(If you haven't read about the controversy involving Maine state Senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz and the negative campaign by the Maine GOP involving World of Warcraft please do so now. Most of those who will read this are "gamers" by virtue of their Magic: The Gathering play if nothing else and the Lachowicz controversy is only the most recent in a pattern of moral panics that predates fantasy gaming itself . Lingering "gamer" stigmas affect our lives but we also have opportunities to talk about who we are and the games we enjoy demystifying them to peers relatives and yes politicians. This article covers the history and language of moral panics against "gamer" culture in the United States as well as what can be done to counteract them in the future.)
I thought we were done with "gamer" moral panics in the United States. The Dungeons & Dragons controversies of the late 1970s and 1980s fizzled out by the late 1990s. Magic: The Gathering took some heat over themes and imagery early on; Mark Rosewater's "Where Have All the Demons Gone?" is the best single explanation of how Wizards of the Coast reacted to said heat and banished the word "demon" from the game for a seven-year exile that began in 1995. A decade after Grinning Demon though Magic is thriving more than ever.
Video games had the longest road but it seemed they had made it through.Jack Thompson's plaguing of video game manufacturers (largely) ended with his disbarment for life in 2008. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2011 confirmation that video games deserve First Amendment protection knocked down the sales ban law crafted by a Democrat state legislator in California then Assemblyman and now Senator Dr. Leland Yee. Meanwhile Activision Blizzard is advertising World of Warcraft during NFL broadcasts and speaking of football Minnesota Vikings punterChris Kluwe is outspoken about his gaming among other more pressing social topics. So yeah I thought it was over.
Then the Maine Republican Party (AKA the Grand Old Party GOP) decided the best way to take on Democratic state Senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz was...to tie her to World of Warcraft.
They made a Web site. They sent out a press release and flyers. The irony is that the Maine GOP could've made a perfectly fine negative political advertisement out of a few choice quotes from the DailyKos comments left by Ms. Lachowicz. (Talking about hunting down Grover Norquist and drowning him in her bathtub even if Norquist used a similar metaphor ? Yikes.) In fact the Maine GOP tried to walk it back toward the comments alone in a Tweet: "Playing WoW is not by itself a bad thing; how candidates conduct themselves in it is absolutely fair game."
Yet that's not the message the Maine GOP sent with the flyer the "Colleen's World" site or the press release. All used language designed to attack her not as a person who made dodgy comments online but as a gamer. That's a problem for all gamers wherever they live and whatever their politics.
Coded and Loaded: Anti-Gamer Language in "Colleen's World"
"BIZARRE DOUBLE LIFE" - Headline of press release
"…lives vicariously through [Santiaga]" - Press release
"Disturbing Alter-Ego" - Press release
"Weird" - Blog category on "Colleen's World"
"Maine needs a State Senator that lives in the real world not in Colleen's fantasy world." - Header of "Colleen's World"
That's only the start of the anti-gamer language in the "Colleen's World" campaign. It's a two-pronged attack that focuses on conflating fantasy and reality. Not only does it take quotes that make sense from an in-game context ("That means I stab things ... a lot" about a rogue character) and attempt to project them onto Ms. Lachowicz's actions outside the game but it also suggests that she herself cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
Such suggestions of living in a fantasy world and being unable to keep it separate from the real world are decades old and part of a long-discredited hysteria. After troubled prodigy James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from Michigan State University giving rise to the "steam tunnel incident" myths and inaccurate reports thatDungeons & Dragons was involved a mini-rush of cash-in media sprang up around similar stories most prominently the novelMazes and Monsters and the subsequent TV movie. (Watch this 30-second clip of the film. To a gamer in 2012 it seems laughable or disgustingly exploitative. In the early 1980s though it must have seemed all too plausible to those who weren't involved with Dungeons & Dragons or wargaming.)
Remember that Tweet about playing World of Warcraft not being a bad thing by itself?
