Tech/Gaming Journalist: 'I think' Hillary Clinton's 'war on video games' was 'well-intentioned'

Case study in how the Democratic frontrunner gets away with a quarter century of attempted censorship


"Well-intentioned." ||| Reason

In my cover story this month about Hillary Clinton's long war on free speech, I pointed out that professionals whose work relies on maximally free expression often end up supporting or at least sympathizing with the Democratic frontrunner anyway, even if they know full well how miserable and anti-constitutional her anti-media work has been. What explains the paradox? My stab at it: "Largely because the industries in her critical crosshairs—Hollywood, Silicon Valley, gaming—lean overwhelmingly Democratic, and Democrats care more about defeating Republicans and defending core progressive issues than having to fend off sporadic state meddling into their workplaces."

As if to demonstrate this phenomenon, Paul Tassi, who writes for Forbes about "video games, technology, and the internet," has a piece up titled "Can We Forgive Hillary Clinton for Her Past War on Video Games?" It is a remarkable exercise in simultaneously documenting a politician's awfulness on a subject dear to the author's heart, and waving away the topic as an area of active concern.

Tassi breaks down the comprehensive illiberalism of Clinton's Family Entertainment Protection Act (which, as he notes, would have "criminalized" selling violent video games to minors), and points out that it was "almost exactly" like California's video game ban that was later struck down by the Supreme Court on free-speech grounds. He embeds video of hysterical Clinton speeches, and unearths choice quotes like "We need to treat violent video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol, and pornography."

And then he forgives her for it.

It's pretty clear that video games are no longer on the forefront of Hillary Clinton's mind, meaning that with a possible Clinton presidency, we won't see the return of such an agenda. In the end, I think Clinton was well-intentioned, and not some Jack Thompson-type figure dedicating her life to destroying the games industry. […]

In a way, Hillary Clinton reminds me of my own mother (a conservative who will be horrified to hear that) in regards to her views on games. Growing up, games were banned in my house left and right, as my mom thought that they could be a potentially corruptive influence depending on their content and level of violence. But I snuck away to friends' houses to play them anyway, and surprise, didn't grow up to be a psychopath, or ever have any anger or aggression issues whatsoever. I know she meant well, and I don't remain upset with her for banning these games, but it was just simply not the case that violent games ended up making me a violent person. And the same is true for millions of other gamers, despite this eternal rhetoric.

So, despite declaring a brief war on the kinds of games I love, I guess I won't really hold it against Hillary Clinton either. […]

I think this will end up being the least of Hillary Clinton's problems, but it's kind of fascinating to look back at this, one of her oddest crusades.

With Lent around the corner, I begrudge no one their deployment of forgiveness. But Hillary Clinton's war on video games was neither "brief" nor "odd" in the context of her long political career. And though Tassi is right to note that gaming crackdowns won't be central to Clinton's campaign or presidency, her censorial instinct already is.

First, on the alleged brevity of the video-game war: Clinton kicked off her campaign for the U.S. Senate in April 1999 with an angry speech calling for new crackdowns on video games and other youth-targeted media in the wake of the Columbine massacre. Sample:

[T]he constant exposure to violence—on television, in the movies, in the video games, in the music—does…have an effect on the way children see themselves and others. There is just too much evidence that children are desensitized, they lose empathy. There is increasing concern about the impact on vulnerable young people of video games that are interactive and that you win based on how many people you kill. […]

We are going to have to do some serious thinking in our country about how we will take more control over what our children see, and what they experience, and how they understand what they see and experience. […]

And I think we are going to have to be very honest about what kind of steps we are willing to take to do something about it.

The Family Entertainment Protection Act was not Sen. Clinton's first legislative rodeo with video games and free speech. Her 2001 Media Marketing Accountability Act, also co-sponsored by her friend Joe Lieberman, would have imposed federal fines of up to $11,000 per day for "the targeted marketing to minors of adult-rated media," including video games. As the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service warned, "The bill could impose a possible financial burden on speech, and that, as well as outright censorship, may violate the First Amendment." Danny Goldberg, writing at The Nation in September 2001, lamented that "Lieberman and Clinton apparently believe that federal bureaucrats are the ideal arbiters of the appropriateness of entertainment for teenagers."

Which brings me to Tassi's claim that the video-game crackdown was one of Clinton's "oddest crusades." This is only true if you ignore her past support for speech-infringing regulations on television, the Internet, and politicking. You can see a long list of such activities in this Clinton administration memo assembled in the run-up to Hillary's Senate campaign. She backed the 1996 Communications Decency Act (parts of which were struck down by the Supreme Court a year later on free speech grounds), the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (eventually struck down by the Supreme Court in 2009 on free speech grounds), and the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (struck down by the Supreme Court in 2010 on free speech grounds).

Given the theoretical underpinnings of her anti-media crusades—that children in particular "take those messages to heart like…little VCRs, and they play back what they have learned"—it is zero surprise that Hillary Clinton is campaigning right now on telling American social media companies to "take down" speech that so much as celebrates terrorist violence. Read all about that right here.

Is there any reason to believe that these actions were, to borrow Tassi's phrase, "well intentioned"? Well, sure: Most people (even politicians!) support stuff they think will make the world a better place, even if they're dead wrong about that. But more important than intentions are results, and the results of Hillary Clinton's prejudices, if unchecked by the Supreme Court or the political process, would have been to reduce the legal scope of American free speech, over and over and over again. It's hard to imagine commentators giving a Republican with this track record the benefit of the doubt (indeed, Tassi writes as part of his political full disclosure, "Hillary may be a robot, but tearing her down aids Republicans and rewards decades of their smears").

From Reason TV, here are 10 dumb quotes about video games from pols and pundits.