On February 14, a gunman killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, using a legally purchased AR-15 assault-style rifle.
Less than a week later, amid a resurgence in the gun debate in the US, President Donald Trump suggested that violent video games play a role in mass shootings.
“The level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” Trump said on February 22. “You see these movies, they’re so violent, and yet a kid is able to see the movie. If sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved. And maybe they have to put a rating system for that, and you get into a whole very complicated, very big deal.”
On Thursday, Trump is scheduled to meet with prominent video game industry executives to discuss “violent video game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children.”
But there’s good reason to expect that nothing will come of this meeting. Here’s why:
Discussing violent video games is a distraction from the real issue: gun violence.
The 19-year-old suspect in the Parkland school shooting was reportedly “fascinated by guns” and had a record of aberrant behaviour. A profile from the Sun Sentinel in Florida’s Broward County – where the shooting took place with a legally purchased assault-style rifle – details a history rife with problems.
Notably, that history doesn’t include video games (let alone violent video games).
It’s entirely likely that, as a 19-year-old in 2018, the suspect played video games at some point. But it’s also clear that video games are not being viewed as having any kind of role in the mass shooting on February 14.
So, why are we talking about violent video games? Good question.
As a Parkland shooting survivor named Chris Grady told CNN in a recent interview: “That’s just a really pathetic excuse on behalf of the president. I grew up playing video games – ‘Call of Duty,’ those first-person-shooter games – and I would never, ever dream of taking the lives of any of my peers. So it’s just pathetic.”
Violent video games don’t lead to real-life violence.
The suggestion that violent video games and films are at least partly responsible for the rise and persistence of gun violence in the US dates back to the early ’90s. But the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 brought it into the national conversation once again.
The two Columbine High School gunmen were active “Doom” players. Since the game primarily focuses on shooting a gun – at demons, in outer space – commentators suggested that the gunmen had trained for the real-life shooting by playing “Doom.” The game featured a gun as the main point of interaction and perspective – the “first-person shooter” was a relatively new concept in video games back in 1999 – and thus arose suspicion.
If these teenage gunmen were playing this game, and capable of committing such a horrific act, what did that mean for all the other kids playing these games?
There’s a simple answer to that, of course: The same video games are sold all over the world, yet gun violence is far more prevalent in the US than in the vast majority of countries where games are sold. In other words, video games are not the determining factor.
Video games have ratings already.
If you’ve ever purchased a video game, you’ve probably run into a video game rating. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board is responsible for giving out video game ratings in North America.
Games are rated for various groups based on a variety of factors, including violence and depictions of sex. If you’re publishing a game in North America, and intending to sell it in a retail store, you’re required to have an ESRB rating.
And if you’re buying a game in a retail store that is rated “M for mature,” for people 17 and older, you’re almost certain to be carded – independent reports put retail compliance with video game ratings at north of 90%.
Simply put: It’s very difficult to buy a violent video game in a store as a minor.
The ESRB was actually created in response to calls from government officials to regulate video game ratings in the early ’90s. Moreover, it was created by the video game industry lobby group that is scheduled to meet with the president and other lawmakers on Thursday.
If the call from Trump is to “put a rating system for that,” there’s an easy answer: One already exists.
Where the video game industry could find a sticking point is in the push toward digital game sales. Without parents monitoring, it’s possible to buy any game you want through digital storefronts – all you need is a credit card or a prepaid card (which can be purchased by anyone online or at retail). Will that come up in this meeting? We’ll find out soon.
The White House meeting is stacked with conservative group representatives and Republican members of Congress.
The list of attendees for Thursday’s White House meeting is far from bipartisan.
The members of Congress attending are all Republicans:
-Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri -Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama
Beyond representatives from the video game industry, every expert opinion at this meeting is a conservative voice. They are:
-Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center -Retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the author of “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” and “Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing” -Melissa Henson of Parents Television Council
The conservative groups will argue that violent games are being advertised to children, and the industry representatives will argue that the game-ratings system exists to keep parents informed. All of which is to say one thing: The meeting will probably not accomplish anything aside from placating conservative groups and distracting the media.
(And here I am, writing about this instead of, say, the lack of movement from lawmakers on gun control. It’s already working!)