Where video games and politics mix
EmptyWay back in 1976, critics expressed outrage at a rather simplistic arcade game called "Death Race" whose black-and-white blips, they said, simulated vehicular homicide. The players' goal was to drive around and run down gremlins. Thirty years later, video games are still being taken to task by politicians and others who support legislation designed to protect children from the violence of games like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Bully." Dennis McCauley chronicles the barbs and jabs aimed at the video games industry in his popular Web site "GamePolitics.com" which was just acquired by the newly formed Entertainment Consumers Association. McCauley, who has been the video games columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1998, was named one of gaming's top 50 journalists this year by NextGeneration.com. HollywoodReporter.com columnist Paul Hyman spoke with McCauley about the growing pressure on the video games industry, how publishers ought to get off the defensive, and some predictions for the next year or two.
The Hollywood Reporter: It's almost two years now since you launched GamePolitics.com which, as its slogan indicates, is all about "Where politics and video games collide." In those 20 months, have things gotten better or worse for the games industry?
Dennis McCauley: No question that, in the political sense, things have gotten much worse for the industry. Financially, it's doing great but, in the political arena, not so well. You only need to look at the amount of video game legislation that's not only been proposed but is actually passing. Prior to 2004, in the whole history of video games, only three bills ever made it through their respective legislative bodies and were signed into law. All were overturned by appeals courts. In 2005 alone, three bills were signed into law -- in Michigan, California, and Illinois. In 2006, three more made it -- in Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. And that doesn't include all the bills that didn't make it or are still going through the process. Now all of them have either been defeated in the courts or have been temporarily blocked pending final decisions. But, still, the sheer volume of legislation has jumped dramatically since 2005.
THR: Why is that? Video games have been around for 30 years. Why all of a sudden are things coming to a head?
McCauley: The primary reason is last year's "Hot Coffee" incident [involving the discovery of hidden sex animations embedded in the game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas"] . It convinced the legislators who were in favor of the industry regulating itself -- or perhaps they were sitting on the fence -- that the industry couldn't be depended upon to adequately police itself. In fact, California's Assembly Speaker Leland Yee has said that, in June of 2005, the bill he had proposed was dead in the water without the legislative support it needed to get out of committee. Then, a month later, along comes "Hot Coffee" and -- boom! By September the bill was passed and, in early October, it was signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger. It was very clear that the industry's credibility had taken a tremendous hit.
THR: Violence seems to be the biggest rap critics have against video games. What are others?
McCauley: Yes, violence is the one that comes up over and over again. And while no one has proven that there is a correlation between violent games and actual violence, you do hear a lot of people suggesting that there is that connection. So that's the number one issue. And the industry doesn't do itself any favors with games like "25 To Life" and others where there's violence against authority figures, like police and teachers. Parents don't want to think that their kids are out there imitating that kind of behavior.
The other big issue is when the industry gets blamed for something for which it's not responsible. For example, there are gamers who are creating online content and releasing it onto the Internet, stuff that some people are finding objectionable. And it's getting publicity in the newspapers. Earlier this year there was a racist game called "Border Patrol" [that involved shooting immigrants trying to cross the U.S. border]. It wasn't even a video games industry product. But the next thing you know, Louisiana is considering legislature that would restrict underage buyers from purchasing violent video games from retail, and the sponsor of the bill cited "Border Patrol," which isn't sold in retail. That's a great example of people who don't understand video games painting everything with the same brush.
THR: What effect is this having on the industry? Has it become skittish about putting out violent games? I'm not seeing that.
McCauley: No, it's certainly not. I mean, we've got "Scarface" and "The Sopranos" on sale this holiday season. There's plenty of blood and guts around. But the industry is very much aware that even though it's been successful in court, it's not winning in the court of public opinion. I don't think that's hit the industry in the pocketbook yet. The excitement level for new games is certainly high going into the shopping season. It's hard to say what kind of long-term effect the negative publicity will have, if any. Regardless, no one wants to look like a bad corporate citizen and, in some regards, in some circles, the industry is perceived that way.
THR: Why do you think the games industry is such a target? There are other media -- movies, TV, music. Why aren't they similarly targeted? Or are they?
McCauley: Occasionally they are. But there's a whole generation that didn't really grow up with games and doesn't really "get" games. New technology is always a little bit threatening. Even though there are statistics that the average gamer is 32, games are generally perceived to be a big part of youth culture, which is often a bogeyman to the powers that be. So I think that's a large part of it. People don't see the good in games, they only hear about the violence and the "Hot Coffees." And, quite frankly, the traditional, non-gaming news media does tend to whip that up, to highlight the sensational aspects when they occur because it makes a good story.
