On Capitol Hill: Blame Games

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005

It has become an annual ritual for the wide-smiled Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who for many video gamers is the grinch who every year tries to steal Christmas.

Another year, another press conference, another speech from the bully pulpit about the dangers of " violent video games," which are not to be mistaken for " ultra-violent video games," though what the difference is, Lieberman couldn't exactly say when asked yesterday.

It's a battle of the generations yet again, the young against the old, a recurring theme in pop culture dating to the early days of comics, to Elvis's gyrating hips, to the ruckus of rock- and-roll. Remember Tipper Gore lambasting the "alarming" trends in music that "glorified" drugs, sex and violence? Remember all the hoopla that surrounded Eminem?

Now the spotlight is on video games, and come holiday season, here's Lieberman.

Like most politicians who in the past year have supported legislation banning the sale of "violent," "pornographic," "inappropriate" games to anyone under the age of 17 -- think True Life: New York City, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Doom 3, et al. -- Lieberman doesn't play video games. And yesterday, in the packed Indian Affairs Room at the Russell Senate Office Building, Lieberman, who at 63 is of the pre-Pong, pre-Atari, pre-PlayStation generation, was flanked by two fellow Democrats, Sen. Evan Bayh, 49, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, 58, neither of whom play games, either. Though Clinton's press aide, Sarah Gegenheimer, quickly pointed out that "the senator is familiar with games." Familiar how? "She's familiar with the issues."

When Bayh, a father of twin 10-year-old boys, said in a forceful, earnest speech that "kids as young as 9 can go into these stores and buy videos that involve assassination of political figures," no one on his staff reminded him that the game in question, JFK Reloaded, is an online game that was never available in stores.

The three senators, led by Clinton, introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act, a bill that, if passed, would fine retailers $1,000 or impose 100 hours of community service at first offense for selling or attempting to sell violent games to minors. It's the latest effort marking a year filled with other politicians calling numerous press conferences demanding the regulation of the sale of violent games to minors. Eight states, plus the District, have introduced such bills, which were signed into law in California, Illinois and Michigan to much fanfare, yet questioned by the courts on First Amendment grounds. No one argues with the idea that violent games shouldn't be made available to minors. What's troublesome to gamers is that the fastest-growing entertainment industry in the world is seen largely as "kid play" by politicians who don't even play games.

"Whenever I see Lieberman up there, I just think: Here they go again. It's an easy way to get a headline: a group of politicians against violent games! A lot of adults equate games with children, but the violent games they're talking about, Grand Theft Auto and the like, aren't meant for children. Parents do have legitimate concerns about video-game content, and unfortunately, these games find their ways into the hands of children. But many people who play these adult-oriented games -- most, I'd say -- are not minors," says a frustrated Dennis McCauley, a 48-year-old father of teens who started a blog, http://gamepolitics.com , last March.

Minutes after McCauley posted a transcript of Clinton's speech, where she said that, although games can be entertaining and educational, "there are also games that are just not appropriate for our nation's youth," a gamer called catch_33 posted on McCauley's site: "Youth? . . . Will you please acknowledge that the average gamer is 30 years old? Just once."

McCauley continued: "Many of these politicians make it sound as if the video-game industry is the great corrupter of modern youth, and that's largely because there's a generational gap. They're attacking something they don't get."

Simon Carless, the 30-year-old editor-in-chief of Game Developer Magazine, added: "It gets tiring. Every year, the same political posturing, the same words -- video games are stealing the innocence of America's children -- over and over again. I'm afraid that people who aren't gamers themselves, who don't understand the medium, are trying to dictate the content of games. That's what this is about."

Lieberman, during yesterday's conference, dismissed that notion. Yet way in the back of the Indian Affairs Room, a gray-haired reporter named David Lightman, Washington bureau chief of the Hartford Courant in Lieberman's home state, sounding a bit cranky, yelled out: "Can you talk about the use of the bully pulpit? Senator Lieberman, you've been holding these press conferences for 10 years. . . . How effective is this?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company