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Hillary Clinton’s history with video games and the rise of political geek cred

Oh, how the times have changed: On Monday, the Clinton Presidential Library's Instagram shared a picture of Hillary Clinton playing a Nintendo Game Boy in 1993. The image was quickly picked up by the media and interpreted by some writers as an effort to humanize the former first lady.

Clinton wasn't always seen as pro video games. In 2005, a few years before the then-senator launched her first White House run, Clinton had many gamers rolling their eyes with a legislative campaign that painted violent video games as a scourge out to get America's youth.

"We need to treat violent video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol, and pornography," Clinton said while promoting the Family Entertainment Protection Act, legislation that would have criminalized the sale of games rated "Mature" or "Adults Only" to minors. "If you put it just really simply, these violent video games are stealing the innocence of our children -- and it is certainly making the job of being a parent even more difficult," she said.

Clinton's crusade against violent video games appealed to so-called "value voters" -- concerned parents who believed that shooting fake digital cops on a TV screen would be harmful for kids. And the bill didn't go anywhere. In fact, a similar California law was struck down by the Supreme Court in a 2011 decision which ruled video games can be art that deserve the same First Amendment protections as books or films.

(When asked whether video games have merit as art in 2005 by CBS News, Clinton responded, "Art is subjective." She added: "I'm not in any way trying to do away with video games. I'm strictly concerned with a small subset of games that are harmful to children -- those that are excessively violent and sexually explicit.")

The change in how politicians talk about video games today is telling, especially as gaming has gone mainstream. Nearly 60 percent of Americans play video games, according to 2014 report from the Entertainment Software Association -- and the average age of gamers, 31, is well above the voting threshold.

Plus, despite an occasional moral panic, the public is pretty skeptical that playing violent video games is connected to violent behavior in the real world. This is especially true among younger Americans, according to a 2013 poll from YouGov and Oxford Internet Institute research fellow Andrew Przybylski. And even older Americans who were more likely to think there was such a connection didn't agree there was a need for legislation to restrict access to video games, according to that study.

Combined with the general rise of nerd culture, from the comic book movie boom to pop culture's obsession with Silicon Valley tech giants, it's no surprise that politicians are trying to assert their geek cred. And what could be more authentic than Hillary Clinton mashing her thumbs on a Game Boy before it was cool?

But Clinton isn't the only presidential candidate who seems to be using video games to appeal to the American masses: In a recent interview on The Federalist Radio Hour, Ted Cruz said he plays "a lot of computer games" -- although he's more of a mobile phone than a console gamer. ("I don't have an Xbox, I wish I did," he said.) Some of his current favorites include Plants vs. Zombies 2, Alien Creeps and Candy Crush.

The Republican senator also proclaimed himself a fan of "House of Cards," a show centered on unscrupulous politician Frank Underwood who also happens to be gamer -- and one with excellent taste.

Cruz's declared affection for video games isn't necessarily some shameless ploy to be relatable: Like millions of Americans, he could just enjoy playing them. But it's hard not to view Cruz's remarks and the Clinton Game Boy picture as attempts to soften the images of figures otherwise made distant by the sometimes ugly political polarization that defines modern campaigns.

In fact, perhaps the most humanizing element of Clinton's Game Boy addiction isn't that she's playing a video game, but the reason why she started playing in the first place: She picked up the habit while spending weeks at her father's bedside at a hospital before his death, according to a 1993 interview with Time Magazine. Finding a coping mechanism in the face of losing a loved one is something many Americans can understand.