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The Political Game: Pax Jack? Don't count on it


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

Can Jack Thompson lead the video game industry out of society's doghouse and into a peaceful co-existence with its critics?

Sure, when pigs fly.

Earlier this week, everyone's favorite game-bashing attorney grabbed a few headlines by extending what some news outlets interpreted as an olive branch to video game publishers. In an e-mail to departing ESA boss Doug Lowenstein and ESRB president Patricia Vance, Thompson suggested that the game publishers warn the game retailers not to sell M-rated titles to those under 17. According to Thompson's plan, if retailers failed to comply, the publishers would simply stop shipping games to the offending stores. And then all of this nasty video game legislation would go away.

Brilliant! ... except for those oh-so-annoying realities.

Consider for a moment that the publishers and the retailers have a decade's worth of effort committed to the ESRB system, and it's making great strides. Why would they discard that progress to commit to the JACK system?

As things work currently, it's the responsibility of the publishers to properly report their game content to the ESRB for rating purposes. As far as the retailers are concerned, it's their job to enforce the ratings at point-of-sale. Historically a weak point, retail enforcement has been steadily improving in recent years. In his most recent Annual Video Game Report Card, for example, longtime industry critic Dr. David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family gave major retailers an "A" for ratings enforcement.

It's also important to note that even heavyweight political watchdogs Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman publicly endorsed the ESRB system during the recent holiday shopping season. That was both surprising and significant. So why should the industry listen to Jack Thompson?

They shouldn't. They won't. Here's why not:

First, the idea makes no sense from a business standpoint. Why should it be Activision's job to enforce GameStop's corporate policies? Does Paramount Pictures check up on theater chains to make sure they are not letting kids into R-rated movies? Of course not.

Second, I can't see how Thompson can possibly deliver. His offer presumes a degree of clout extending far beyond his own keyboard, as in, "if the industry does this, I'll make all of its legislative troubles go away." But how would he do that? Where is Jack's coalition?

Third, the video game industry simply won't parley with Jack Thompson. That is largely his own fault. Likening ESA boss Doug Lowenstein to Saddam Hussein is no way to do business, whether your business is selling video games or pushing conservative culture. For an opposite, far more effective strategy, look no further than the aforementioned David Walsh. I'm quite sure the industry finds Walsh and his Institute an annoyance, but through more than a decade of -- as Stephen Colbert might say -- watchdoginess, Walsh has managed not to burn his bridges. As a result, in late 2006, the ESRB actually agreed to participate in Walsh's first-ever Video Game Summit.

Dennis McCauley is the Political Editor for the Entertainment Consumers Association (, tracks the political side of video games at and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at

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