Why the Video Game Industry is Losing the Culture War

The battle rages, but the video game industry is well along the road to losing the culture war in the United States. That this could be happening at a point in which games enjoy unprecedented commercial popularity is simply mind boggling.

How can this be?

Chalk it up to mismanagement at both the corporate and industry level; cold, calculating greed; political opportunism, Hot Coffee or all of the above. The net effect has handed rational critics and wild-eyed culture cops alike a bonanza of ammunition, far more than they ever had a right to expect as 2005 began.

The cultural tipping point can be seen most clearly in the abundance of video game legislation around the country. Legislators in Michigan and Illinois have approved bills designed to keep violent games out of the hands of minors. The respective governors of those states have enthusiastically signed the bills into law. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is mulling over whether he should sign or veto yet another video game bill. He is under intense pressure from both sides of the debate, with political heavyweights like Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) urging him to sign the bill into law, while trade groups like the ESA, representing game publishers and the IEMA, representing retailers, are lobbying for a veto.

If you're not convinced, just do the math: Prior to 2005 there were but three significant laws that attempted to restrict minors' access to video game content. Each of these, in St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Washington State, was struck down on constitutional grounds. Depending on what Arnold does in California, we could see three such laws this year alone. The level of political interest in the video game space is truly unprecedented.

Several other states have seen proposed video game laws progress along the legislative track this year before slipping off the rails for one reason or another. Some of these bills, most notably in North Carolina, will surely be back for another try in the next legislative session. And elected officials across the country are watching events in California, Michigan and Illinois closely, no doubt considering legislation of their own. If any of the contested video game laws manages to survive the industry's First Amendment challenges, expect a slew of copycat bills in 2006.

Clearly, activists and politicians have forced the video game industry into an uncomfortable -- and unaccustomed -- defensive posture. And not all of the political activity shows up as legislation. Sen. Schumer gets a lot of mileage -- and coverage -- from his ongoing crusade against Eidos' upcoming cops-and-robbers shooter 25 to Life. In August New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to block an outdoor event promoting Atari's graffiti-themed Marc Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. A pair of state legislators in Massachusetts roughed up Rockstar's Bully just last week. And the Grand Theft Auto series has been assailed by more politicians at more levels than I could possibly list here.

Special interest groups are increasingly wading into the fray as well. The Commissioner of the NYPD along with top union officials representing New York's finest have recently taken on Activision's upcoming True Crime: New York City, for its anticipated depiction of rogue cop behavior. Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), a national support organization dedicated to the survivors of officers killed in the line of duty has come out against 25 to Life. The Peaceoholics, a grassroots antiviolence organization from Washington, D.C., took their outrage over Bully to Rockstar's Manhattan headquarters in a protest last month. And of course, Dr. David Walsh of the National Institute for Media and the Family stood beside Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in July as she called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation of the Hot Coffee scandal and vowed to introduce video game legislation on the senate floor.

Although some may disagree with the views expressed by video game critics and even call their motivations into question, the fact remains that these are not wild-eyed fanatics. She may not know Xbox from X-COM, but when Hillary Clinton speaks, people listen. Lots and lots of people.

In this respect, ESA President Doug Lowenstein nailed it during this year's E3 keynote speech when he said, "...you don't have to be a cynical politician or a cultural extremist to raise questions about video game content. There are many thoughtful, rational people who share the concerns. And we ignore them at our own peril...it is fair for critics, and us, to ask whether everything that is cool and pushes the envelope is, in fact, creatively necessary."

With its point man so obviously in tune with the current political and cultural landscape, how is it that the video game business is awash in a tide of restrictive legislation and bad press?

It mostly comes down to poor strategic choices. By waging a primarily defensive campaign, the industry is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the public. Let's face it. Parents -- an important electoral demographic -- are bombarded with negative stereotypes about video games. These moms and dads are properly concerned about what their children might be exposed to while playing. The industry can spout all of the statistics it likes about increases in the average age of gamers, but the fact remains that in the minds of a large number of non-gamers, video games have always been -- will always be -- child's play. When those folks see a hidden sex scene in a game reported on the evening news, they are not considering that the product was rated "M" to begin with. Rather, they are thinking that the video game industry must be run by a cabal of greedy cultural corruptors, out to make a fast buck by pandering to society's baser instincts.

Indeed, Democrats -- and the successful video game bills of 2005 have all been driven by Democrats -- have found that playing to this type of visceral parental reaction is a viable strategy for reconnecting with married parents, an important demographic which they ceded to the Republicans in the last two presidential elections.

What's more, in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and other scandals, distrust of corporate America is at an all-time high. If they didn't realize it before the Hot Coffee fiasco, parents understand now that their concerns about video game content are not necessarily shared by all in the game development and publishing community.

So how does the video game business deal with this gut-level culture clash?

It is no longer sufficient for the industry to sit quietly back, ignoring the critics while the money rolls in. There are too many naysayers, speaking too loudly and in a language that the general public understands. In this politically-charged environment, even a strident culture cop like Jack Thompson gets air time in the national media because he understands one overriding fact: The news abhors a vacuum. The industry, on the other hand, is reactive at best. Too often they are silent. The opportunities are there to get the word out, to provide counterpoint to the critics. These opportunities should be seized upon aggressively.

The industry also needs to prove to parents and politicians that it is truly interested in keeping adult game content in the hands of adult gamers. Some outside representation on the ESRB might be a good place to start. And while the ESA's First Amendment stance has succeeded against legislative efforts so far, parents and critics eye such arguments cynically. Mom and Dad don't want to hear that their twelve-year-old son has a constitutional right to play San Andreas; they simply want to be assured that he won't be able to get his hands on the game.

In the end, the ESA can't do it alone. Developers and publishers need to face up to gaming's new cultural and political reality as well.

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