Who Will Defend Gamers?

So does the video game industry need an anti-Jack Thompson?

To quote the venerable Reverend Lovejoy, short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but. Yes, if we had a Thompson for our industry, we could have a raving loony who personally attacks his opponents rather than backing a position with facts and legal precedent. Someone who goes on conservative anti-game sites and stirs up the base, making and retracting offers willy-nilly. Unfortunately, this is a position overzealous and reactionary members of our community make all too often. Treating Thompson as a figurehead rather than a parody of the conservative crusader he claims to be gives him far too much credit.

Of course, no one benefits if we end up with a bizarro-Jacko. A “[Jack Thompson] with a beard” would only further hurt the credibility of the industry and gamers as a group. Objectively, Mr. Thompson is indeed a joke. Sure, he is charismatic. Like most “talking heads” in the media, charisma can go a long way towards getting people to hang on your words, regardless of the veracity of fact. The man has had disbarment proceedings filed against him in the state of Florida. In terms of actual legal results (rather than television appearances), he has had little to no success in attacks on video games, running time and time again into that pesky First Amendment. The closest he has come was his settlement with Take-Two in April of last year, which only provides ammunition for those that would charge Jack is fighting for personal and financial gain rather than his “Christian conservative values.” Thompson has also shown repeatedly that he has no interest in engaging in actual debate or discussion with the “ill-mannered and ill-informed” masses of the video game professional and enthusiast communities. This vitriol has surfaced again and again on GamePolitics, Kotaku, and most recently on Destructoid.

However, this is not intended to be another post attacking Mr. Thompson. Changes need to come not only in the way we as a community approach the debate, but how members of the industry, politicians and free speech advocates do as well. As we increase in numbers, age, and sophistication, we need to see gaming advocates in media and popular culture in the same way as our opponents.

First, a few talking points.

We are a nation of gamers.1 Sixty-nine percent of American heads of households play games. The average gamer isn’t a teen or child, but 33 years old. Buyers of games average about 40. Most have been playing games since the mid-90s. Gamers devote time each week to volunteering in the community, religious activities, creative endeavors, cultural activities, and reading (among other activities). A quick look at the Internet gaming community shows enthusiasts similarly have a wide range in race, age, religion, gender, and other interests. These are all important in arguing a coincidental rather than causal relationship between gamers and violence. While many violent psychopaths have played games in the past, tens of thousands more people play games without ever acting out. Also of note is the fact that the vast majority of games are not played by or marketed to children. Geoff Keighley did a valiant job trying to make this point during his Fox News appearance about Mass Effect.

Games and violence have no connection. Study after study has shown that there is no connection between video games and violence. There is a reason that a study done over 15 years ago is again and again touted as evidence that games increase violent tendencies or encourage violent acts (or are “murder simulators”): Studies have shown again and again that exposure to media violence alone does not cause a child to commit a violent act, and that it is not the sole, or even the most important, factor in contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes, and violence. Again, it is crucial to note how massive the game-playing community is. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find someone that has never played a video game. While opponents point to the fact that a violent criminal played a video game, this is completely discounting every other part of their personality. With studies coming out on a nearly annual basis making the point that there is no causal relationship, we have more ammunition in the fight.

Legally, we are in the right. Any legal scholar will tell you the importance of precedent, particularly in the United States. Laws that are meant to restrict free speech by limiting access or development of video games are routinely struck down or killed before even making it out of the Legislature. A 2000 ban in Indianapolis was struck down at the Federal level as restricting free speech. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s ban on the sale of games to minors in 2006 was struck down for the same reason. Michigan and California laws similar to the Illinois ban were deemed unconstitutional as well. Clinton and Lieberman’s Family Entertainment Protection Act died without going to vote, while similar laws were struck down as – you guessed it – violations of the First Amendment. Again and again, judges have agreed at the local, district and Federal level that video games are protected speech, if not fine art. Every opponent of games needs to be reminded of this, and often.

So what can be done, both as a community and as an industry?

Media access. And I don’t mean some kind of public execution like that of Geoff on Fox News. As the members of Destructoid’s Podtoid cast noted, these shows are little more than platforms for the hosts to further their own agenda, and industry advocates are only brought in to give the illusion of balance. No, advocates need to be in the mainstream, on shows like Today and Meet the Press. When given a chance to form a coherent argument and state facts collected by organizations like the ESA, the industry can slowly gain the legitimacy it desires. Of course, appearances would need to be carefully selected to avoid being put up as a straw man for attack. But moving games into the minds of mainstream America – especially as more and more of us participate in the medium – is crucial for legitimacy. Along these same lines, companies need to stand behind their products, marketing and industry. For all the complaints lodged against it, EA made a fantastic statement by calling Fox News on their shoddy reporting. Expecting the community to fight for you (as Bioware suggested) is both cowardly and ineffectual. As cynical as it sounds, the size and (more importantly) money of a behemoth corporation is much more likely to make the media perk up their ears.

Don’t feed the troll. Now, I know that many argue against the idea of “not sinking to the level” of mud-slinging and baseless accusations, and I tend to agree. Simply taking the high ground isn’t going to change the minds of critics of the industry. As people like Jack Thompson have shown, even if we stop giving them attention, someone else will listen to what they have to say. But for the love of God, make an intelligent argument. Suggesting that someone is a “douche” and should “die in a fire”, while entertaining, is immature and pointless on its own. If you’re going to personally attack opponents of games, at least throw in some facts about why their argument is flawed. Even if they don’t listen, other people watching the conflict might.

Lobby. Its worth repeating that a huge amount of the voting age population plays video games. Make your voices heard. Every interest group out there, from environmentalists to free speech advocates to NAMBLA lobbys our government, and can deliver both money and voters. Gamers need to organize in a way that shows politicians what can be gained by courting our demographic. Cynicism showing again here, but money can make and break laws in the US. Reports have come out this year showing how companies have contributed to campaigns and how candidates stand on speech and entertainment issues. While I’m not suggesting voting on a single issue, let politicians know that this medium is important to us. Eventually, politicians who grew up playing video games will be in office. Until then, try to get the current bureaucrats to work with us, rather than against us. The ECA, ESA, and IEMA have done a great job, and deserve our support. Even groups like the ACLU, while not commonly associated with games, have been supportive and filed amicus briefs in cases involving games.

As members of the gaming community, we are obviously enthusiastic about the medium. However, it is important to take real steps to protect the rights that we (at least US readers) have guaranteed in the Constitution. The time that games are considered weird and outside of the mainstream is coming to a close, and it is important to continue to show the merits of the medium and fight back against reactionary rhetoric and lies. Hopefully, some of this is at least a start in this fight.

[Originally posted on Laws of Play, with links kindly added by the Laws of Play staff.]

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