That Hazy Red Area
What Washington needs is adult supervision. – Barack Obama.
Every time a teenager commits a crime, the government seems to keep pointing the finger at games. GTA IV is--according to said government and the non-gaming press--the influence for all gun, sexual and theft crimes, even with people who haven't played the game, and I don't understand why. Gears of War 2 came out last month, but I don't see anyone running around with a .44 Magnum taped to a Black & Decker hedge trimmer.
I regained hope these past few months. Jack Thompson--the infamous Florida lawyer who made a career convincing the public that video games were the root of all evil--was disbarred. The press died down for a while on games violence issues and all was well. But then the media focus returned and I realised there was no change in the dialog; rather, there was simply a respite. But who'll defend the seemingly indefensible? Do we need lawyers, or leaders?
It's earlier this month, and I'm sitting outside a press-conference hall with James Beaven of Midway, waiting to interview a producer about violence and gameplay in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. James begins to tell me a story to pass the time. One day a politician, live on BBC Radio 1--a show with millions of listeners around London--had called him. The man berated James, accusing him of helping to promote GTA IV, a game which had “corrupted his two boys.” James simply took a deep breath and asked the man what age his kids were. “Eight and twelve,” the man responded. James then asked him why he hadn’t paid any attention to the fact he’d been showing his underage children an 18 rated game. James then grinned at the sudden silence on the other end of the line, and hung up the phone.
We need to start standing up to people as ignorant as the politician from London. We can't keep on hiding behind the ESRB. It's not going to do our job for us.
But this time we’ve got a powerful defender, and his name is Barack Obama.
I’m a Londoner, so American politics, both in and out of the gaming arena, isn't really something I take a specific interest in. But my interests started to change when I heard that the future President of the United States of America was actually putting games ratings on the same highly regarded shelf as those of films and TV. President-elect Obama began talking about the media in general at first and then surprised me completely when he started using words like “Game Boy" and putting adverts in Electronic Arts games. But he values his children's safety on the one thing that links gamers around the globe: the Internet. The quote at the top is a good indication of his lack of fear when speaking his mind on an overprotective government, and the following few reinforce his reprimand towards those who would put stereotyping over research into gaming demographics.
“I was just catching the news this morning about Grand Theft Auto, this video game, which is going to break all records, make goo-gobs of money for whoever designed it,” Obama said in a speech to the public in Indianapolis. “Now this isn’t intended for kids, I understand – although I promise you there will be kids who are playing it. But those video games are raising our kids.” Entertainment for children is fine, but when we’re exposing them to content we know is going to influence them at an age that low, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to the ratings than offering up a quick, poorly thought-out giggle for a child?
In a presidential question and answer session last year, he spoke to the fine line between escapism and indoctrination, between access and abuse. “We need to make sure that all of our children have access to these technologies,” he said. “And we must teach our children how to harness the huge potential of this technology,” he said. “I want to make sure my children are protected from the dangers of the new media world, but I also want to make sure they reap the benefits of it.”
But it is debatable as to what he means by “media.” He could be addressing all forms of media, but then again he could also be attempting to discuss games without saying “games” directly. But, if you look further into his campaign, videogames aren’t a no-fly zone. The Obama campaign broke new ground by placing advertisements in videogames such as Burnout Paradise. Seeing those ads made me start to wish that my not-quite-elected leader, Gordon Brown, would start appealing to one of the biggest teenage demographics in the country. But then his approach to videogames seemed to take a turn for the negative, and I became slightly uneasy.
“Put down the Game Boy,” said the future president of the United States in an public address to a crowd full of young adults. Put down the Game Boy? Where did all of the pro-gaming talk go? Suddenly, my feelings of hope began to falter, as I began to wonder if we’d lost the best spokesperson we’d ever had. Arguably, the idea that working hard was more important than gaming is understandable, but was this a step too far? Did he have some emotional attachment to the undead? So frantically I turned back to the presidential questionnaire and its related quotes, and felt reassured.
"I would call upon the video game industry to give parents better information about programs and video games,” proclaimed Obama. He also added a strong ultimatum; “But if the industry fails to act, then my administration would.”
This particular sound bite really does tip the entire box of fears on its head. Ignorance is no longer a viable excuse for persecuting an entire demographic, and Obama's new Administration is going to actually do its research. Who knows? Maybe next time someone steals a car, it'll be the parents approached with the proverbial fiery torches and pitchforks, and not the developers.
Obama's seen the light, and yet, for some reason the country that follows the new president-elect just can’t seem to reach the same point of understanding. The folks in the USA are now, it seems, better off than I am when it comes to the video gaming regulators. I have to admit, I’m fairly jealous. I want this revolution to reach Europe, to reach the United Kingdom, because if it doesn’t, we’re stuck with old-fashioned systems like the British Board of Film Classification, the same organisation who tried to hide A Clockwork Orange from the world.
Now if only Obama would start playing the games he seems to be defending, we’d have a real icon on our hands.