President Donald Trump called for curbing “gruesome and grisly video games” that contribute to a “culture of violence” as a response to the horrific shooting sprees in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, but it had the ring of the familiar.
Trump and other political figures have put blame at the industry’s doorstep after other shooting tragedies, but the big difference Monday was the swift rebuke that greeted it.
Gun-reform advocates are more vocal now than they were in February 2018, when Trump’s administration last pointed a finger at the video game industry in the wake of the school massacre in Parkland, FL. Within minutes of Trump’s new comments today, those reformists called him out and “VideoGamesAreNotToBlame” surged as a trending hashtag, while debate began raging about which posed the greater threat to American society, pervasive first-person shooter games or the availability of real-world firepower.
The hashtag soon roused a major social media constituency that rarely devotes much screen time to Beltway topics: Gamers and the video-game industry began professing their passion for their virtual pastime and comparing the current criticism to previous eras when comic books, heavy metal music, horror films and hip-hop took their turns in the hot seat.
Hillary Clinton, who has been a critic of graphic video-game content in the past, joined the discourse on Twitter by pointing out that video games are an international colossus but the violence epidemic is exclusive to the United States. “People suffer from mental illness in every other country on earth; people play video games in virtually every other country on earth. The difference is the guns,” she posted.
In his speech Monday, Trump cited the need for greater measures to identify people with mental illness and limit their access to weapons, and he condemned white supremacy and the role of the Internet in spreading messages of hate. But his comments stopped short of citing specific measures regarding guns, such as expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons, actions that enjoy popular public support.
The GOP response to the most recent spate of mass shootings started taking shape over the weekend when Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick weighed in on the topic by noting that guns and evil aren’t new, so therefore video games are the more likely suspect for the modern epidemic of massacres.
“We’ve always had guns,” Patrick said on Sunday on Fox & Friends Weekend. “We’ve always had evil. But what’s changed where we see this rash of shooting? I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill.”
The thread of that logic was also picked up by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy when he appeared later Sunday on another Fox News show. McCarthy alluded to research about the influence of video game violence although he didn’t offer specifics. “We’ve watched from studies, shown before, what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others,” he said.
The research cited by McCarthy is news to Mathew Littman, the president of 97% Gun Reform, an advocacy group that delves into every facet of the firearms debate. “Generally, if you are talking about video games, there is literally not one piece of data that says that they are a factor,” he saaid. He noted that in Japan, where gaming is wildly popular, multiple-victim murders and gun deaths remain statistical rarities.
That is a sentiment echoed by the Entertainment Software Association, which represents the video game industry and has long argued that no linkage of any kind has been shown between video-game exploits and real-life violence. The group, which now has a formidable lobbying presence in D.C., says that “blaming video games for real-world violence is no more productive than blaming other forms of media for the content they depict…other societies, where video games are played as avidly, do not contend with the tragic levels of violence that occur in the U.S.”
A look at legitimate research efforts over the years yielded a surprising tidbit: there’s more empirical data suggesting a link exists between video-game activity and a reduction in violent crime. The April 2011 study titled “Understanding the Effects of Violent Video Games on Violent Crime” delved into video game sales between 2005-2008 and then charted the correlation between bestseller releases and crime statistics (specifically, they used weekly totals of aggregate violent crime incidents from the National Incident Based Reporting System, aka NIBRS).
The study posits that because video game activity gobbles up the free time of young males, the demographic group most closely associated with crime, the games actually serve a social good. Essentially, if significant numbers of young males are on a couch playing God of War or Fortnite, they aren’t on the streets or otherwise available for mischief, antagonistic pursuits, or malingering.
Just like after-school sports, summer jobs, or church youth programs, video games can gobble up the free hours of young males and reduce their window of opportunity for criminal activity. The concept is called “incapacitation” and it suggests that Trump could score points on national crime reduction by getting behind video games in a big way.
That seems unlikely, of course, and in the meantime the video game industry is taking it on the chin in the court of public opinion and in the world of finance. On Monday, shares of video game publishers Electronic Arts, Take Two, and Activision Blizzard all fell in public trading, albeit on an overall bearish day in the market.
Strauss Zelnick, a veteran of the music industry who is now chief executive of Take-Two Interactive, spent a chunk of Monday reveling in his company’s strong showing for the fiscal first quarter (reporting adjusted revenue of $422 million, far exceeding Wall Street’s $357 million projection). But the news of the day undercut the upbeat showing by the company known for the relentlessly lurid Grand Theft Auto series and the harshly violent Red Dead Redemption gunfighter epics.
“We’re just sickened and saddened by these senseless tragedies,” Zelnick told reporters. “That said, blaming entertainment is irresponsible. Moreover, it is highly disrespectful to the victims and their families. The fact is entertainment is consumed worldwide…but gun violence is uniquely American. So we need to address the real issues.”
Trump also cast some blame on video games and their violent culture in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. The White House even organized a meeting with Trump, industry representatives and parents’ groups, and started the session by playing a reel of some gruesome scenes from games, including characters who were dismembered, gored, beheaded or impaled.
As shocking as the lurid imagery may have been to the Beltway attendees, their outrage didn’t lead to any kind of changes in the industry or even any meaningful discussion of action. And while the Parkland shootings did spark massive protests they did not lead to any notable Congressional overtures to change gun laws. Gun-law reformists, however, point to wide, substantial gains made at the local and state level as a reason for optimism.
One thing that hasn’t changed: gun-control advocates have seen the cycle play out time and again as their cries for reform are deflected into finger-wagging critiques of a “culture of violence” in entertainment.
When it comes to limiting video game violence, there may be little the government can actually do, if past legal precedents are considered. The Supreme Court in 2011 struck down a California law that restricted minors’ access to violent games, ruling that the industry was covered by the First Amendment.
In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia found that the attempts to classify what was objectionably violent was especially problematic. Scalia wrote: “Certainly the books we give children to read — or read to them when they are younger — contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed.”
Trump and others also may be trying to put political pressure on the industry to change its ways. But the industry already has a self-regulating classification system, like the MPAA and broadcast TV ratings. Lawmakers have tried to keep up pressure on the industry, but that too has been a bit futile. In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, there was a proposal to fund National Academy of Sciences research on video game and media violence, but that, too, stalled in Congress once the heat of post-shooting protest subsided.
Littman says his group is named for the level of public support for universal background checks, which he says will not solve the problem of all gun deaths but will prevent many. “It would be nice if people were less offended by video games, which are not real, than by people actually getting killed by gun violence,” Littman said.
A similar sentiment was expressed by Cory Bartog, creative director at the Santa Monica Studio of SIE (Sony Interactive Entertainment) Studios, who sounded incredulous as he mocked the logic of the President.
“Violent video games and mental health?” he said. “Not the high-powered weapons of war being sold to civilians by the millions that are actually being used to carry out these acts of domestic terror?”