As Comfortable on Guitar Hero as on the Hill

Michael Gallagher, the new face of the video game industry on Capitol Hill, has set out to explode some lingering stereotypes about gaming and gamers.
Michael Gallagher, the new face of the video game industry on Capitol Hill, has set out to explode some lingering stereotypes about gaming and gamers. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, September 2, 2007

On trips to Capitol Hill these days, Michael Gallagher usually has a black Nintendo DS stashed in his suit pocket.

He plays games when he has downtime, sure, but his main reason for carrying the device is to give lawmakers some hands-on time with the latest titles the video game industry has to offer.

As the new president of the Entertainment Software Association, Gallagher is the face of video games in Washington. A telecom industry veteran, Gallagher has spent time in high-ranking jobs in the public sector and the private sector in the rollout of broadband and advanced wireless services in the United States.

Now, you could say, he's Mario's lobbyist. People ask him at least once a week if he can hook them up with an advance copy of the latest version of Halo or the next hot Nintendo game. This Father's Day, his kids got him a new vanity tag for his Lexus: GAME DAD.

It's not often that the ESA gets a new head. Gallagher, who took the reins this spring, is only the second person to hold this job. So I called up Gallagher recently with a video game challenge in mind. I was curious to find out whether he knows his way around Halo as well as he knows his way around the Hill.

Microsoft's entertainment division president, Robbie Bach, who is on the board of directors of the ESA, told me that Gallagher was picked for the job partly because he has been on both sides of the fence in Washington. Also: "He's a guy who plays games and understands the space," Bach said.

Sure, I thought. I took the Metro to the ESA's offices across the street from the Verizon Center feeling pretty confident. But I was in for a surprise. Judging from the way Gallagher handles a rocket launcher's "splash damage" effects, I'd say this is a guy who is familiar enough with a game controller.

Our lunchtime game session included Wii Sports Tennis, Halo 2, Guitar Hero 2 and the boxing game Fight Night. At the end, I considered myself lucky to come away with a draw. Gallagher forgot to pack the DS that day, so we were both spared the tiebreaker. But if we do ever go head to head on Mario Kart DS, I'll practice first.

I also learned something else: It's hard to conduct an interview while working through "Surrender" on Guitar Hero 2.

Gallagher said the video game industry has parallels to when he was vice president of state public policy at Verizon, a time when the cellphone industry was facing legislation based on fear that cellphones lead to traffic accidents and media scares about the phones causing brain cancer.

Cellphones were an industry that had been "accepted by society but still under attack politically," Gallagher said.

Why put a Nintendo DS into the hands of politicians? Gallagher said it's because he's trying to dispel stereotypes that he still encounters about video games. One stereotype he's trying to crack, for example, is that games are primarily for kids, when research has shown that the average gamer's age is in the 30s. (Gallagher, by the way, is 43.)

When he gets a chance, Gallagher has them try games like Brain Age, a popular puzzle-intensive title for the Nintendo DS designed to limber up players' craniums. It isn't the shoot-'em-up title that people sometimes think of when they think about video games, and that's the point. Gallagher likes to point out that only 8 percent of the games released each year are violent, "mature"-rated titles of the sort that make headlines.

Gallagher may have his work cut out for him, as the industry's political foes have been active lately. Several states have tried to enact laws making it a crime to sell some violent games to children, though none has been successful so far.

Last month, a federal judge in California ruled that a bill outlawing the sale of some violent games to children was unconstitutional. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has said he'll appeal the ruling. New York state, under Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D), looks to be the next state to take on video games.

This is nothing new for the ESA. The trade group was founded 13 years ago, when politicians such as then-Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) were on the assault against controversial video games like Mortal Kombat. The ratings that come on the bottom left of every game you pick up at the store are the work of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a division of the ESA.

Among gamers, the ESA is mostly unknown. The organization makes headlines on game news sites only when there's been an anti-piracy crackdown or a new uproar over a game's rating. Neither of those types of story tends to win the organization fans in the gamer community.

Gallagher says he hopes to raise the profile of video games among policymakers and thought leaders. "Video games are not getting the type of recognition they deserve as an entertainment medium," he said.

That's a sentiment that's been going around in the video game industry. Jack Tretton, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment America, said the same to me, via e-mail.

Politicians, he wrote, don't understand games and often pick on violence as a way to polarize voters. "I think the next step is for us to raise our profile even further so we can garner the same respect given to other entertainment industries, such as the movie industry," he wrote.

Meanwhile, Gallagher said he's been playing a lot of video games lately, for reasons both personal and professional.

Professionally, he wants to be conversant with the games the industry is putting out so that he can more effectively make the argument that games are this era's important new media form.

And on a more personal level, he says, he needs the practice because everyone wants to take him on these days -- whether it's at the Wii, the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360.

"Among my friends and family, I'm supposed to be the expert on every title now."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company