"Colleen Lachowicz spends hundreds of hours playing in her online world Azeroth as an Orc Assassination Rogue named Santiaga. What's worse in Colleen's World she gets away with crude vicious and violent online comments." -- Flyer
No sale Maine GOP. Something can't be "worse" if its predecessor isn't bad.
The flyer lies with statistics trotting out obsolete statistics from now Dr. Nick Yee's Daedalus Project-in 2005-to suggest immaturity and obsession ignoring within those stats that female players skew older and further ignoring the particulars of who Ms. Lachowicz is and her play style who in the past year has gone weeks or months at a time without logging in to World of Warcraft (check the gaps in her activity feed). "Hundreds of hours" in Azeroth? To reach "hundreds of hours" of TV time the average American needs... six weeks.
As Ars Technica noted an American who spends more than 30 hours a week watching TV is normal but devoting significantly less time to an online game "raise[s] questions about her work ethic and her ability to devote her time and energy to serving the people of Senate District 25 in a mature and effective manner" according to the Maine GOP's Communications Director David Sorensen. Again note the use of language-work ethic mature-and the doubling down on the outdated "average" statistics that have no relevance to Ms. Lachowicz's particular situation. Stigmas about gaming are fading as the hobby becomes more mainstream (see David French and Matt Peckham below) but that didn't stop the Maine GOP from using them to try to steer votes away from a Democratic candidate.
Going beyond Ms. Lachowicz's bizarre political comments and attacking gaming however was a macro level miscalculation. I doubt the Maine GOP appreciated the damage it could do to the party's cause in other U.S. states and territories. Many gamers vote for Republican candidates. Some gamers even run for office as Republicans and the Maine GOP's take on "Colleen's World" risks current and future gamer-oriented attacks from the Democrat side.
Take Jeanne Stevens 2008 Republican candidate for the Connecticut State House of Representatives (defeated by incumbent) and a level 70 Orc Hunter at the time. How would the Connecticut Republican Party have liked the Democrats to make up "Jeanne's World?"
Then there's Ray Tenorio Republican Lieutenant Governor of Guam and World of Warcraft enthusiast rocking the (for now) level 86 Dwarf Shadow Priest Paleray. He's killed Deathwing the final boss of the Cataclysm expansion. Again "Ray's World?"
How about a non-office seeking political figure? Let's try David French aconservative commentator Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve who spent a year in Iraq and WoW player. "David French's World" has been a lot more real and dangerous than " David Sorensen's World."
The Maine GOP has taken a great deal ofonline and television backlash over "Colleen's World." Matt Peckham's opinion piece for the online edition of Time magazine is of particular value thanks to the respect the Time brand maintains in many circles. Even so the "Colleen's World" campaign still has a chance to do what its backers hoped: help defeat Colleen Lachowicz in her state Senate campaign.
Why "Colleen's World" Might Work and How to Counteract the Next Anti-Gamer Campaign
The Maine GOP never would've launched the "Colleen's World" campaign if it hadn't believed that it would help them in one specific Maine state Senate race. It wasn't meant to sway people like you or me. It was meant to sway the pensioner who saw Mazes and Monsters when it first aired on TV the undecided voter whose sole exposure to "nerds" has been high school andThe Big Bang Theory every Thursday night on CBS the concerned parent whose religious leader says Magic: The Gathering is evil. (If Ms. Lachowicz had played say a Demonology Warlock the language used in the campaign flyer probably would've been straight out of a Chick tract.)
The late timing of the "Colleen's World" campaign had shades of an October surprise and neither I nor anyone in my immediate circle expected a political party to make a campaign issue out of a candidate being a gamer. My biggest concern is that if "Colleen's World" works then it's a signal to future campaigns: "Hey snoop around and see if your opponents are gamers. You can paint them as immature obsessives with the potential for suggesting psychosis and Satan worship!" (Besides the infamous Chick tract above remember that Magic sparked a long and bitter lawsuit between a school district and several parents one of whom was quoted in various news outlets as calling Magic "straight from Satan" and " much worse than witchcraft.")
