For a presidential candidate who has based so much of his message on an appeal to a new generation of voters thirsty for hope and change, Barack Obama said something a few weeks back which almost seemed – dare one use such an epithet – uncool.
Speaking to an audience in Indiana, Obama talked about the latest national ill he hopes to cure from the Oval Office: the scourge of video games, embodied by the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV. Admitting that he was only prompted to make the remark based only on a morning news report about how the game will “break all records and make goo-gobs of money for whoever designed it,” Obama spoke in the stilted, uncertain tone politicians tend to use when they’re describing a subject with which they have little familiarity. Here’s a hint to listening: it has the same false certainty of Republican Senator Ted Stevens when he infamously described the internet as a “series of tubes.”
“These video games are raising our kids,” Obama said. “Across the board, middle-class, upper-class, working-class kids, they’re spending a huge amount of their time not on their studies, but on entertainment.”
Obama’s remarks don’t come from out of the blue – they’re just the latest in a series of steps that set up video games as an opportunity for him to bolster his “values” street cred for a general election. In February he urged University of Texas students to “turn off the TV and stop playing GameBoy,” in another dated reference. And in 2006 Obama rather rudely returned a donation from Doug Lowenstein, then-president of the game industry’s Entertainment Software Association.
Obama isn’t alone in his dislike for gamers – during her time in the Senate, Hillary Clinton introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would’ve expanded the regulation of game sales and imposed heavy penalties on stores who accidentally sold the game to underage customers. And more than a few politicians in both parties took to the airwaves in anger in response to the release of one of Rockstar’s previous iterations of the GTA series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and the “Hot Coffee” mini-game that could be unlocked within modified versions. But it’s clear that when it comes to video games, there are far fewer Republicans who have a problem – this is a Democratic issue.
What is it about video games that infuriate so many Democrats? What is it about these games that make them emulate ambulance chaser Jack Thompson, the ever-present clownish Florida attorney who would probably find a way to blame video games for acne and crabgrass? And why is it that these political leaders refuse to acknowledge the plain truth: that the video game industry as a whole has undergone a massive change for the better in the years since Tipper Gore’s crusade against the evils of Ice Cube?
Over the past eight years, the Federal Trade Commission has significantly stepped up their monitoring of the video game industry. The unspoken message: shape up, or we’ll start cracking down. And to their credit, the industry responded as we would hope responsible members of the marketplace would: they stepped up their support for self-regulation, they made the rules clear for gamesellers, and they made a sustained effort to educate parents on the ESRB game ratings that are now the industry-wide standard.
According to the FTC’s 2007 report on their “mystery shopper” monitoring program, the area of greatest improvement over the past eight years has by far been the video game sector. In 2000, 85% of underage customers teens were able to purchase Mature-rated games – today, that number has been more than cut in half, down to 42%. By comparison, 39% of underage customers were able to buy an R-rated movie ticket – and that’s comparing a purchasing system with a stagnant model that has been in place for more than thirty years to one that has expanded drastically, rocketing to $18.8 billion in sales in 2007.
It’s not just the industry that’s matured, either. Gamers themselves are growing up – according to research by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, over 35% of parents American play video games, and 93% of their children, numbers that will only increase in the future. Engaging systems like the Nintendo Wii and the vast arena of online play have taken video games from a pursuit for teens alone to a cross-generational platform for group entertainment. And as Harvard psychiatrists Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson find in their new book, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games, the overwhelming majority of young players use games not to play out violent fantasies, but to relieve stress and relax.
Obama’s tired anti-gamer rhetoric about slacking and laziness starts to sound particularly silly when you consider the creativity, ingenuity, and strong social conscience at the heart of the grown-up gamer community. For an example, one need look no further than Child’s Play, a charity founded in 2003 by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins of the webcomic Penny Arcade, which has given over two million dollars in donations from video gamers of toys, games, books and money delivered to more than 40 children’s hospitals worldwide. Not bad work for a bunch of underachievers.
If Barack Obama wants to take on video games as his latest straw man for America’s manifold problems, that’s his business. But he should be smart enough to recognize that gamers can’t be caricatured anymore: too many people have played these games without being inspired to do violence and mayhem. Gamers look increasingly like America as a whole, and they want to take responsibility for the upbringing of their own children. The same Hart study found that 85 percent of voting parents say that they – not government, retailers or game creators – are responsible for monitoring their children’s exposure to games. Sorry, Clinton and Obama – that’s one less area where voters want the government to play daddy.
Let’s give the Illinois Senator a pass on this one, though. It could be he’s just stressed out from the campaign trail. If he wants a break, he might consider a trip to Liberty City to blow off some steam. At least it’ll take his mind off of whatever Rev. Wright is up to today.