The American debate about video game violence is a battlefield as vast and pocked as any you might find in a modern first-person shooter game. And up until last month, the trenches were mostly abandoned.
In the 42 years since the National Safety Council bleated concerns to the New York Times about gamers running down pixilated “gremlins” in the 1976 arcade game Death Race, science has yet to find a connection between video games and real-world violence. Politicians on both sides of the aisle still used it as a favorite cudgel through the 1990s and 2000s, but as Dooms Day predictions about Grand Theft Auto-warped teens failed to come to fruition, many abandoned the issue.
That is until President Donald Trump haphazardly tossed video game violence into a national conversation about what to do about mass shootings in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, massacre. Now, game industry executives are scheduled to meet with Trump on Thursday, and they’re expressing concern that video games could become a convenient whipping boy to take the heat off calls for gun regulation.
Few details have come to light about the meeting, including who will be there, what will be discussed, and whether it will be televised. That should come as no surprise, considering that when press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders first mentioned the meeting last week, game industry officials said they had no idea it was happening.
It’s also telling that Trump’s initial comments decrying violent movies and video games included a call for a rating system. The Motion Picture Association of America has been rating movies since 1968, while the Entertainment Software Rating Board has been around since 1994. Both rating systems were created to empower parents to make their own choices about their children’s media consumption.
The industry’s Entertainment Software Association (ESA) trade group has signaled it intends to again defend video games from being used as political scapegoats, but insiders told the Daily Beast on Tuesday they’re seriously concerned. They worry the administration wants a made-for-TV distraction from the gun debate, not a real conversation.
The ESA released the following statement on Monday:
“Video games are enjoyed around the world and numerous authorities and reputable scientific studies have found no connection between games and real-life violence. Like all Americans, we are deeply concerned about the level of gun violence in the United States. Video games are plainly not the issue: entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the US has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation. The upcoming meeting at the White House, which ESA will attend, will provide the opportunity to have a fact-based conversation about video game ratings, our industry’s commitment to parents, and the tools we provide to make informed entertainment choices.”
Indeed, many studies over the years failed to show that playing video games makes a person more violent. Villanova University researcher Patrick Markey actually found the opposite to be true in a 2014 study.
“Contrary to the claims that violent video games are linked to aggressive assaults and homicides, no evidence was found to suggest that this medium was positively related to real-world violence in the United States. Unexpectedly, many of the results were suggestive of a decrease in violent crime in response to violent video games.”
Even if you don’t dig into the research, the issue should be clear through the rudimentary lens of common sense. Violent video games are played the world over, yet perennial mass-casualty shootings are a uniquely American problem.
A 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision written by late conservative hero Justice Antonin Scalia should have settled the question once and for all. (The 7-2 decision was notably co-signed by progressive-leaning justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.) The court struck down California’s attempt to restrict the sale and rental of violent video games to minors.
“Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively,” Scalia wrote. “Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.”
The court went on to suggest California was unfairly targeting video games while ignoring violence in other media like Saturday morning cartoons. It said parents “who wish to restrict their children’s access to violent video games” were already served by the ESRB rating system.
So case closed? Apparently, not yet.