Playing Politics: The 2008 Presidential Candidates on Videogames
The most important election of our lives ... until 2012.
Let's face it, we all vote based on our own interests -- whether they're about lower taxes, healthcare, pulling our troops out of Iraq, a woman's right to choose, or Second Amendment Rights. Why should gamers be any different? Obviously, you won't be voting for a candidate based on this issue alone (you would be a fool if you did), but perhaps being armed with a little bit more knowledge will make your decision easier.
I have not seen a serious attempt to define where the candidates stand on videogames. Sure, we know that Barack Obama is aligned with Hillary Clinton and that John McCain "pals around with Lieberman" (Sens. Clinton and Joseph Lieberman are two of the most vocal critics of the interactive entertainment industry), but where do the candidates themselves stand? When their attention fades for the big issues we currently face, what will they do about videogames?
All roads lead to Nov. 4th, 2008.
With this in mind, I present you with an examination of both Barack Obama's and John McCain's records on videogames -- without the venom, spin and talking points. Still, I encourage you to get out there and do your own research, and ignore all the pundits and politicos. As you stand alone inside the voting booth, the only opinion that matters is your own, so make that decision with an opinion that is well informed.
Let's start with the senator from Illinois. Barack Obama has a neutral position on videogames, though he sees mass media consumption by America's children as a distraction from their academic growth.
In a Common Sense Media survey of the Republican and Democratic primary candidates published on Dec. 10, 2007, Sen. Obama was asked if he would support federal legislation to keep violent videogames out of kids' hands. Obama said that he would call upon the videogame industry to "give parents better information about programs and video games by improving the voluntary rating system we currently have. Broadcasters and video game producers should take it upon themselves to improve this system to include easier to find and easier to understand descriptions of exactly what kind of content is included."
Obama proposes government involvement in the system: "But if the industry fails to act, then my administration would. And even if the industry does do some responsible self-policing, there's still a role for the federal government to play. We need to understand the impact of these new media better. That's why I supported federal funding to study the impact of video games on children's cognitive development."
(Republican candidate John McCain did not participate in the Common Sense Media survey.)
Senator Obama used the "entertainment is a distraction" theme in a number of speeches given during his Senate career. In a speech to the 99th NAACP Convention on July 12, 2008, he spoke about capturing the American dream for our children: "That starts with providing the guidance our children need, turning off the TV, and putting away the video games; attending those parent-teacher conferences, helping our children with their homework, and setting a good example."
Change or more of the same?
In another speech before the Kaiser Family Foundation, Obama used stronger language to describe the ill influence that media can have on American kids: "We don't teach our children that healthy relationships involve drunken, naked parties in a hot tub with strangers -- but that's what they see when they turn on The Real World. We don't teach them to express their anger by seeing how much blood they can draw with a round of ammo -- but that's what they learn in the most popular video games. And we don't teach our kids that the height of success is inheriting a family fortune to buy Gucci bags without ever working a serious day in your life - but that's how Paris Hilton gets by on The Simple Life. You can say that kids know this isn't real, but when they're fed a steady diet of these depictions over and over again from the time they're very young, this behavior becomes acceptable -- even normal."
At a campaign stop in Indianapolis in April, Obama and wife Michelle referenced the new Grand Theft Auto game as an example of entertainment's growing influence on American children: "I was just catching the news this morning about Grand Theft Auto ? which is going to break all records, make goo-gobs of money for whoever designed it," he told the crowd. "Now this isn't intended for kids, I understand -- although I promise you there will be kids who are playing it. But those video games are raising our kids."
"And it's not just one specific game," Michelle added.
"? the video culture, the TV culture -- across the board, middle class, upper class, working class kids -- they're spending a huge amount of time not on their studies, but on entertainment," Obama said.
This is not a new theme for Obama. In June 2005 he delivered a speech entitled "Literacy and Education in a 21st-Century Economy" that described how parents are using entertainment to pacify children and avoid the real work of parenting, and children are tempted by technology instead of reading books or studying.
