WASHINGTON, DC - By selecting a man who has earned a reputation as one of the harshest critics of the video game industry, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore may very well have transformed video game content into a campaign issue, thrusting more public attention on coin-op at a time when the industry is already facing an unprecedented number of challenges nationwide. In the past 19 months, no fewer than 15 states and dozens of local municipalities have proposed some type of legislation specifically aimed at restricting children's access to certain coin-op video games.
While Sen. Joseph Lieberman has been busy clarifying his positions and stances to voters on a number of issues in the time since receiving the nomination as Gore's vice-presidential candidate, his opposition to video game violence has never been in question.
He is credited with holding the first-ever hearings in Congress on the video game content issue and has been one of the nation's most outspoken critics on the subject in the aftermath of the Columbine killings. Last year he joined Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to cosponsor legislation aimed at cracking down on the marketing of adult-rated products, including video games, to children.
Lieberman also collaborates each year with Wisconsin Senator Herb Cole and the National Institute on Media and the Family to issue an annual report card on how certain sectors of the entertainment industry have policed themselves. Last November, NIMF awarded the industry a grade of "C" for ratings display and a grade of "D" for ratings enforcement. He is also credited with pushing the home video game industry into creating a rating system to warn parents about violent content.
Perhaps most alarming, Lieberman is on record as a staunch supporter of an all-inclusive ratings system that would lump coin-op together with the movie, television and music industries. At least in theory, his election as vice-president would increase the chances of such a system being implemented.
While this may be cause for concern, today's coin-op leaders say that Lieberman's nomination does not pose as serious a threat to the industry as it may first appear.
AAMA and AMOA legal counsel Elliott Portnoy, who has met with Lieberman on dozens of occasions since the issue of video game content first emerged in the public eye in 1993, sees the appointment as a positive.
"Each and every time I come away from those interactions enormously impressed by his intellect, by his integrity and by his sense of fairness," he told V/T. "He is perhaps the one person in Congress who knows how seriously the industry takes its commitment to America's children and our Parental Advisory System, and he knows that the men and women of the industry are good, decent, hard working business people, not evil purveyors of violence, as some of his colleagues in Congress often try to portray us."
While Portnoy admits that he would prefer to hear as little talk about violence in video games during the presidential campaign as possible, he believes that Lieberman is a far better alternative to a candidate who is not familiar with the coin-op business.
"If anyone is going to be discussing the issue, I'd prefer that it be someone who actually knows and understands our industry and the challenges we face, and that's Lieberman," he explained. "My experience with him suggests that he is fair and reasonable, and that he has taken the time to get to know our industry."
Portnoy is also not overly concerned about the increased chances of an all-inclusive ratings system being passed with Lieberman installed as vice-president, pointing out that it hasn't happened yet despite the public support of President Clinton and the first lady.
"We would oppose that effort but he would respect us for our opposition," he said. "He may pursue it anyway but it would be done with the absence of venom and he wouldn't launch personal attacks on industry executives or attempt to brand the coin-op industry as evil."
Another coin-op leader who has had the opportunity to interact with Lieberman, AMOA president Frank Seninsky, also has confidence in the Connecticut senator.
"He has integrity, is very intelligent, is one of the few 'honest' politicians and is a good man," he told V/T. "I have personally met him twice over the years and found that he will listen and take the time to fully understand the issues."
On one such occasion, when Lieberman was gathering information in anticipation of drafting anti-video game content legislation, he sent his top legislative assistant to an amusement trade show.
"He wanted to know some very detailed information about the concerns of the coin-op industry so he could incorporate them into what he was proposing," Seninsky remembers. "I spent several days with his legislative assistant and we walked through ASI [Amusement Showcase International] together, going through all of the games and what our industry is all about."
The fact that he was willing to take the time to see the issue from another perspective was not lost on Seninsky, who describes him as one of the few people in Washington who truly understands the coin-op industry.
"I know that he truly believes what he says and is not just doing it to grab headlines or because it is politically correct," he said, noting that he was one of the few Democrats that openly spoke out on the Senate floor against the moral transgressions of President Clinton.
"On one hand, I feel that he helped his political career on the backs of coin-op to some degree; and on the other hand I must respect him for his beliefs and convictions."
Seninsky points out that the senator worked closely with coin-op officials to develop the Parental Advisory System, even complimenting the industry in press conferences, at one point saying "I have worked with these people and they are good people who deeply care about our children."
"He has never bashed our industry as other politicians and the media have," he said. "There is little doubt that he will continue his battle against video game violence, but at the same time he will continue to work with our industry."
The only criticism Seninsky offered was the fact that Lieberman might have been more helpful in making sure that state and local unconstitutional laws didn't target coin-op.
"Whether his ticket wins or loses in November, the senator will always be approachable by our industry and we can count on him to listen to the issue and vote his conscience," he said. "The senator and many in our industry may have differing opinions on the issue of video content, but there are many other issues where the Senator and our industry do agree."