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law | First Wall Rebate
Feb 3 2009

Games and the New Administration

The past few weeks in Washington DC have been incredibly surreal. Hell, the past few months have been pretty odd. The two topics I hear about most in my daily social circles, apart from our immediate task needs, are videogames and politics. And with the way that gamesmanship pervades the political realm, I can’t help but see them in mixed terms. First, it was the hordes of political activists campaigning for their candidate. Then Fallout 3 started promoting in the Metro, and the game forever changed my mental map of the DC Metro area. And then the election and subsequent inauguration — both of which created real, palpable chaos on the streets. Fear! Uncertainty! Disbelief!

And then, calm. A feeling of relief has swept into the city, and I can visibly notice an upswing in mood that is not the mania of the inauguration, but is certainly is elevated. The dog days of the Bush administration are over, and the future is much brighter than it has been in a long time.

But it is still unclear exactly what the new administration means for videogame legislation. We have gotten few glimpses of what Obama brings to the discussion, and the Democrats have a rocky past with the subject of videogames and freedoms of speech in general.

Historically, the Democrats have not done well with videogames. Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham-Clinton and Joe Lieberman co-sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA) in 2005. This bill would have mandated government oversight of ESRB ratings, a whole secret-shopper program to catch noncompliant retailers, and stiff penalties for selling adult rated games to minors. Had FEPA passed, it would have cost the government a bundle of cash every year and would have also set a disturbing precedent. Keep in mind that at this point both the MPAA (the movie ratings board) and the ESRB (the game ratings board) are private organizations whose power comes from an agreement worked out by members of the respective inudstry. Government censors need not be involved.

Obama does not curently seem to be interested in focusing on censorship over more pressing issues, such as our economic collapse and multiple wars. However, as GamePolitics tracked throughout the primary and election process, Obama does clearly connect videogames to underachievement:

You know, I will invest in education. We’ll make sure government gets behind the schools. But it won’t make much of a difference if parents aren’t turning off the television set and putting away the video games and making sure that our children are doing their homework.

In light of the recent push for educational videogames, and building research confirming that games are educational in a variety of ways, I’d much rather hear Obama talking about creating more ways to reach students and seizing the power of all our media options to connect with learners. With games like Operation: Resilient Planet and the current wave of “pop-ed” games for Nintendo DS and other more casual platforms, the world of educational gaming is just beginning to come to life. I hope that the Obama administration will actually tend more towards the other side they’ve shown.

Never before has a presidential campaign or administration embraced technologies of communication so enthusiastically. From SMS text messaging to video blogs, the Obama administration has done a great job leveraging the power of technology. Their social web experiments have garnered a lot of positive attention and they have left no tone unturned when exploiting the power of networked communications to further their message.

They even advertised prominently during the election in videogames. Their ads showed up in a bunch of titles on Xbox Live. Millions of gamers saw Obama’s smiling mug while racing at breakneck speeds or strategizing dominance on the field. These advertisements were clearly successful and contributed to the building of Obama’s cool cred. Xbox Live also featured special coverage of the Inauguration as free video downloads.

It would be very unfortunate if these sorts of enthusiastic and strategic uses of technology were limited to increasing Obama’s political cache. We need the same kind of informed, innovative and effective use of technology in our classrooms and government operating procedure. And videogames have always been connected to innovation and adoption of technology. Games provide a lot more than the momentary respite from the day to day grind, or the proverbial “five minutes of fun” that so many markerters and apologists claim.

At this moment, another example of a hysterical political response to something lawmakers clearly do not understand is making its way through the New York State Assembly. Assemblyman Brian Kolb (Republican) has introduced a law that would require a whole lot of crazy things from NY retailers and game makers. At first blush, the requirement for game makers to provide a free demo of every game sounds like good business. But requirements for retailers to keep mature content games in a locked cabinet and for the state to impose its own ratings system sound, again, like expensive and pointless nonsense. The real comedy gold of the bill is in the required warning label mandated by the bill:

WARNING,  SALE  OR  RENTAL TO ADULTS ONLY.  MAY CONTAIN EXPLICIT DEPICTIONS DESCRIPTIVE OF OR ADVOCATING ONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING:

  • COMMISSION OF A VIOLENT CRIME
  • SUICIDE
  • SODOMY
  • RAPE
  • INCEST
  • BESTIALITY
  • VIOLENT RACISM
  • RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE
  • SADO-MASOCHISM
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT
  • SEXUAL ACTIVITY
  • MURDER
  • MORBID VIOLENCE
  • ILLEGAL USE OF DRUGS OR ALCOHOL

The bill requires that if a game contains any one of these items it must contain the whole list on the back of the game. While we regularly see games with violent crimes, references to alcohol, and possibly even murder or morbid violence, I have never played a game involving sodomy, rape, incest, or bestiality. Even more to the point is that a general list like this is never going to be as effective as a list based on the actual content of a specific game, such as the list that already exists on every game reviewed by the ESRB.

This is just one example. There are many similar pieces of legislation in the US and abroad, illustrating just how much of a struggle it has been for mainstream society to deal with videogames. However, the pervasiveness of games increases, and all the lawmaking in the world has yet to stem the tide of games. With more powerful tools for individuals to participate in high quality game making on the rise, it is unlikely that the medium of videogames will be truly stymied in the near future. It is an eleven billion dollar industry that no country wants to lose.

Yet what lawmakers do can have a great impact on the games we see developed and the progress we make in leveraging the technology for the benefit of the culture. As White House staffer Bill Burton said, for the Obama team coming into the building was like going from “an Xbox to an Atari”. That reflects well the lack of progress the Bush administration did in effectively leveraging any kindof modern human knowledge. And hopefully it also reflects a bit more of the savvy of the new administration.

But we are gamers, and gamers always want more. We want an Xbox 360.