Finally, at a town hall meeting in Illinois, Obama answered a student question about what he was going to do to stop what was happening to the current generation. In his answer he talked about reducing the deficit, improving the economy and fixing healthcare. Then he added: "The bad news is you're going to have to work harder. Youth culture is one of "watching TV, playing video games and avoiding tough classes in school."
For Barack Obama, videogames represent a distraction -- a way to promote unacceptable behavior and underachievement. This is not to say that his rhetoric does not have some truth to it, but it suggests that he might not see the merits of videogames like Wii Sports, Wii Fit and Brain Age.
The senator from Arizona has been consistently quiet on videogame violence through most of his career -- except in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, the worst school shooting in our nation's history.
On April 17, 1999, politicians started demanding some serious answers. McCain, along with senators Joe Lieberman, Ed Markey and Dan Burton, sent a letter to President Clinton urging him to do something: "This is a problem which we, like you and the First Lady, have been concerned about for some time. Scores of studies, hearings, and protests of angry and fearful parents have convinced us that the multimedia onslaught our children are exposed to every day is doing real harm, desensitizing kids to the consequences of violence, teaching them that gunplay is a reasonable way to settle disputes, and increasing the likelihood that life will tragically imitate art."
This letter set off a year of Washington scrutiny on violent media and gun laws. As that letter went to the White House, the senate issued a resolution calling for the Attorney General to commission a study on violent media. (The Surgeon General of the United States had last issued a comprehensive report on violence and the media in 1971.)
Maverick or maniac?
McCain held a press conference on media violence on April 28, 1999, asking the president to convene an "emergency summit of the major entertainment conglomerates, and the interactive media industry." He also talked of the need to help parents: "They need help because our homes and our families -- our children's minds, are being flooded by a tide of violence. This dehumanizing violence pervades our society: our movies depict graphic violence; our children are taught to kill and maim by interactive video games; the Internet, which holds such tremendous potential in so many ways, is tragically used by some to communicate unimaginable hatred, images and descriptions of violence, and "how-to" manuals on everything from bomb construction to drugs."
On May 2, 1999, McCain and Lieberman introduced the "Media Violence Labeling Act," which would amend the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act to apply warning label requirements to violent media products. The McCain-Lieberman bill, which did not include TV programs, gave the entertainment media industries six months to establish a universal labeling system for videogames, video programs, motion pictures and music. (This bill obviously never went anywhere, because each industry has its own self-imposed ratings systems.)
On May 10, McCain encouraged other senators to come together to create a National Youth Violence Commission. In that statement he said that "dehumanizing violence" was pervading society, and that videogames were teaching our children "to kill and maim." The legislation for that commission was approved on May 20.
On May 12 he issued a http://mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressOffice.OpEds&C... target="_blank">statement on the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB): "? [the ESRB] should reclassify gore-filled games, which are almost all rated "mature," for players 17 and up, to the more restrictive "adults only," so that the likes of Doom don't fall into the wrong hands."
McCain succeeded in convincing then-President Bill Clinton to create a study, and the Senate to form a commission, on youth violence. He finally called on Hollywood to "voluntarily limit" media violence. "Media industry leaders ? should come together and voluntarily commit to reining in the toxic mix of sex and violence that has come to dominate so many of the products they produce and negatively affect our children today," said McCain.
McCain's stance on videogames has softened in recent years, perhaps because the industry has done a fair job of policing itself and making serious changes to the way games are rated and labeled. Most recently, at a town hall meeting earlier this year in New Hampshire, McCain said that parents should be the ones to decide [on videogames and media] for their kids on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to the government.
The candidates shake hands after a 90-minute snoozefest.
McCain has avoided voting for some of the more high-profile legislation sponsored by Sens. Lieberman and Clinton, and Obama has been very careful to avoid votes on bills that would regulate videogames. No matter which candidate you are leaning towards, this is great news if you are a gamer: Both candidates have, thus far, not supported a legislative takeover of the ESRB.
While I've outlined some of the public statements both candidates have made on videogames, I encourage you to go out there and find the truth yourself -- and make the most informed decision you can. Check out the resources included below, search for the issues that matter to you, and then go and vote on Nov. 4th.
Resources used for this article: