The Political Arena
Welcome to The Political Arena, Crispy Gamer's look at politicians and the things they say -- and do --regarding the videogame industry. I often write about politics on my Web site, GamerDad.com, and at the Penny Arcade Conference, I was called upon to fill in for Entertainment Consumer Association President Hal Halpin to talk about Games and Politics. My one-hour speech went over well, drawing a capacity and standing room-only audience, and I like to think that led directly to this column.
A note on bias: I'll try and keep my own political bias out of this space. That shouldn't be difficult since the videogame debate and culture war is an issue popular with the "nanny state" Democrats and the "culture war" Republicans. Who's thinking of the children? They are, but regardless of party it looks like they're not thinking hard enough.
In case you haven't noticed we're knee-deep in the hoopla of the Primary season, and for the first time in a long time, candidates are running neck-and-neck for the Democratic nomination. In spite of the fact that John McCain has mathematically sewn up the Republican nomination, Mike Huckabee still plugs away, trying to keep his issues on the table. Meanwhile good old Ralph Nader (hero to consumer advocates, and a controversial figure accused of "spoiling" elections more recently) has thrown his hat into the ring again, clearly hoping to improve on his embarrassingly miniscule vote share percentage in 2004.
Many different issues dominate the campaign, but you're a gamer: One issue that matters to you should be videogame legislation. Will certain senators and congresspeople be able to replace the ESRB with a government-controlled ratings system? Will videogames somehow lose their 1st Amendment protection in the near future? Will store owners be arrested for selling M-rated games to minors? Will Jack Thompson (ducks) be elected to high office? Ahem. For now, let's take a look at the remaining candidates and discuss their positions on videogames and censorship. It might just influence how you vote come November.
Before we begin, we must give credit where credit is due. Dennis McCauley's GamePolitics.com covers this issue on a daily basis; parts of this article come from Ben Silverman's article on Yahoo on the subject, entitled "Play the Vote," and much of this also comes from a survey conducted by Common Sense Media (disclosure: as GamerDad, I review videogames for them).
This week we'll be covering the Democrats!
Hillary Clinton -- come on down!
"When I introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act two years ago, I did so because I felt that video game content was getting increasingly violent and sexually explicit, yet young people were able to purchase these games with relative ease while their parents were struggling to keep up with being informed about the content." -- Hillary Clinton's response to the CSM survey.
Ms. Clinton has a fairly long history on this issue and it doesn't take a village to realize that her views should make gamers a little uncomfortable. During her husband's administration, the Clintons supported the legislation that led to the V-chip. Not a bad idea (assuming anyone actually uses it), but the rhetoric used to sell the idea was very inflammatory.
More recently, the junior New York Senator called on the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to investigate the source of the "abandoned code" found by a hacker in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in the scandal generally known as "Hot Coffee" -- in brief, this scandal was a tempest in a teapot. A hacker was able to unlock some hidden code depicting a "sex" mini-game starring two clothed figures moving stiffly. The bottom line is that the code wasn't offensive when compared with -- say -- the marionette sex from "Team America: World Police" and the hack was very difficult to unlock. Any child able to view "Hot Coffee" is able to view just about anything on the Internet, yet Clinton used this to score points and vilify the game industry and its attempt to smuggle obscenity into parent's homes (that's paraphrased, but the outrage she displayed was vivid, real and more than a little hyperbolic).
She also teamed up with noted videogame critic Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and a few other Democrats to announce the Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA) -- which would criminalize the sale of violent videogames to minors. She backed this despite it being unconstitutional. Even more recently she stopped criticizing the ESRB and backed them in advertisements -- but then she turned on them again during the Manhunt 2 scandal last fall.
In the past, she's also participated in photo ops with Lieberman and former Republican Presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KY).
Sen. Clinton typically doesn't miss an opportunity to bash the entertainment industries to help score points with voters, and according to her CSM survey, her goals are to pass laws to keep ultra-violent games from children despite the unconstitutionality of these laws. She's also called for a unified rating system for movies, television, and videogames.
Let?s let her sum it up: "When I am president, I will work to protect children from inappropriate video game content." -- Hillary from her CSM response.
Barack Obama! Your turn!
"I would call upon the video game industry to give parents better information about programs and video games by improving the voluntary rating system we currently have, but if the industry fails to act, then my administration would." -- Obama, from his CSM survey answer.
That's a mixed answer at best. He thinks the ESRB should do the job, but threatens action if they don't. Hmmm... at least the hyperbole and demagoguery are kept to a minimum here.
Sen. Obama (D-IL) is a newcomer to the political scene, so he doesn't have much of a voting record to scrutinize, but it is notable that he's never been attached to any anti-videogame legislation, and he typically doesn't use the issue on the stump.
"We're going to have to parent better, and turn off the television set, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children, and that's going to take some time." -- Obama, from various stump speeches.
GamePolitics' Dennis McCauley (note: GamePolitics is owned by the ECA, a lobbying group representing gamers) believes that statement indicates that Obama believes videogames are a "metaphor for underachievement" -- which would be ironic, considering Obama is the youngest and hippest person in the race. I think that's a little hyperbolic, because, well, as GamerDad I believe that TV and videogames are entertainment and that life and real-world achievement should take precedence. Also, Obama has said before that his kids watch Nickelodeon, which indicates that he's not anti-television at the very least.
Obama did publically turn down a donation from Doug Lowenstein, the former head of the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) without giving any reason why -- but that might reflect how Obama's opponents view the industry, rather than his own view. I can see the commercials now: "Barack Obama takes money from people who used to represent people who make ultra-violent videogames!"
He has called for Federal studies into the cognitive effect media has on children, but appears undecided about what, if anything, should be done about it. The bottom line is that Obama appears to be on the fence and is more concerned with getting the facts straight than scoring political points.
So What's The Difference?
Hillary Clinton wants to protect children at all costs and doesn't seem to understand that videogames are sometimes violent and sexual (actually, sexuality is rare in videogames) because adults buy them for themselves. She appears to be trying to appeal to the fearful non-gamer constituency.
Barack Obama appears to be on the fence. He doesn't think games are an ideal way for kids to spend their time -- but he isn't jumping to conclusions, either. He talks more about giving parents "tools" than he does enacting any laws. He appears to be trying to appeal to the non-gaming and gaming audience equally, pleasing both with his rhetoric while also not offending them.
Now, you can go to our forums and post your own conclusions!
Two Weeks from Now!: The Republicans McCain and Huckabee too, if he's still in it, also, word count permitting: Independent Ralph Nader and maybe Republican/Libertarian Ron Paul (no promises, is he still in the race at all?).