The Political Game: Throwing free speech under the bus

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

M-rated games can't ride the bus anymore in Boston or Portland, Oregon. Can't ride the train, either. The respective transit authorities in those towns have banned all future ads encompassing M-rated games.

Of course, the game they were really gunning for -- but missed -- was a Grand Theft Auto title, Vice City Stories. Transit ads promoting GTA:VCS which ran last November set the Boston censor-crats off. But by censoring GTA, critics like the Parents Television Council and the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood have closed the door to advertising for every other M-rated game as well. Victims of the ban will include some very artistic titles like Jade Empire 2 and God of War 2 as well as games like Halo 3 that, while violent, don't include hot button content such as shooting cops or robbing hookers.

Why then are games singled out? Why is it okay for HBO to place a huge advertisement for the final episodes of The Sopranos on buses in Boston and Portland while the M-rated video game based on the hit show would be banned from such advertising?

Games ads very nearly got kicked off the bus in Denver, too. There, a committee of the Regional Transit District (RTD), responding to a request from the local chapter of the Parents Television Council, recommended banning ads for M-rated games system-wide. Fortunately, the organization's board rejected the ban, citing legal concerns.

Now I'm already on record as not being a fan of GTA-style game play. But this new tactic -- and that's exactly what it is -- needs to be addressed by the video game industry, and quickly. Otherwise it will snowball into a national movement. I'm not sure why the ESA sat on its hands during the Boston controversy. There, under political pressure, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority revised its guidelines for accepting ads for video games. As a justification for doing so, the MBTA equated M-rated games with X-rated movies. That's a comparison that is both wrong and one that the industry cannot afford to let stand.

So it was good to see an ESA representative getting involved in the Denver case. It obviously had the desired effect, since the RTD backed off the ban. Having won in Denver, the ESA should immediately file suit against the MBTA to reverse the Boston decision. After all, the transit authority is a quasi-public agency which receives government funding. It has no business being in the censorship business.

The point here is simple. The game industry needs to vigorously defend its creative products. Sure, GTA rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But unpopular speech is always most in need of protection.


Dennis McCauley is the Political Editor for the Entertainment Consumers Association (www.theeca.com), tracks the political side of video games at GamePolitics.com 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.