The Game Lobby
In recent years, we've become fairly comfortable with the status quo regarding videogames and politics - namely that the United States will be home to the more deranged, anti-gaming stories, while the United Kingdom will be a counter-balance thanks to politicians and officials who generally understand and support the industry.
Due to a wide variety of factors, Britain has generally been a haven of sanity as regards this issue. Excellent lobbying work on the part of ELSPA, the local software publishers' association, has helped to educate Government about videogames, and it has helped that Tony Blair's New Labour government, for all its other faults, was mostly socially progressive and a friend of the media industries.
The lack of a hardline Christian fundamentalist movement in Britain has certainly helped; the fact that our answer to US rent-a-quote Jack Thompson is the rather less incendiary Keith Vaz MP has also helped. Most of all, though, Britain has a sane and sensible age rating system on its videogames and DVDs, which - in theory - keeps violent media out of the hands of children. Backed up by law, with fines for retailers who don't enforce the ratings, it puts control of adult media firmly into the hands of parents.
As such, it's been rather disappointing, in the past week, to see roles reversed across the Atlantic. In the United States, the Entertainment Software Association - ELSPA's equivalent organisation across the pond - has announced that it is to increase its lobbying activity, bringing donations to friendly politicians in line with those from music and film industry bodies. It's a sensible and progressive move which won't, admittedly, match the donations and profile afforded to Washington by Hollywood stars who endorse their campaign, but will at least help to strengthen the industry's political defences against attacks on the medium.
In Britain, however, things have taken a U-turn - with embattled Prime Minister Gordon Brown apparently lashing out at the videogames industry in his response to the recent spate of knife crime among young people in London and other urban areas around the country.
Violent crime in the United Kingdom is far lower, on the whole, than it is in the USA - and with occasional statistical blips, has been dropping steadily for over a decade. This, we might observe, is also the decade in which videogames have grown from a niche market into a major part of the mainstream media; obviously, no direct correlation can be proved, but it certainly doesn't say much for any allegation that playing videogames has caused a rise in violent crime.
In recent weeks, however, the media here has focused on knife crime; and following in the footsteps of the leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron, Brown has now decided that pointing the finger at the videogames industry is a legitimate response strategy.
His grand idea is that game designers should stop characters in games from using knives. "No one wants censorship or an interfering State," he told the media, sounding a lot less reassuring than you might hope. "But the industry has some responsibility to society."
Nobody is arguing with that idea. However, it is unfair, underhanded and downright cheap for a politician to talk about "responsibility to society" without actually having any evidence to back up their asserted link between games and violence. The notion that videogame characters using knives leads directly to teenagers stabbing one another plays well on the tabloid front pages, but has yet to stand up to any kind of scientific scrutiny. It's not a policy, it's not researched and it's not supported by evidence - it's a mucky piece of political finger-pointing, nothing more.
Of course, it's not hard to understand why Gordon Brown - and his political rival - want to point at videogames in this instance. It's because the real reasons for knife crime are complex, difficult, and will take a long time to solve - and none of those things is popular with Britain's rabid tabloid journalists. The tabloid response to every problem is to 'hang 'em and flog 'em', and if an appropriate hanging and flogging target isn't presented as a scapegoat, they'll merrily hang and flog the politicians concerned instead.
So, our politicians don't talk about poverty and deprivation. They don't talk about the failure of Britain's drug policies or the cultural isolation of ethnic minorities, they don't talk about the distrust of police and authorities due to perceived racism. They don't talk about complex, difficult problems; instead, our politicians point the finger at videogames.
Why? Because videogames are still a soft target. Hit out at music or film, and you'll risk losing funding, losing voters and being criticised in the national media by public figures with far more recognisable faces than any politician. Poke your finger in the eye of the videogames industry, however, and the response will be far more muted - and the howling tabloids, feeding their audience's distrust of new technology and new media, will happily go along with your cheap diversion for the sake of a few headlines.
Britain has lessons to learn from America on this issue. Funding politicians and parties goes a long way; yes, it is in effect bribery, but nobody ever called politics a clean sport. The new US concept of a Videogame Voters Network, a large group of adult videogame players who are registered to vote and who are prepared to behave as activists on behalf of their hobby, is also an excellent idea. With a close-run election coming up, British politicians might think twice about putting their names to anti-gaming tirades if they know it'll turn even a handful of vocal swing voters in their constituency against them.
Most of all, it's clear that the Blair administration lulled the industry - and gamers - into a false sense of security. Gordon Brown and his cabinet represent a major new challenge for the industry's lobbying, and I fear that whoever replaces them in a few years' time could be an even bigger challenge - while the tabloids, of course, continue to bounce between "evil Internet" and "evil Videogames" stories at will.
Much has been done to drive the acceptance of videogames in the British establishment, but as this week's events show, there is plenty left to do. The UK industry and its fans cannot afford to rest on their laurels and look on smugly at the antics of Jack Thompson and his ilk in the USA - because the battle here at home is not yet won.