On December 21, 2012, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, which has lent its name to video games including N.R.A. High Power Competition, N.R.A. Varmint Hunter, N.R.A. Gun Club, and, most recently, N.R.A.: Practice Range, delivered a speech in which he laid the blame for school shootings in the United States at the feet of various pop-cultural transgressors. The “dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal,” LaPierre said, seven days after a twenty-year-old man named Adam Lanza fatally shot twenty-six children and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, is that “there exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people through vicious, violent video games.”
Contrary to LaPierre’s statement, numerous media outlets had, in the previous week, noted that Lanza, like many American men his age, was an avid player of video games. (A report published by the state of Connecticut in late 2013 revealed that he was predominantly a fan not of “vicious, violent” games but of Dance Dance Revolution, a Japanese arcade game in which players rhythmically tap their feet on pressure-sensitive pads.) Lanza’s hobby was so well publicized that, a month after the attack, senior members of the U.S. video-game industry, including John Riccitiello, the C.E.O. of Electronic Arts, and Michael Gallagher, the head of the Entertainment Software Association, a lobbying group, were summoned to the White House for a meeting with Vice-President Joe Biden. According to Constance Steinkuehler, the Obama Administration’s video-game czar, who was present at the meeting, Biden arrived in “a foul mood.” Clearly shaken from his recent conversations with some of the Sandy Hook parents, he walked up to the conference table, threw down a pile of binders, and said to Steinkuehler, “What are we going to do with these scumbags?”
The notion of a causal link between virtual violence and real-world violence was present almost from the moment video games entered the mainstream. On November 9, 1982, C. Everett Koop, the U.S. Surgeon General, gave a speech at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, in Pittsburgh, in which he challenged the country to confront the roots of domestic violence and child abuse. After the speech, an audience member asked whether Koop thought video games had a negative effect on young people. “Yes,” he replied. Teen-agers were becoming addicted to video games “body and soul,” Koop said, and it was a form of entertainment in which he saw “nothing constructive.” Though he retracted his comment the next day, the idea persisted.
In the decades that followed, researchers tried and failed to discern a relationship between video-game use and mass homicide. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, studies purporting to show such a link “have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively.” Four years later, in an official resolution, the American Psychological Association acknowledged a correlation between “violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior” but stipulated that “not all aggression is violence” and that “insufficient research has examined whether violent video game use causes lethal violence.” Last June, the A.P.A.’s News Media, Public Education, and Public Policy Committee issued a new set of recommendations. The first one read, “Public officials and news media should avoid stating explicitly or implicitly that criminal offenses were caused by violent media.”
Donald Trump, it appears, never got the memo. After the Sandy Hook massacre, he tweeted, “Video game violence & glorification must be stopped—it is creating monsters!” After last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, he said a more cryptic version of the same: “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” So perhaps it’s no surprise that, on Thursday afternoon, the Trump Administration staged a repeat of the post-Sandy Hook meeting, inviting the Entertainment Software Association and other members of the video-game industry to discuss, as the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, put it, “what they can do on that front.”
The people invited to the meeting included, once again, Michael Gallagher, along with Strauss Zelnick, the C.E.O. of Rockstar Games; L. Brent Bozell III, of the conservative Media Research Center; Melissa Henson, the director of the Parents Television Council, which Bozell founded; Dave Grossman, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who has called violent video games “murder simulators”; Robert Altman, the C.E.O. of ZeniMax Media, on whose board of directors the President’s brother serves; Representative Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican; and Patricia Vance, the president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. The E.S.A.’s official statement, published before the meeting, said, “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 statement echoes the advice that Steinkuehler gave Biden before the 2013 meeting, when she recalls telling him, “If you go into that room arguing that video games cause gun violence, you will be on the wrong side of facts. Video games are not a gun-violence problem. But video games do have a P.R. problem.” Once the meeting began, each member of the industry was invited to speak, and each one, Steinkuehler said,denied culpability. She mentioned a separate White House gathering that took place around the same time, in which a group of Hollywood executives had first brushed aside blame, then went on to offer suggestions, however modest, for how the film industry might lend a hand—by commissioning films that combat stigmas around mental health, for instance. “The conversation then pivots away from the stupidity of whether or not you are to blame,” Steinkuehler said. “It becomes about: What can we do to help the people who love our work and thrive on our cultural output?” By contrast, she said, the leaders of the video-game industry “went on and on about how they have no responsibility in this situation whatsoever.” She added, “Nobody offered any solutions. In that moment, I felt like the industry and its leaders are incredibly immature.”
To be sure, there’s plenty to discuss about the uneasy relationship between video-game developers and the military-industrial complex. In 2005, as many as forty per cent of new enlistees in the U.S. Army said that they had played America’s Army, a game funded by the Pentagon. In 2013, a representative from Barrett, the manufacturer of the M82 sniper rifle, told me that the company had received a license payment for the use of its weapon in Activision’s Call of Duty series. “Video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners,” the representative said at the time. (Neither Barrett nor Activision responded to requests to confirm whether the deal, or ones like it, remain in place.) Guns and warfare, in other words, are crucial to the story lines and economic strategy of many modern blockbuster games, and the fact that these games don’t cause lethal violence in the real world doesn’t mean they’re not problematic in other ways.
The repeated accusation that games beget violence has inspired a siege mentality among those who play and make them, but few notable designers have publicly expressed concern about the fetishization of firearms. Martin Hollis, a developer of the 1997 James Bond-themed game GoldenEye 007, told me that he once received a fax from Shigeru Miyamoto, the inventor of Super Mario, calling the game “tragic” and “horrible.” Miyamoto proposed that, at the end of GoldenEye, players should be forced to shake hands with their victims as they lay recovering in hospital beds. (The idea was never implemented.)
It is unclear what, if anything, will emerge from Trump’s meeting, because the guiding belief that the President and several of his guests seem to hold—that violent video games contribute to mass shootings—is untenable. “If the West Wing were to talk with the researchers in their Office of Science and Technology Policy, they’d learn that the research on this issue is settled,” Mark DeLoura, who worked in the department for two years under President Barack Obama, told me. Until the Administration and the industry can agree on this common set of facts, the cyclical conversation around gun violence and video games—part of the greater cyclical conversation around gun violence and contemporary America—will continue indefinitely, without progress.