Video games are replete with gangsters, zombies and other evil characters. But for the industry that makes those games, its scariest foe is Jim Steyer.
A longtime children’s advocate, Steyer has taken up the flag against the game industry and lobbied zealously on behalf of a California law that bans the sale of violent games to minors. The law, which was struck down by lower federal courts as unconstitutional, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in the U.S. Supreme Court.
For Steyer, the hearing is the culmination of a life’s work tackling what he sees as a major health hazard endangering kids. His nonprofit organization, Common Sense Media, is a respected authority on the effects of media and technology on young users, with its articles, reviews and advice columns reaching millions of parents a month.
Game industry executives decline to comment openly about Steyer and his group. But in a strategy memo on tackling the California law, George Rose, Activision Blizzard Inc.'s chief public policy officer and former general counsel, makes clear that Steyer and his group are in its sights.
After interviewing several state attorneys general who opposed the California law banning the sale of violent games to minors, Rose wrote in the July memo that the attorneys general “received far more calls from Steyer and his associates than anyone else” and that “one of their main advices was to neutralize Common Sense Media. They see it as the main enemy.”
Steyer’s reaction: Bring it on.
“I’m glad they see us as the enemy, because we are,” Steyer said, speaking in characteristic rapid-fire declarative sentences. “And we’re right. Because our lens is kids. Theirs is profit maximization. Sex and violence sells. Somebody has to stand up against that. It’s David against Goliath. And we will win.”
Although the $25-billion U.S. video game industry may fit the role of Goliath, Steyer isn’t a lone David. Within minutes of meeting someone, he has a habit of carpet-bombing the person with well-connected names he calls “friends of Jim.”
Common Sense Media’s 21-member board includes Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gene T. Sykes, head of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.'s technology, media and entertainment investment banking group; former Federal Communications Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate; and John H.N. Fisher, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
“Anybody who goes up against Jim will find that he’s a formidable opponent because of the backing he has,” said Wendy Lazarus, co-president of the Children’s Partnership in Santa Monica, who worked with Steyer in 1988 when he founded Children Now, a child advocacy group in Oakland.
Steyer’s advocacy streak came from his mother, a Brooklyn, N.Y., schoolteacher who would occasionally bring him to class as her teaching assistant.
“His whole focus on kids comes from his close relationship with his mother,” said Mike Tollin, a Hollywood film and television producer who was Steyer’s housemate at Stanford when the two were undergraduates. “She was the kind of woman who would sit you down, ask you how things were, and you felt like you needed to tell her the truth.”
Steyer, whose father was a corporate lawyer, took after his mother in one other respect.
“My mom would find the crappiest teams and root for them,” said Steyer’s younger brother, Tom Steyer. “In life, Jim instinctively roots for the underdog.”
The underdog for Steyer has always been kids.
After starting Children Now, Steyer noticed a dearth of high-quality educational TV programs for kids. So he started JP Kids in 1996, a for-profit company that produced such shows as “The Famous Jett Jackson,” which aired on the Disney Channel.
As research for his 2002 book, “The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on Our Children,” Steyer interviewed former President Clinton, who suggested that Steyer start an organization to help parents decode the dizzying array of media and technologies available to children. That became the seed for Common Sense Media, which Steyer founded in 2003.
The San Francisco organization has two facets. The first is editorial. The group has generated more than 13,000 reviews of games, movies, TV shows, websites and books written for parents interested in their contents. It has also created hundreds of advice articles and videos for parents on topics such as online safety for children and cellphone use.
The second function of Common Sense Media is advocacy. Steyer has gravitated to topics that grab attention. His book, “The Other Parent,” condemns a movie and television culture that glorifies violence and turns children’s entertainment into nonstop commercials.
“Jim’s got a great gut instinct about where the action is on issues that affect kids,” said Lazarus of the Children’s Partnership.
Steyer has four children — three teenagers and a 6-year-old he and his wife adopted several years ago. And having a dad who has definitive views about media can be from the kids’ view, a bummer.
“My kids tell me, ‘Dad, you’re our worst nightmare. We go to our friends’ houses, and their parents tell us we can’t watch this movie or play that game because you said it’s not OK. It’s so embarrassing.’ Then I laugh. Their friends know what I do, and it makes them think,” Steyer said.
He latched on to video game violence five years ago, when he asked the children he was tutoring in East Palo Alto what they were doing at home instead of reading. The answer: playing Grand Theft Auto III: San Andreas, a video game in which players could hijack cars and attack police officers.
“These kids knew how to play Grand Theft Auto before they could read,” Steyer said.
He has three beefs with violent games.
“It makes kids more aggressive, it desensitizes them to real world violence and it makes kids scared,” he said. “The public health impacts on children are clear to me.”
Steyer linked up with Leland Yee, a psychologist who as a California state assemblyman drafted the controversial video game legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005. (Yee, a Democrat, is now a state senator from San Francisco.)
Although his relentless championing of the law puts him in direct conflict with the game industry, Steyer insists he’s not an anti-game zealot.
“We’re not enemies of video games at all,” he said. “We believe strongly that games are a form of digital literacy. Games are potentially great teaching tools. If we think it’s good for kids, we promote it. If we don’t, we call it out.”
By modeling his group as a “Consumer Reports for media,” Steyer has been able to attract far more allies than enemies.
“Anyone who has kids understands the need for what his organization does,” said Goldman Sachs’ Sykes, who attended business school at Stanford when Steyer was at the law school in the early 1980s. “It’s a very appealing and winning argument.”
Sykes introduced Steyer to a number of his investment banking clients, including Time Warner Cable Inc., DirecTV and Comcast Corp. All now pay Common Sense Media for the right to distribute the group’s reviews and videos to their cable subscribers via their on-demand services, as does Tribune Media Services, whose parent Tribune Co. owns the Los Angeles Times.
Steyer’s organization received roughly half of its $8 million in revenue in 2009 from licensing its content. The other half comes from contributions from foundations such as the Omidyar Network Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Sherwood Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Donations also come from its board of directors, which include Steyer’s younger brother Tom, who made the Forbes list of billionaires in 2008 with an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion. Tom Steyer made his fortune in finance, founding Farralon Capital Management, an investment firm for the ultra-wealthy.
“Jim is wound up,” his brother said. “If you want to just sit there and relax, it’s not going to happen with him. A lot of people find that really annoying. He’s a huge pain, but a big protector.”