The Political Game: The Bully bash

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

Is the Bully controversy overdone?

When was the last time a video game got the attention of British Prime Minister Tony Blair? Name another game title which spawned multiple protest marches, or got tagged as a "Columbine simulator?"

You can't, because it never happened. Not until Bully came along.

Calling the game a "Columbine simulator," of course, is pure, unadulterated nonsense. It's just a slogan, designed to be memorable and help drive an anti-game agenda, much like "Hello, Moto" was created to pitch you a mobile phone.

But setting aside the game-hate coming out of Miami for just a moment, let's focus on the rest of the world. Frankly, no one should be surprised by the negative reactions to Bully among non-gamers. There are several factors at play here.

It was a no-brainer that educators and parents were going to despise this game. Bullying prevention is a big, big issue in education circles these days – as it should be. Bully victims – and who hasn't been one at some point? – tend to suffer from self-esteem issues, depression and the like. Childhood bullies are much likelier to grow up to be abusive adults and come into contact with the criminal justice system. And they could wind up being your nasty, overbearing boss someday. Maybe one already is.

All of that has nothing to do with the video game controversy, of course, but this simple fact does: advocates will always advocate. It's what they do. The AARP lobbies for senior citizens; the NRA speaks for gun owners; and teachers and guidance counselors watch out for kids. If educators get a whiff of something that smells like it may harm children, they're going to scream first, ask questions later. Is it knee-jerk? It can be, but it's done in good faith. We don't have to like it; it's just the way it is.

Rockstar's reputation, however, is throwing gasoline on this fire. The company enjoys major cred with gamers and none at all with parents and teachers. The latter groups were never fond of the GTA series to begin with. Hot Coffee and the corporate dissembling that accompanied it put the final nail in that particular coffin. Thus, the people most concerned with bullying issues are among the least likely to place any trust in the intentions of Bully's developer. The company's standard tight-lipped policy didn't help. For many months an impression that gamers played the role of a bully went unchecked. We now know that protagonist Jimmy Hopkins is actually a good guy, but that's because you and I devoured all of the previews and watched all of the trailers.

Shed no tears for Rockstar, however. They took a corporate decision to make a game around a bullying theme. They've built a pretty lucrative business on edgy games designs and pushing the content envelope. They did the calculus beforehand. They knew this kind of heat would be coming.

Frankly, though, the legal action that took place in Miami last week is more than a little scary. How is it possible for a multi-year creative endeavor to be ordered delivered into the hands of a non-gaming county judge to see what he thinks? How many federal courts have already ruled that video games are protected speech? How can any video game, much less a bloodless, T-rated one, be a public nuisance? Can anyone with an activist agenda, in any town, walk into court, file some papers and force a game developer to defend their creation? Could Gears of War be someone's idea of a public nuisance? Need For Speed: Carbon? Twilight Princess? Where does it end?

Is a book protected speech? Of course. Could a book lay out a plan for hatred or mayhem? Yes. Can you buy Mein Kampf in Florida? The Anarchist Cookbook? Osama Bin Laden's Messages to the World?

The answers are -- of course -- yes, yes and yes. We may not like those books; most of us would find them repugnant.

But we've got a little thing in this country called free speech. Works pretty well. Let's not mess with it.


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

This article was originally published on Joystiq.