It may be Game Over for 2007, but the political ripples of the past twelve months will be felt long into the New Year. And while Jack Thompson made a lot of noise – as usual – the culture war over video games extended far beyond the city limits of Miami. It was, more than ever before, truly an international struggle as game violence raised concerns among politicians in Italy, Germany, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Holland, Mexico, Chile and elsewhere. Even Pope Benedict XVI took time to criticize video game violence.
There were controversial games aplenty, led of course, by Manhunt 2. In June, Rockstar's controversial title was officially banned in Britain and effectively deep-sixed in the United States thanks to the sales-killing Adults Only label slapped on by the ESRB. Rockstar eventually made sufficient changes to get Manhunt 2 onto U.S. store shelves. At that point we learned that the controversy was far more interesting than the game itself, which garnered lukewarm reviews. As 2007 winds down, Rockstar still faces a court fight to get Manhunt 2 released in the U.K.
Also causing a stir in Merry Olde England was PlayStation 3 launch title Resistance: Fall of Man. Officials of the Church of England objected to the use of Manchester Cathedral as a mission setting and British politicians up to and including Tony Blair joined in the condemnation of Resistance. Sony eventually apologized – sort of.
In fact, the U.K. has more or less become Ground Zero in the debate over video game content. Game industry types are on pins and needles awaiting the results of a study currently underway by Dr. Tanya Byron. The TV shrink was appointed to the task by no less a personage than Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Pandemic's upcoming Mercenaries 2: World in Flames caused a stir among some who objected to its inclusion of an assault mission in Venezuela. Critics took this as U.S. warmongering and appealed directly to Bono, a major Pandemic investor.
In Mexico, the Mayor of Juarez called for the seizure of all copies of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, calling the game "a crime against the intellectual capacity of Juarez residents." At issue were cross-border battles in the game between an elite U.S. force and a band of Mexican rebels.
New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly both expressed dismay that the upcoming Grand Theft Auto IV would be set in a virtual version of the Big Apple.
One of the most controversial games of the year wasn't even a commercial product. V-Tech Rampage, the putrid creation of a creepy Australian amateur, sparked global outrage for its callous treatment of the Virginia Tech massacre. Worse still, it has been repeatedly seized upon by politicians as a criticism of games in general even though it has no connection to the video game business and can't be bought in any store.
The Virginia Tech massacre itself brought negative attention to violent games following Jack Thompson's appearance on Fox News on the day of the rampage. Even before the bodies had been recovered, Thompson suggested that the killer had likely trained on Counter-Strike. Ultimately, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's blue ribbon panel would determine that homicidal maniac Hseung Hui Cho played nothing more sinister than Sonic the Hedgehog.
Thompson was a busy fellow in 2007. The Florida Bar put him on trial late in the year for alleged ethical misconduct which included Thompson's antics in an Alabama wrongful death lawsuit against Rockstar Games. Also at issue was Thompson's courtroom behavior during his attempt to have Bully declared a public nuisance. Following nearly two weeks of testimony, the referee in the Bar trial has delayed her decision until next spring. Shortly thereafter, a New Mexico judge tossed out yet another of Thompson's wrongful death suits. This one blamed GTA Vice City for sparking a 2004 triple murder.
In February the controversial attorney was sued by Take Two Interactive, a longtime target of Thompson's. The case was eventually settled. Thompson tried to add gaming blog Kotaku as a defendant in his federal lawsuit against the Florida Bar and alleged that a number of game-related websites (including Joystiq) were part of a vast RICO conspiracy against him. He later removed those allegations from his lawsuit. In November, Thompson tried to add GamePolitics and the Entertainment Consumers Association as defendants in his suit against the Florida Bar (might I add, WTH?) but U.S. District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan refused to allow it.
For those with a taste for Auld Lang Syne, there were some noteworthy comings and goings in 2007. Doug Lowenstein departed the ESA after serving as the organization's only president for more than a decade. He was replaced by Mike Gallagher, a former official of the Bush administration. Although we haven't yet seen enough of Gallagher to really be sure, he seems to be primarily focused on IP protection issues. The ESA improved its Video Game Voters Network website in 2007 but lost points with gamers following a series of controversial mod chip raids carried out against U.S. citizens in concert with Homeland Security agents.