Multiple successful takedowns of candidates based on past or present "gamer" hobbies would send a message to gamers with civic interest: don't bother running for office. There's dirt on you already. Maybe that doesn't affect you now but what if you have a child in an underperforming junior high and you want to kick the local sleazebag who "represents" you off the school board? If gaming becomes legitimized as a line of political attack a whisper campaign based on your Friday Night Magic attendance has every chance of becoming a reality.
It isn't in my or any gamer's interest to have gaming turned into mud for politicians to sling. What are the important steps for counteracting the next gaming-based attack on a candidate?
Always demystify gaming by engaging the community. Thanks to the saturation Activision Blizzard has achieved with World of Warcraft an attack like "Colleen's World" is less likely to succeed than it was before. That game has a player base in the millions making it more likely for any one voter to know someone who plays and its mass media campaigns on the Internet and broadcast television have increased overall awareness of games and gamers in general.
That's one company sponsoring one game though. As gamers we've done poorly at marketing ourselves. We've given up "public relations" largely to those who mock or disapprove of us. Think of the cynicism involved in titling the 2009 "first-person shooter games are real" film Gamer and remember that the charity Child's Play which is the single highest-profile-though by no means only-"gamer" charity in the world had its origins in one of the Penny Arcade proprietors seeing one too many articles on violent video games and having enough. Bill France the author of the article that inspired Child's Play was honorable enough to give a mea culpa about the way he might have suggested gamers themselves were "bad people:" "For that impression I am sorry. I did not and do not believe that."
The more people who know a gamer and the more those people see gamers as civically engaged and responsible individuals like them the less likely it becomes that the sequel to "Colleen's World" will work.
When they appear denounce negative campaigns based on gaming. Gamer politics range from libertarian to liberal and beyond. As the Kari Zielke "Blood Elf Hunter Republican" meme put it "Party affiliation does not matter." Guam's Republican Lt. Governor Ray Tenorio playsWorld of Warcraft as mentioned above and Colorado's Democrat U.S. Representative Jared Polis plays League of Legends. It's important to denounce negative campaigns based on gaming wherever they come from but especially from within your own party (if you have one).
"This campaign is alienating your current supporters and the next generation of potential supporters" hits right at any political party's fears of future irrelevance. Talk to people around you and not just your circle of gaming friends about why attacking a candidate based on gaming deserves their disapproval. Write letters to the editor and party leadership. Contribute time and money to candidates and parties you believe in and withhold both from those who attack your hobbies.
As a last resort vote against negative campaigns based on gaming. A "backfire" vote-voting for a candidate who is attacked for being a gamer-is a risky strategy. That candidate may not be the best person for the office and may disagree with you on issues such as taxation and spending on education. Every voter has issues that matter to her or him and I'd rather not vote based on "gamerhood." If a political party chooses to make a candidate's hobby gaming an issue however... Well sometimes political operatives need a good "Tsst!" from the electorate.
Perhaps it's a pipe dream to think that gaming as a hobby can be depoliticized. If sitting U.S. Presidents across the political spectrum can be criticized for playing golf what hope do gamers have? The difference of course is that with the exception of the odd Michael Moore film golf rarely becomes a campaign issue.
The Maine GOP has made a campaign issue out of a state Senate candidate's World of Warcraft account doing so deliberately cynically and unnecessarily. The Maine GOP has misrepresented one gamer perpetuating harmful stereotypes of who all of us are and what we do. The Maine GOP has told voters that gamers are not to be trusted undercutting people who create jobsserve in the U.S. armed forces overseas and better their communities.
I am a God-fearing fiscal conservative with a level 90 Tauren Balance Druid and I do not approve this message.
As always thanks for reading.
@jdbeety on Twitter