|THE YEAR IN POLITICSPublished by wes213 on Saturday, December 15, 2007
When many of the year’s biggest games involve shooting people in the face, it should be no surprise that violence in games was again a common theme in videogame politics in 2007.
Contrary to popular belief, however, there are many popular titles that don’t involve bullets in bedlam. But you’re not going to hear politicians rally against the carpel tunnel you’ve developed from Guitar Hero. That kind of stuff doesn’t win votes.
And in an industry where blood and guts in games frequently splash headlines, former Entertainment Software Association boss Doug Lowenstein was well-aware of the challenges the industry would face after he left his post for new opportunities earlier this year.
"Damn it, get up there and defend [your work]," he implored in what would be his farewell speech at the Las Vegas DICE Summit in February. "… If you want to be controversial, fine, … that’s great. But damn it, don’t duck and cover when the shit hits the fan.”
And the shit did hit the fan in June, when Rockstar and Take-Two’s Manhunt 2 was granted an "AO" by the Entertainment Software Rating Board due to the game’s violent content. It proved to be one of the first big, public challenges for the newly-appointed management at Take-Two, and a microcosm for the struggle between the entire games industry and legislators. Manhunt 2 was edited, re-rated under an “M,” released in October, was hacked into, in turn releasing said violent content in the PSP version, and politicians, much like ambulance chasers, were all over it like stink on Donkey Kong.
In effect, Manhunt 2 acted as a catalyst for much of the videogame-related political headlines throughout the year.
In August, California Sen. Leland Yee demanded that the ESRB make the ratings process more transparent following the ESRB’s re-rating of the game, just a few months after the Federal Trade Commission lauded the ESRB for the strides made in keeping mature games out of minors’ hands. In November, the cross-party quartet of US Senators including Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh and Sam Brownback made a similar demand, calling for a “thorough review” of the ESRB in the wake of Manhunt 2’s release.
And after all that, the game launched to ho-hum sales and lukewarm reviews—a truly anticlimactic event upon which so much time, money and energy had been spent. But it still served, and continues to serve, as yet another lesson to an industry whose audience is now old enough to think for themselves.
The First Amendment
But is everyone who plays mature games old enough to think for themselves? Of course not. Jumping online to hear a squeaky voice dropping the F-bomb in Team Fortress 2 or Gears of War (right before they frag you) is proof enough that there are a decent number of li’l tikes who are playing violent games, either by means of buying the games themselves or through parents. The ESRB’s plain-as-day ratings system and extensive efforts at explaining that “E” means “Everyone” and “M” means “Mature” (are you taking notes?) still wasn’t good enough for legislators in 2007.
Central to the debate on violence and mature content in games is the First Amendment, which has magically led to the halting or demise of many attempts at government regulation of the sale and distribution of games this year. Indiana, Oklahoma and more famously, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Yee sought to regulate the sale of videogames and failed. The ESA has made it a habit to gleefully send out press releases following successful rulings, scorning politicians for “wasting taxpayer money” and demanding that states foot the legal bills, which total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Games and Aggression
One of the primary reasons that these game bills are dropping like flies is that there is no conclusive evidence that playing violent videogames leads to violent acts. That hasn’t stopped researchers from looking for links between videogames and aggression.
A study released by the National Institute on Media and the Family researcher Doug Gentile in November tainted something that has often been considered a positive trait of videogames. “…Videogames use the same techniques that really great teachers use…So we shouldn't be surprised that violent videogames can teach aggression,” he wrote in the study titled, How Violent Video Games Are Exemplary Aggression Teachers.
A University of Michigan study by psychology professor Rowell Huesmann called violent videogames a public health threat. “Exposure to violent electronic media has a larger effect than all but one other well-known threat to public health. The only effect slightly larger than the effect of media violence on aggression is that of cigarette smoking on lung cancer.”
And Villanova University in Pennsylvania found that games caused aggression, but not much: “It’s not as if this is a light switch that either videogames do or do not cause aggression…Most people assume it has a really big effect, but what we find from research is it actually has a very tiny effect,” professor Patrick Markey told Next-Gen in April.
If there is any agreed upon conclusive evidence that shows violent games ultimately lead to real-world violence, the industry will likely go into some kind of meltdown, during which only Harvest Moon would be safe. We’re not holding our breath.
Odds and Ends
There were other little political tidbits scattered throughout the year that ranged from amusing to perplexing to inspiring. There was Bungie Halo 3 beta Achievement, “Cheneymania,” that you would earn if you kill 10 opponents in a row with a shotgun without dying. A freshman Iowa State Senator lamented about how colleagues would play Windows Solitaire while chamber was in session.
Let’s not forget political leaders in Mexico and Venezuela, who were angered that Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 and Mercenaries 2: World in Flames took place in their respective home countries.
Gamers also spoke out with the Video Game Voters Network’s Wall of Protest, which features pictures of gamers making politically-driven statements like “keep your hands off my games.”
And in December, there was the Hill & Knowlton survey that found most of Americans want government game regulation. The ESA berated the PR firm over the release of the results.
Then there’s the big Halo 2 nudity “scandal” that Next-Gen broke in May, in which the Vista version featured a picture of a man mooning the camera whenever a .ASS error occurred in the game’s map editor. Microsoft relayed the information to the ESRB, which had retailers updating rating descriptors with the “Partial Nudity” tag while Microsoft released a patch deleting the pic. While rather hilarious, the urgency and hooplah over a man’s crack is indicative of the current red alert state that the games industry and ESRB are currently navigating.
To end on a high note: multifaceted videogame designer and academic Ian Bogost’s appearance on Comedy Central’s political satire, The Colbert Report (pictured). Bogost was able to effectively communicate a rarely-seen part of the industry on a national stage.
“…If I play a lot World of Warcraft, will I be prepared if our world ever becomes Warcraft?” host Steven Colbert asked Bogost in August.
“If there are Orcs that fall upon us, than you might be better prepared for it,” Bogost joked at first. “But what you really will be ready to do is think about the way that things work; the systematic nature of things. We tend to think of the world in soundbites and simplistic ideas, and videogames give us an opportunity to model complexity. That’s the think I’m homing in on.”
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