The Political Game: Who will save gamers? [update 1]

Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:

Despite an uninterrupted string of constitutional defeats, politicians continue to seek ways to legislate video games. In state capitals from Salt Lake City to Albany, political Captain Ahabs are poring over court opinions, seeking the Great White Legal Loophole. Elected officials and culture cops are tweaking the legalese and experimenting with new tactics – such as equating violent games with pornography. For all their bluster, however, they haven't yet been able to pass even a single law that has survived judicial review.

And they probably never will. The First Amendment, it's a powerful thing.

The collective weight of the critics, however, is taking its toll on the public image of both gamers and the industry. Even the major players feel it. Back in May, ESA boss Doug Lowenstein told the Washington Post. "I don't want to be seen as, 'Here's the guy who defends hideous violent games.'" And while I was at E3, a big-time game company executive -- you'd know the name -- expressed to me in confidence serious reservations over game violence. And that's not a bad thing. It's healthy for the industry to take its own temperature once in a while.

But as gamers, we know the magic of video games, their power to enlighten, entertain and build community. Those who never pick up a controller, however, base their opinions on T.V. news sound bites. Thus, your average soccer mom is convinced that every off-the-wall Flash game is an industry product and that no kid ever picked up a bat or a gun car until prompted to do so by those mysterious cranial menus implanted by video games.

Who will save gamers from this nonsense?

In a perfect world, an industry evangelist would come to the rescue. This person would be appealing to the mainstream, have a zest for mixing it up with critics, not get upset when compared to Saddam Hussein, and understand how to convey the positive power of games. If this seems like you, quick -- send your resume to the ESA. If I were headhunting for this position, I'd be thinking of someone like Reggie Fils-Aime, only with a bit of a snarl when things get ugly. Can you snarl, Reggie?

But Wii all know Fils-Aime is not leaving Nintendo, which leaves just one man gamers can turn to:

Jon Stewart.

The Daily Show host, of course, is not and will never be part of the video game industry. But he is a gamer. And his early-summer skewering of game-legislating Congressmen was a thousand times more effective than any political move I've ever seen the ESA make in public. Rep. Cliff Stearns and his subcommittee gave Doug Lowenstein and ESRB boss Pat Vance a real grilling during the June 14th hearing. But Stewart took the politicians apart piece-by-piece on The Daily Show a few days later. Deftly revealing their pomposity, political grandstanding and utter lack of connection with games, Stewart may well have laid waste to a political career or two. Most of the damage, however, was done by the politicians' own words.

Texas Rep. Joe Barton, for example, sounded silly when he said, "I have to confess, Mr. Chairman, that I am also a video game player. I have worked my way up to Civilization IV. I haven't yet been able to beat it but I at least understand the fundamentals of it."

Congressman, whatever it is you're selling, I'm not buying. Worked your way up from what? Are you saying you beat Civ III? What does "understand the fundamentals" mean? You watched an intern play the tutorial?

Pennsylvania's Joe Pitts, mocked by Stewart for saying that violent games might affect ghetto children differently from affluent kids, actually protested -- after his opponent in a tough election campaign exploited The Daily Show fiasco for political gain.

And that's precisely why Jon Stewart could be the savior of games. People tune in. For many younger viewers, it's the only news program they watch. Stewart, and colleague Stephen Colbert are seen as smart, funny, credible and relentlessly sticking it to the man. Elected officials, on the other hand, can't afford to come off as bumbling, low-tech and clueless. Naturally, Stewart helps them do so on a nightly basis.

Second only to an audit of campaign finances, politicians fear damage to their carefully-honed images. A bit of good-natured bantering with Stewart can help a pol's image enormously, as it has done for John McCain. On the other hand, a few seconds of looking foolish on The Daily Show, followed by endless replays on YouTube could add up to an eventual concession speech.

Let's all hope for more Daily Show segments on game legislation.

[Update: Modified slightly for readability.]

Dennis McCauley is Editor of and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at

This article was originally published on Joystiq.