THR: Talking about the press bashing games, there was so much pre-release bashing of the game "Bully" that, when it finally came out, reviewers were surprised that the game was rather innocent.
McCauley: Well, the "Bully" controversy was whipped up in large part by one particular activist who had a lot of time to whip it up because the game was initially supposed to be released in the fall of '05 but it didn't come out until a year later. The press began calling it a "Columbine simulator," which was ridiculous, but it's a pretty good sound bite, I guess; it sort of sticks with you. There are people who are legitimately concerned about bullying issues and so it was a no-brainer that educators and school boards and parents weren't going to like the idea of the game just based on its title if nothing else.
THR: If you were giving a mark to the industry on how effectively it's fighting back, so to speak, how is it doing?
McCauley: Very, very poorly, to be honest with you. It just doesn't seem to be assertive enough on the positive aspects of what it does. It's one thing to hunker down behind the First Amendment. But the publishers really do have an image problem, and I'm not sure that it's an easy fix. When we say "the industry," I'm thinking in particular of the ESA [Entertainment Software Association], which, after all, represents the game publishers. It doesn't have an easy job representing 25 or 30 individual companies which all have their own interests. I'm not sure how much influence the ESA has on any particular company to say something like "Would you give the rest of us a break and cool it with the violent games?" Maybe that's not even the ESA's place to say that. But I just don't see the industry doing a good job of effectively highlighting all the good points about video games.
THR: If you were running the video games industry, what would you do differently? Make fewer violent games? Or create a PR campaign and point to the nonviolent ones?
McCauley: They have to market the positive aspects more aggressively When people think of games, they think of kids. There needs to be almost a rebranding of the more mature games. Doug Lowenstein [the ESA's president] raised the point himself that perhaps we shouldn't be calling the M-rated [for "mature"] games "games." I'm not sure what we'd call them. But that's a very difficult proposition and would require a major push.
I also think the industry should be more open to outside scrutiny. The industry is very insular, particularly with its rating process. I like the ESRB [Entertainment Software Rating Board] ratings; they're very useful for parents, and I'm a parent myself. But there needs to be some outside representation on the ESRB board or, perhaps, additional transparency to the ratings process.
THR: OK. But it sounds like you're not in favor of legislation banning certain games, or restricting them ...
McCauley: No, not at all. We do have a First Amendment, we do have free speech, and games are a form of speech. I may not be crazy about certain games that I may not care to play myself or I wouldn't want my kids to play, but I certainly don't want to legally restrict anyone's right to go there creatively if that's their creative impulse. Take "Grand Theft Auto," for example. I don't particularly like that style of game, but I've played it and one has to be clueless to try it and say it's not a good game. It has a brilliant game design. So why should anyone legislate against it?
THR: You know, there's an irony here. The publishers are concerned about being criticized for the violence of their games. And yet, when you look at the TV commercials or the magazines ads for the latest games -- or even the clips publishers submit to the Video Game Awards -- it's always the most violent portions of the games that are touted.
McCauley: You're right. But if you're trying to sell an action game, you need to show the action.
THR: If you were to make some predictions ... if we were to sit down a year or two from now to discuss this topic, do you expect there will be changes in the video games and politics situation?
McCauley: I think there will be some evolutionary changes. You know, initially the ESRB came about due to pressure from Sen. Joe Lieberman in the mid-'90s. And I get a sense that the weight of all this collective political pressure that we've been discussing will bring the video games industry to the table for further conversation. Where that might go, I can't really predict. Sen. Hillary Clinton is a smart enough attorney to know that her video games bill isn't going to make it through a Constitutional challenge, so it's going to be interesting to see where she wants to go with that.
THR: And do you have any advice for the video games industry to help it lighten its load?
McCauley: I'd like to see it do a little better job of marketing the positive aspects of many video games. And there are a number of positive aspects. When I think of my kids playing video games, they learn allocation of scarce resources and manual dexterity and problem solving and teamwork. I mean, there are just so many things you can highlight about video games, and I'd like to see the industry do a better job of that -- and try and be less on the defensive.
THR: Let's go back then to that comment you made -- that if a publisher has an action game, it needs to highlight the action in commercials. If, instead, the publisher wanted to accent the positive, as you're suggesting, how would it do that? What are the positive aspects of a violent first-person shooter?
McCauley: I'm not talking about any particular game. I think that, in general, the industry could do a better job of selling itself as a modern means of expression, of communication, expressing the positive aspects that come from playing video games. Many games will teach you how to strategize, to think one step ahead, to cooperate with others in multiplayer situations. There are a lot of positive aspects to games and I don't think there's quite enough focus on that.
Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.