Controversial Take Two CEO Paul Eibeler also moved on, ousted in a long overdue shareholder rebellion. Veteran media exec Strauss Zelnick replaced the inept Eibeler and guided the corporate ship with a much surer hand. Zelnick stood firm behind Manhunt 2 while controversy raged; he held a secret Manhattan meeting with Jack Thompson; and he showed off a bit of GTA IV at E3. Although Zelnick has denied it, rumors persist that Take Two will ultimately be gobbled up by a larger fish. Zelnick wrapped up a good year by saving the life of a choking woman at Take Two's holiday party.
Game legislation waned a bit in 2007, possibly because elected officials took notice of how badly the 2005-2006 crop of bills fared in federal court. Only New York came close to passing a bill this year, but the Empire State's game law eventually stalled, a victim of political bickering between Gov. Eliot Spitzer and State Senate Republicans.
On the legislative front, California's 2005 game law was overturned by a U.S. District Court judge. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger immediately filed an appeal. Louisiana had to pony up $92,000 to the game industry thanks to the unconstitutionality of its 2006 Jack Thompson-authored law. Oklahoma's 2006 video game law was also overturned, leaving game biz lawyers with a perfect 9-0 record against legislation so far.
Although they won't say so publicly, the ESRB was clearly on a campaign to court U.S. politicians in 2007. The video game industry's content rating organization partnered on ratings awareness campaigns with elected officials in Texas, Rhode Island, Utah, Georgia, Delaware, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Mississippi, Idaho and Pennsylvania. Many of these partnerships included ESRB-produced public service announcements, which are a sweet deal for political figures who don't mind aligning themselves with the video game industry. The ESRB pays for the spots and TV stations air them for free because they are a public service. For elected officials, the bottom line is free TV face time with the voters.
Flanked by two U.S. senators and a congresswoman, the National Institute on Media and Family issued its Annual Video Game Report Card in late November. NIMF accused the game industry of an "ominous backslide," but questions about the accuracy of NIMF's secret shopper numbers marred the organization's overall credibility.
The Federal Trade Commission, on the other hand, issued a mixed report on the game industry's efforts to keep violent content away from underage players. The FTC gave the industry kudos for its efforts at point-of-sale, but spanked the game biz for marketing M-rated games on venues frequented by the younger crowd.
Perhaps you've noticed that there is a presidential campaign afoot. Republican candidates Sam Brownback and Mitt Romney both targeted video game content in their platforms. It didn't help Brownback, who dropped out of the race in October. On the Democratic side, frontrunner Hillary Clinton told Common Sense Media that she could get behind video game legislation. Opponents Barack Obama and John Edwards seemed to favor industry self-regulation.
Republican Mike Huckabee tried his hand at Guitar Hero while on the stump in New Hampshire, while Democratic long shot Mike Gravel touted himself as a Halo 3 stud in a whimsical campaign video. A number of candidates had some sort of presence in Second Life and, as we go to press, supporters of Internet darling Ron Paul are organizing a campaign march from Ironforge to Stormwind in World of Warcraft.
Game consumers got a huge boost in 2007 as the Entertainment Consumers Association ramped up its efforts to lobby on behalf of gamers. Of course, I'm prejudiced (the ECA owns GamePolitics), but, hey, if you're a gamer, who else has your back? Under founder Hal Halpin's guidance the ECA began the process of forming local chapters and backed gamer-submitted videos for the recent CNN/YouTube Republican debate.
On the silly side, a Wisconsin legislator proposed a 1% game tax to fund a juvenile justice program. An Iowa politician bashed his colleagues for playing Solitaire while the legislature was in session. And Las Vegas city officials went after Midway Games over the publisher's attempt to trademark the phrase "only in Vegas" for an upcoming game. Las Vegas, of course, is run by Mayor Oscar Goodman (pictured above), who made last year's list by targeting Rainbow Six Vegas for besmirching the reputation of Sin City.
With so much happening, can there be any doubt that video games are on the radar of politicians around the world? By the way, 2008 is Election Year in the U.S. so be sure to check where the candidates stand on video game issues.
... and don't forget to vote.
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