The Political Game: Welcome to the Slippery Slope

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

If you pay attention to the First Amendment arguments offered in defense of video games, you'll often hear reference to something called the "slippery slope." This does not refer to a downhill run in a new snowboarding game. The term is often used to warn against those who promise they will only censor us a little bit. For example, passing laws restricting video game sales might not seem to impact society at large, but it starts us down that slippery slope of censorship. Who knows where it might end? This month Grand Theft Auto IV might be restricted, but what do the hypocritical politicians and culture cops target next? Halo 3? Hip-hop? Comic books? Ulysses?

The video game industry is facing a bit of a slippery slope problem right now in Massachusetts – and it is, to a certain extent, their own fault. There, Mayor Thomas Menino is pushing legislation which would classify violent games as "harmful to minors" in the same legal sense as porn. Unlike most politicians, the blustering Menino freely tosses around the word "ban" and seems intent on enforcing his worldview on the population of Massachusetts. He recently told a Boston radio station, "Kids start at five, six, seven years old watching those video games. They think it's a way of life and I'm trying to make them understand there's a different way of life."

The Menino way, apparently.

To make matters worse, a key Menino staffer – Health and Human Services director Larry Mayes – testified before the Massachusetts Legislature that video games reward players for raping women. Can Mr. Mayes name even one such game? It simply doesn't exist. The legislators who will consider this bill were fed bad – yet very damaging – information by the Mayor's office.

Scary stuff, indeed.

Even scarier is that the Massachusetts video game bill is an adaptation of the one that our old pal Jack Thompson wrote for the state of Louisiana in 2006. That measure was discarded on constitutional grounds by a federal judge who absolutely ripped the Louisiana state government for allowing it to get that far. Louisiana is, of course, now on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars of the video game industry's legal fees.

While the video game industry has been aggressive in defending against such laws, it is clear that they dropped the ball in the Boston case. In late 2006 Menino and other Beantown censorcrats went after the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority for accepting GTA Vice City Stories ads on Boston's Green Line trains. Under intense political pressure from Menino and the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, transit agency head Daniel Grabauskas abandoned his original First Amendment stance and capitulated. Grabauskas' public rationale was that the MBTA didn't accept adds for porn movies, so refusing M-rated game ads could be similarly justified.

The upshot was that a quasi-governmental agency, acting under pressure from the Mayor's Office, declared M-rated games on as on par with X-rated movies. And the video game industry let them get away with it. There was no First Amendment lawsuit. No significant public protest. How did the game biz allow this to happen without a fight?

There's little doubt that Menino's successful bullying of the local bus company emboldened him to undertake today's more drastic legislative push against video games. The game industry is rallying now, of course. But had they flexed their legal muscle on the transit ad issue, gamers might not be worrying about this new attempt to legislate our pastime.


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.