Last week, The Daily Beast published a profile of Republican presidential nominee Ted Cruz centered around one fact: Cruz is a lifelong gamer. According to the piece, Cruz’s gaming resume spans everything from Atari in his childhood to late at night Super Mario Bros. and fighting games through high school to mobile games and Chuck E. Cheese with the kids today.
The Daily Beast author seems a bit baffled as he describes this facet of Cruz’s life, referring to “a largely hidden nerd character” and speculating whether his gaming side could reduce a “perception of rigidity” among the voting public. “He’s known as a boxer on the Senate floor, but sometimes he prefers to fight cartoon zombies on his iPhone,” the piece wryly notes. Cruz can only admit that he likes games these days, says the author, because “geeks are cool now, they rule the world.”
However, what’s more surprising than Cruz’s gambling habit is that everyone should be surprised by it in the first place. Cruz is part of the first rising generation of prominent American politicians to have grown up with video games, and that generation’s rise to power could have a profound effect on how the medium is perceived in the nation’s halls of power.
Just a matter of time
With a few rare exceptions, we’re not used to politicians admitting they love gaming. That’s because most of our politicians generally didn’t grow up with video games. The average U.S. Senator in 2013 was 62 years old and the average Congressional Representative was 57 (both much older than the population as a whole). That means the average senator was already 21 years old at the time Pong began taking the country’s bars and arcades by storm. These politicians were in their thirties when video games for the home became very popular.
Not even a relatively young national politician like Barack Obama (born 1961) would have seen it Time magazine’s famous “video games are blitzing the world” cover to his early 20s. It is true that people can and will take up video games later in life, but demographic timing makes it more likely that the current national political class sees the medium as a new and unfamiliar pastime for children, especially given the youth-oriented marketing focus of early video. games.
Ted Cruz, on the other hand, was born in the late 1970s. As he put it to the Daily Beast, “I was a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. I had a Nintendo, an Atari. I still think of the Christmas we first got Pong game.” Honestly, as a middle-class kid in Texas at the time, it would have been somewhat surprising if video games were not a big part of Ted Cruz’s childhood. The fact that games have remained a pastime into adulthood makes Cruz like millions of other Americans right now.
Cruz isn’t the only member of the “video game generation” in the upcoming run of presidential candidates. Bobby Jindal (1971), Marco Rubio (1971), and Scott Walker (1967) were all born late enough to experience the beginnings of the video game revolution as children rather than young or even mature adults. These are the very first major party presidential candidates to have grown up in the 1970s, which is not too surprising given that the constitution requires presidents to be at least 35 years old. The thing is, we’ve finally reached a generational tipping point where some of the nation’s most notable politicians remember video games as an entertainment option that’s been around for as long as they can remember, rather than something unrelatable that “kids these days” do for fun.
Another political context
This could be a significant change when it comes to how the government handles the world of video games. The Supreme Court may have given the medium full first amendment protection in 2011 (in a case that could have gone the other way), but that hasn’t stopped some politicians from continuing to try to impose at least legal limits on the sales of games. . In 2008, before the court’s decision, Democratic presidential standard bearer Hilary Clinton expressed her support for a Family Entertainment Protection Act that would have placed the power to regulate games in the hands of the federal government.
More recently, Senator Tom Coburn has attacked government funding for video game-based research as wasteful, even though the Federation of American Scientists has been asking for such government funding for years. And even politicians who don’t want to legislate against games or fund games casually use the medium as a clumsy scapegoat for everything from obesity to poor education to gun violence, as President Obama has done several times.
Of course, there is no guarantee that younger politicians will treat games differently. But politicians who have grown up with games tend to place them in a fundamentally different political context. The moral panic about video games, like the ones about rock and roll, comic books, and even the novel for them – relies on a powerful older generation concerned about a new and unfamiliar artistic medium and its harmful effects on children. The only sure way out of this panic is usually to wait for that worried and anxious generation to age and give way to a new generation more familiar with the medium and more familiar with its real pros and cons. After all, it’s easy to demagogue against some weird new thing your kids are doing for fun. It’s harder to yell about something you and everyone else your age did for fun when you were a kid.
Cruz’s admitted video game habit isn’t the end of the political generation that grew up viewing gaming as an unknown threat — most lawmakers and presidential candidates are still significantly older. But it’s the beginning of the end. In 10 years, the first generation to grow up with Atari consoles in their homes will be in their 50s and in a prime position to take many of the reins of political power from aging baby boomers. Ten years later, it will be even harder to find a politician who remembers a time when video games weren’t just part of the American landscape.