The Gamer Congressman

Is Rep. Jared Polis the first in a wave of libertarian-leaning video game enthusiasts?


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.

Polis is a strong proponent of charter schools; so much so that he started two of them himself. He has been a consistent critic of President Barack Obama's record on surveillance and mass metadata collection, supporting attempts by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) to rein in the National Security Agency. He is unabashedly in favor of ending the war on drugs, backing the federal decriminalization of marijuana. He wants to block the feds from prohibiting firearm ownership due to marijuana possession offenses by citizens living in states that have legalized weed. He voted against the most recent farm bill, arguing that the subsidy-fueled legislation was anti-market.

Who Holds the Controller?

Unsurprisingly, Polis is at his most passionate when government policies stifle Internet freedom, such as when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) late last year began intervening in the home consumer genetic testing services offered by businesses like 23andMe.

"I was outraged when they shut down 23andMe for no reason," says Polis, a 23andMe customer. "Obviously people have the right to know their own genetic code. There's no question about that. That was a ridiculous overreach." The congressman took to social media to tweet his opposition to the crackdown, and co-authored an objecting letter to the FDA with the libertarian Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), with whom Polis has been working to legalize industrial hemp research and cultivation.

More cheekily, Polis in March needled his fellow Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), after Manchin wrote an anxious letter urging Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen to ban the digital currency Bitcoin. Cleverly mimicking Manchin's hysterical language, Polis mockingly asked Yellen to consider banning the U.S. dollar. "Dollar bills have gained notoriety in relation to illegal transactions; suitcases full of dollars used for illegal transactions were recently featured in popular movies such as American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club, as well as the gangster classic, Scarface, among others," he wrote. "Printed pieces of paper can fit in a person's pocket and can be given to another person without any government oversight. Dollar bills are not only a store of value but also a method for transferring that value. This also means that dollar bills allow for anonymous and irreversible transactions."

But the issue that really galvanized both Polis and a nascent bipartisan Internet freedom coalition—while also outing the congressman as a gamer—was the 2012 attempt by the entertainment industry and its advocates in Congress to curtail online behavior through the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

The bills, in a stated effort to fight online piracy, pitted Hollywood, the music industry, and even initially large game corporations such as Nintendo, Sony, and Electronic Arts against top online media platforms and service providers such as Facebook, America Online, and Reddit. SOPA would have given courts the power to demand that Internet service providers block access to websites accused of hosting pirated content, and to demand that search engines block these sites from search results. It also would have expanded criminal laws to make streaming pirated content punishable for up to five years in prison. Proponents claimed the legislation would prevent rogue websites from hosting pirated content, but critics warned that it would force ISPs to police content and block access to sites based on very loose piracy claims. Such a demand, opponents feared, would be impossible to fulfill, leading to shutdowns of sites and entire domains.

Copyright holders, with their decades' worth of lobbying muscle, initially had the upper hand against the more motley crew of Internet freedom advocates, in part because members of Congress didn't fully understand what they were voting on.

"Many of them, who mostly, obviously are not experts on tech, when there's an issue, like for instance, SOPA and PIPA, they rely too much on kind of what lobbyists tell them," Polis says. "And so until they have to get schooled on it by their electorate or others, what's going to be kind of the default is what the incumbent interests are telling them. … In that particular case they said, 'You're against piracy, aren't you? Then you support this! … Until they had the full 360 degrees of understanding they just thought, 'Oh, I'm against piracy. Therefore I support this…"

Polis turned to the gaming community to rally opposition to SOPA and PIPA. He posted on online forums hosted by Riot Games, a Santa Monica, California-based company that produces League of Legends (arguably the most popular PC game in the world right now, claiming 27 million users daily), to encourage players to contact their legislators and oppose the legislation. Revealing himself as an avid player of the competitive fantasy combat game, with a fondness for characters such as Maokai (a magical, animated tree) and Anivia (a giant frozen phoenix), Polis explained to players why SOPA was a problem.

"I'm particularly concerned that SOPA might stifle the kind of innovation that brings us games we love," he wrote. "The bill makes it far too easy for angry competitors to sue good law abiding companies out of existence. It threatens any company or website that depends on user-generated content, even companies like Riot. Instead of coming up with great ways to keep making games like [League of Legends] even better, companies will have to spend their money hiring lawyers. That's why companies like Riot, who want to protect the games they create, are opposed to SOPA."

Polis' secret life as a gamer was now public knowledge. "People knew I was a techie," he says. "And other members would come to me on tech issues. But I don't think I publicly talked about being a gamer before that."

Polis' call to arms, coupled with online protests and site blackouts by Internet heavy-hitters such as Reddit, Google, Mozilla, eBay, and Wikipedia, got results. "The level of interest was really unprecedented," he says. "I remember members of Congress were deluged with thousands of calls from constituents on what had previously been a very arcane issue." The big game companies also dropped their support of SOPA.

The House in 2012 ultimately postponed any con­sideration of SOPA and PIPA, but the coalition that arose to oppose them has its antennae up for efforts to revive those or similar policies. Advocates are particularly wary of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trading coalition of which the United States is a member. Details of its secretive negotiations released by WikiLeaks indicate a possible increase in restrictive rules on patents and copyrights. Opponents of SOPA and PIPA worry its policies could be resurrected quietly within a trade agreement outside the realm of public debate.

Don't Smoke and Play

Polis' identity as a gamer doesn't get him the kind of attention that, say, being a gay dad and C-SPAN fashion controversialist does, but his understanding and connection with the video game community, combined with his grasp of tech and intellectual property issues, put him in a unique position in any struggle for reform of copyright and patent regulations. Polis says he now occasionally encounters fellow gamers at town hall meetings who ask if he'll play with them ("absolutely," comes the answer).

But just because he plays online games and supports legalizing marijuana, don't expect Congressman Gamer to advocate mixing weed with group play. "I've had some of those folks on my teams while they're high, and they're not as good," he says. "Don't try to queue with people in League of Legends who are high on marijuana. It'll be to the detriment of your team."

As to whether Polis will turn again to his brothers and sisters in the gaming community to slay some legislative dragon in D.C., he said it will depend on what comes down the line, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. "For anything that will have a detrimental effect on the gaming community," says Polis, "I won't hesitate to call out on gamers."