In 1975, the year Jared Polis was born, computer programmer Will Crowther produced the first adventure game. Known, appropriately enough, as Adventure (though its full name was actually Colossal Cave Adventure), Crowther's text-based fantasy creation was a precursor to what would eventually become a $100 billion home gaming industry.
As Polis grew up, so did the games he loved. As a teenager in La Jolla, California, his first obsessions were fantasy role-playing adventures for early Apple computers, such as Wizardry and Ultima. As a young Internet entrepreneur making a fortune in online greeting cards and flower sales, he gravitated to strategy games like Warcraft and Heroes of Might and Magic. Today, the three-term Colorado Democratic congressman continues to slay demons in Diablo and conquer the world through force or diplomacy in Civilization V. "It's one of the main things I do with my free time as recreation," Polis says. "I'm definitely a gamer."
Not coincidentally, the first out-and-proud gamer in Congress also happens to be its most libertarian-leaning Democrat. Since entering office in 2009, Polis has emerged as a leading voice on civil liberties, from gun rights to online privacy, from defending Bitcoin to advocating legal weed. On lists of potential House successors to Ron Paul, his is often the only Democratic name.
"I think the Internet community tends to be libertarian in general," Polis says. "That doesn't mean there's not people across the [political] spectrum. But I think if there's a bell curve of people, it shifts a little bit to the libertarian side in terms of those who are active in Internet-based communities."
As more people who grew up on video games graduate to positions of political power, a tantalizing question emerges: Will they, too, tack in a libertarian direction, regardless of political party?
Rise of the Gamer Dad
Close your eyes and think of a stereotypical gamer. Is he a bowtie-wearing gay father of one with a penchant for beekeeping who represents Colorado's 2nd District in the House of Representatives? Probably not. But maybe he should be.
Video games are no longer the province of the young. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is about 30 years old; Polis is 39. Nor are they a fringe cultural phenomenon: Americans spent $20 billion on games in 2013, twice the amount of money they spent going to the movies. The global game market is approaching $100 billion a year. While the top-grossing film of 2013, Iron Man 3, earned $1.2 billion worldwide, the top-grossing video game of 2013, Grand Theft Auto V, surpassed $1 billion in sales in just three days.
Once inexorably connected to the identity of Generation X (think War Games and Space Invaders), video games have proven their cultural staying power among the Millennial generation, and are even being adopted by older cohorts to help keep their minds and bodies active.
Given that more than 60 percent of United States residents are under 45, and thus haven't really known an America without ubiquitous video games, you'd think Polis would have some good company among his congressional peers. But he has yet to find any other D.C. pols who share his hobby.
"None of them have outed themselves to me yet," he says. "I would love to play with another member. So I'm hoping somebody has the courage to out themselves and we'll challenge them in League of Legends or something like that."
It's true that Congress skews old, averaging 57 years old for representatives, 62 for senators. Yet one in five frequent gamers is over 55, according to a December Reason-Rupe poll (see info here). Statistically, there are likely a few other Beltway pols with a fondness for Sonic the Hedgehog or Lara Croft. It's not hard to imagine a near future in which traditional congressional softball and hockey games are supplemented with flag-capturing matches in Team Fortress 2. So what can we expect from the nascent Gaming Caucus?
A first clue comes from looking at gamers as a whole. We've had Soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads; perhaps it's time to start talking about Gamer Dads. Polis himself became a father in 2011. Rather than abandoning his passion, he found gaming a useful way to pass the time when dealing with a newborn, and a fun iPad diversion for his now two-year-old son. No longer are video games a potential scourge corrupting the minds of American youth; they are an integral part of the play and development of toddlers.
Gamers consistently outpoll non-gamers in supporting the freedom to decide what to do with their bodies and their lives, without undue government intrusion. In the Reason-Rupe poll, a majority of frequent gamers said that less government is better (54 percent), that free markets solve economic problems better than government (53 percent), and that government is a burdensome impediment to people improving their lives (57 percent). While no more likely than non-gamers to describe themselves explicitly as libertarian, players believe in greater numbers that people should be allowed to smoke marijuana, gamble online, consume caffeinated energy drinks, buy home genetic testing kits, and manufacture their own 3D-printed guns.
That libertarian-leaning outlook maps pretty well onto Jared Polis' politics. As representative of one of the more liberal districts in Colorado (encompassing Boulder and some Denver suburbs), Polis does hold some traditionally Democratic positions, such as supporting the Affordable Care Act, emphasizing non-fossil fuels, and backing hate crime laws. But his departures from party orthodoxy are many.