Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Video Game Industry Seeks Political Clout

Capitalizing on its improved respectability, the video game industry intends to establish a political action committee to donate money to game-friendly politicians and candidates.

Michael D. Gallagher, chief executive of the Entertainment Software Association, the industry’s lobbying arm in Washington, said last week that the group’s board approved the PAC’s creation last fall and that the committee would be up and running by the end of March. The association represents major game publishers including the Walt Disney Company, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony.

“We will be writing checks to campaigns by the end of this quarter,” Mr. Gallagher said. “This is an important step in the political maturation process of the industry that we are ready to take now. This is about identifying and supporting champions for the game industry on Capitol Hill so that they support us.”

Mr. Gallagher said the PAC would probably donate $50,000 to $100,000 this year to national candidates, an amount he described as commensurate with similar committees associated with the film and music industries. Such political action committees are generally financed personally by industry executives rather than by corporations and under federal law are limited to giving $5,000 to each candidate per election.

The figures are not huge, but Mr. Gallagher, a former Commerce Department official, said such donations are crucial to doing business in Washington by letting politicians know that “we are behind them.”

Mr. Gallagher said his association would not establish or contribute this year to any of the less-regulated political advocacy groups known as 527s, for a section of the federal tax code, saying, “I think that’s a stage down the road.”

But Mr. Gallagher did say that in this election year his association would mobilize the more than 100,000 gamers who have joined the association’s Video Game Voters Network. Like the association and its nascent PAC, the voters group opposes efforts to regulate games more strictly than books, movies and other media.

“If I can walk into the office of a member of Congress and tell them we have 20,000 voters in their state who are already signed up to write letters and act based on game-related issues that concern them, that’s powerful,” he said.

The industry’s new round of muscle-flexing comes as the political and cultural environment for video games has improved significantly.

The high-water mark of political dudgeon about games came in 2005 when scenes of mild sexual provocation were discovered hidden with the code for the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In the wake of the controversy Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed legislation to increase federal regulation of the game industry.

That proposal, however, found little traction on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, federal courts have consistently invoked the First Amendment in striking down state attempts to regulate games more strictly than other media.

Now, Senator Clinton has appeared to make peace with the game industry, perhaps recognizing that while games were largely a children’s pastime in the 1980s, those children have now grown up, are voting, and are still enjoying video games. The average age of a gamer is now near 30, according to industry surveys.

“Games are a way that more and more people are spending their leisure time, and you do yourself a disservice as a candidate to attack how people spend that leisure time,” Robert A. Kotick, chairman of Activision, a top independent game publisher, said.

Mr. Kotick described the new PAC as “a great first step” but he cautioned that the film and music industries would still enjoy far more sway in Washington than the game industry, not least because “people like Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen help raise millions of dollars for candidates.” (In any case, the game industry is usually aligned with the music and film industries when it comes to lobbying efforts.)

Along with the evolving political climate, games have also become more accessible and less threatening in the broader culture. Nintendo’s Wii console, introduced in 2006, has been a big part of that shift, drawing in both children and older players with its simple point-and-wave control scheme. Music-oriented game franchises like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero have become mass-market hits, while middle-aged women have become the top audience for puzzle games like Bookworm.

All of those developments have helped create a much more favorable and tolerant attitude toward video games, both among the general public and politicians. Mr. Gallagher, the game association chief executive, said that 36 members of Congress and about 300 staffers attended a game industry reception in Washington in November.

(For his part, Mr. Gallagher has said that when he was chief of staff for Representative Rick White, a Washington State Republican, in the 1990s he helped program the office PCs to play Doom, the famous first-person shooter game.)

Mr. Gallagher said the Wii was the hit of the reception and helped drive the message that video games are now a form of mainstream entertainment.

“We had one member of Congress who tried golf on the Wii, and he got a birdie on his first hole and an eagle on the second,” Mr. Gallagher said. “We couldn’t get it out of his hands for 20 minutes.”

Mr. Gallagher declined to identify the politician. He also declined to say whether that politician would be a likely recipient of a donation from the game industry’s new PAC.

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