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Gun debate boomerang: Focus on video games targets Democratic givers

by Kathy Kiely and Louis Serino

closeup photo of hands on a gaming consoleNews that the alleged perpetrator of December's schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut had a cache of violent video games and may have been recreating a horrific virtual fantasy could put Democratic politicians in an awkward position with some of their political allies. 

While the numbers pale in comparison to the millions poured into political campaigns by gun rights groups, contributions by the gaming industry tilt heavily towards Democrats. Republicans have already begun to highlight this fact as they pressure for equal attention on violent entertainment in the midst of President Obama's effort to enact stricter gun control laws. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi found herself on the defensive in a recent Fox News interview when asked why she can't compel contributors in Hollywood to ease up on violence in movies. And Motion Picture Association of America President Chris Dodd -- a former Democratic senator -- suggested to a National Press Club audience that regulating gun violence in movies might represent a step down the "slippery slope" towards censorship.

MORE: For data on the gun debate, see the Sunlight Foundation's resource page.

So far most of those who blame a blood-drenched entertainment culture for fueling violence have focused on movies, though gun rights advocates have also targeted video games. In his first public statement after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre suggested that the nation turn its attention to "vicious, violent video games." It's not a new idea: When she was a New York senator, Hillary Clinton pushed for an investigation of the impact on impressionable minds of the notorious "Grand Theft Auto," one of the video games that LaPierre decried by name in his December press conference.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the video game industry has been upping its influence profile in Washington in recent years.

The Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group and sponsor of the E3 gaming expo, cites "numerous studies" as well as pronouncements by the Federal Communications Commission and the Supreme Court to deny any link between violent games and violent outbursts. The association has spent more than $31 million lobbying Congress, retaining the services of 30 lobbyists in 2012, including four in-house. And it is continuing to stock up; according to disclosure forms, the ESA has just hired Steve Elmendorf and Robert Cogorno of Elmendorf Ryan for video game "advocacy and legislative strategy." Sunlight's Political Party Time site shows that ESA's team of government affairs personnel has hosted over 60 political fundraisers since 2006, with Jim Free of the Smith-Free Group leading the way by throwing 10 events. Since the 2004 campaign cycle, ESA employees have made $1.9 million in campaign contributions, with the donations almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. 

On the corporate and individual level, however, most gamers show a more partisan tilt.

Employees of Rockstar Games, which makes the popular and controversial Grand Theft Auto series, have given almost exclusively to Democratic candidates, most of it -- $9,400 -- to President Barack Obama. Take-Two Interactive, the owner of Rockstar, has spent $430,000 lobbying Congress against mature video game regulation and taxation, and recently presented its case at a White House meeting with Vice President Joe Biden about gun violence in the media. The company has also enlisted the help of lobbyist Robert Rayben, who has organized and even opened his own home to congressional fundraisers almost 20 times, according to Party Time. 

Employees of Activision Blizzard, which makes World of Warcraft as well as the Call of Duty franchise which alleged Newtown shooter Adam Lanza reportedly spent hours playing, have given nearly $18,000 to Obama and $11,800 to Hillary Clinton, the two top recipients of their contributions. On the other hand, the same employees have favored Republican political committees, giving $57,000 to the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and $27,750 to the Republican National Committee. That compared to $25,000 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The company has spent $250,000 lobbying Congress, mostly on intellectual property issues. Among the lobbyists who have represented Activision Blizzard are Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman who was closely allied with former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich when Gingrich was speaker of the House. And Ed Kutler, another lobbyist, has hosted more than 15 fundraisers for Republican politicians stretching back to 2006.

Electronic Arts, one of the granddaddies of the gaming industry (it was founded in 1982), doled out a hefty $220,000 lobbying Congress, mostly on intellectual property issues. Members of the company's government relations team are also prolific fundraisers: Party Time shows most of them hosted upwards of seven events for lawmakers, including Lindsay Hooper of Capitol Tax Partners, who has thrown 20 parties for politicians on both sides of the aisle. Meanwhile, its employees have given $357,461 in political contributions through the third quarter of 2012. The donations favor Republicans overall, but the top two individual recipients are Obama ($30,400) and his secretary of state, ex-Sen. John Kerry ($12,760), a Massachusetts Democrat. Last year Obama was by far the EA employee's favorite candidate, garnering $12,162 in contributions. Number two: former congressman and libertarian Ron Paul, with $1,250.

Gabe Newell, co-founder and managing director of Valve Corp., was crowned the "newest video game billionaire" by Forbes magazine last year. The magazine estimated Newell's net worth at $1.5 billion after his Washington state firm posted a "stellar" year with releases such as Portal 2, a puzzle platform game. Newell, who founded the company after cashing in stock options earned as a software producer for Microsoft, gave his biggest single donation -- $100,000 -- to support a charter schools measure that narrowly won approval in a Washington state referendum last year. All of Newell's nearly $15,000 in other contributions have gone to Democratic candidates and causes. Additionally, Valve employees gave over $60,000 to Democratic recipients.

Bungie, the creators of the popular Halo franchise, have not enlisted the help of a lobbying shop in the company's 22-year history. But its employees have unanimously favored liberal candidates and causes, delivering $12,150 to Obama, his campaign committee and the Democratic party.

Another venerable gaming company, Doom developers Id Software of Plano, Texas, leans Republican. Most of its workers have favored home state conservatives, former president (and Lone Star State governor) George W. Bush and former Texas Rep. (and GOP presidential candidate) Ron Paul. 

(Photo credit: Adam Filip via iStockphoto.com)