The Political Game: Going negative

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

It's obvious to anyone who watches T.V., listens to the radio or gives a second glance to their junk mail: political campaign ads these days are almost exclusively of the negative variety.

The just-completed 2006 mid-term elections saw video game issues raised more than ever before. In the run-up to Tuesday's Democratic sweep, a number of campaign commercials either touted their candidates' positions on regulating video game content or attacked opponents for failing to do so.

U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and Rick Santorum both had commercials that mentioned video game content issues. She won, he lost.

In Indiana, incumbent Republican Congressman Mike Sodrel's campaign ran a nasty attack ad bashing his opponent, Democrat Baron Hill, for voting against a 1999 amendment to a juvenile crime bill that would have placed restrictions on video game sales.

The dramatic ad featured a black screen with audio of young boys, apparently playing GTA, and saying things like:

"Hit the hooker with the tire iron!" "Steal the old lady's car." "Shoot her first!"

Typically, the negative commercial left out the rest of the story, including the fact that 92 Republicans in Congress also voted against the measure because it had First Amendment problems. But the story has a happy ending. The sleazy campaign ad didn't help Sodrel, who lost his seat in the House to Baron Hill.

And if you think politicians don't worry about being raked over the coals for their video game voting record, think again. Last year, when the Illinois legislature was considering Gov. Rod Blagojevich's ill-fated video game bill, a handful of legislators openly expressed their opinion that it was bad law, but said they couldn't vote against it. State Senator Mike Jacobs told the Associated Press, "I'm going to vote for this bill, but I'm voting for it for one reason -- because this is a political bill. If I vote against it, it will show up in a campaign mail piece."

I'm not sure if Jacobs is brave for speaking up or cowardly for voting to pass an unconstitutional bill which eventually cost Illinois taxpayers a half-million bucks. Maybe a little of both.

In the Bizarro World logic which seems to drive the American political process, a vote against video game legislation will automatically be twisted by one's opponents into an endorsement of video game violence and Hot Coffee sex scenes. That's the reason so many video game laws pass by wide – even unanimous -- margins in their respective legislatures, only to immediately fail on constitutional grounds when placed before a federal judge.

So what's the next logical step?

In future campaigns -- and this will happen sooner rather than later -- expect to see vicious political attacks on candidates for the video games they play - or played. Or perhaps blogged about, even many years in the past.

Imagine someone who is a college-age gamer today running for Congress in the 2018 mid-terms. Suddenly an opponent -- using Super-Google or whatever the elite search engine is a dozen years hence -- digs up our gamer's old MySpace -- the one where he talks about his love for first-person shooters, the GTA series and Bully.

Voila! Instant attack ad, replete with grainy -- by 2018 standards -- video of a San Andreas drive-by or a Bully boy-kiss.

It's bound to happen.

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.