TV watches as games take heat

HAVING WEATHERED NIPPLEGATE, entertainment execs appear pleased to let politicians flog a new “family values” whipping boy: videogames. Yet anyone who believes Hollywood is out of the woods should remember that old adage about ignoring the Nazis until they came knocking for them.

A timely reminder of this is provided by Comcast’s G4 network, of all places, which produced “Violence in Games: A G4 Special Report,” a creditable documentary about the hubbub over videogames and violence.

A memorable 1993 clip within that hour, scheduled for Oct. 26, shows Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) warning game merchants to clean up their act. “If you don’t do something about it, we will,” he said.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board was established a year later, yet here we are again, with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who knows a little something about violent entertainment) and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton boarding the regulatory bandwagon to curb game marketing, voicing concerns about violence and children.

If this sounds a trifle familiar, it should. The same pattern played out on music, movies and TV through the 1990s, with Democrats doing much of the heavy lifting. Sen. Paul Simon bitch-slapped the TV industry, and the Clinton administration criticized violent rap lyrics and pressed for TV content ratings, coupled with the V-chip, to bolster its family values resume.

So were the watchdogs mollified? Not a chance. For starters, much of the hard-right contingent pressing for regulation never can be, unless the legislation eradicates content of which they disapprove. Secondly, there will always be some fresh outrage, perpetrated by a disaffected youth who played “Doom” at least once, to fuel new calls for reform from the left.

Thus far, videogame reps have been staunch and even somewhat defiant in defending their livelihood, but they don’t seem to fully grasp the cyclical relationship between their drubbing and the political calendar.

“The topic tends to resurface every few years,” American McGee, a game developer, told the Los Angeles Times recently. “Some of it has to do with the improvement in game graphics. People who never play videogames see how visceral it is, and they freak out.”

Talk about people unclear on the concept. Um, no, it isn’t the gee-whiz imagery that causes this subject to pop up with biennial regularity, but rather the fact that every few years we have this thing called elections.

This isn’t to say all politicos championing these efforts are opportunists. Some genuinely believe they are doing the Lord’s work, or safeguarding children and society from the next Columbine moment.

Yet given the swallows-to-Capistrano precision of solons’ return, there’s little doubt these campaigns largely pivot on beating up an industry that has offered a reliable applause line in the past. Besides, both parties know it’s significantly harder to properly educate kids or persuade them to cut down on McNuggets than to adopt feel-good measures that will theoretically prevent them from mastering “Grand Theft Auto.”

Clinton’s action is especially transparent as she moves front and center while contemplating a White House run. Unleashing the big rhetorical guns in July, she charged videogames with “stealing the innocence of our children,” suggesting that kids’ ability to access “pornographic and outrageously violent material on videogames rated for adults is spiraling out of control.”

At the same time, industry-backed nonprofit TV Watch has cited a precipitous second-quarter decline in indecency complaints, which has less to do with networks cleaning up their content than the Parents Television Council (which has had plenty to say about games) giving its fax machines a breather, perhaps recognizing public fatigue after the insanity triggered by the Janet Jackson boob breakout in 2004.

Rest assured, though, while the players currently have videogames in their sights, like any adept gamer, they can adapt quickly, when necessary, to locate new targets.

Speaking of political hot potatoes, here’s belated endorsement for “Off to War,” the documentary series launching its second season Oct. 15 on Discovery Times Channel.

Focusing on an Arkansas National Guard unit deployed in Iraq, the program reminds us that servicemen don’t think in lockstep beyond their shared desire to get home. In this context, it’s sobering to hear a soldier say, “If you die in Iraq right now, you’re not necessarily a hero. You’re a martyr. Because a hero dies for like, a purpose, a cause.”

In its way, the project also provides tacit endorsement for FX’s “Over There,” an intriguing experiment in fictional drama about a real-time war. Although the Steven Bochco production has drawn fire from some military personnel, it, too, has presented a nuanced view of U.S. soldiers — albeit in a hyper-eventful, made-for-TV way.

Many pushing one agenda or another have sought to speak for the troops. “Off to War” respects them enough to let them speak for themselves.

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