a lot of people would jump on the opportunity to let someone do their job for them for free.

Coming back around to my original question, he says, “As far as motivation, Jack seems driven by an ultra-conservative cultural and religious agenda. Countering his message should be a simple matter of addressing it on a factual basis, where he’s quite weak. But the industry chooses to ignore him – big mistake. He’s not going to go away. Also, the industry really should address some of the outrageous things Jack has said, like comparing Doug Lowenstein to Saddam Hussein, or declaring Sony’s videogame marketing strategy a second Pearl Harbor attack. If Jack wants to say these things, he should have to take responsibility for such comments. Why doesn’t the ESA address this? It was encouraging to see the National Institute on Media and the Family publicly distance itself from Jack last year, based primarily on such comments.”

The name came up, and we keep coming back to the ESA. One thing I did want to ask him about was the Videogame Voters Network, the ESA’s attempt to marshal masses of gamers into a political force. I noticed the VGVN was being promoted on GamePolitics, and asked Mr. McCauley about it. “The VGVN is a good start. I’m actively promoting it because gamers need to get a political voice. Is there something better gamers could do? An independent organization (i.e., not controlled by the ESA) would be nice, but until that comes along, I’ll back the VGVN.”

Earlier, he’d described the biggest problems facing the masses of gamers who want to fight back as “apathy” and “lack of awareness.” I ask him for his advice for readers who are frustrated and want to do something, especially those who’ve overcome the “I’m just one person and no one will listen to me” phenomenon so common in our demographic.

“I counsel frustrated GamePolitics readers to contact their elected officials and make their voice heard,” he says, adding, “It’s important to do this in a civil, mature fashion, of course. Angry responses not only don’t send the right message, they reinforce negative gamer stereotypes. If you’re old enough, certainly register and vote.”

Those scurrying to join the legions of single-issue voters should pause, though, as he feels “it’s important to keep things in perspective. Gamers are only one issue. Would you vote against an otherwise appealing candidate based simply on his/her position on games? This will be an interesting dilemma for many gamers if Hillary runs next year. Here’s something to consider: We ran a poll on GamePolitics; 45% who responded said they would decide their vote based solely on a candidate’s views on videogame legislation. With issues like Iraq, Iran, globalization, energy policy and abortion on the table, that’s actually a little scary.”

Millionaire playboy Shannon Drake lives a life on the run surrounded by Japanese schoolgirls and videogames. He also writes about anime and games for WarCry.

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