On Thursday, representatives from the gaming industry including the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) will meet with President Donald Trump at the White House to discuss the relationship between video games and gun violence. This is part of Trump’s ongoing efforts to look like he is doing something following the mass-shooting event at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Here’s a summary of each side’s position:
The ESA notes that while people play games all over the world, the United States has significantly more gun violence than other countries. The lobbying group suggests that disparity should exonerate video games as a driving force in these crimes.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, has argued that he has seen his son play violent games and someone should do something about that.
While these are both compelling arguments, I’m not even a little concerned that this meeting will end with any government oversight or any tangible change in how games are made or sold (unless Trump can justify a national security reason to put a tariff on Monster Hunter). I have a few reasons for that.
Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association is precedent
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion:
“Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”
This was a landmark case that established video games as expression on the same level as other mediums. Future courts will rely on this decision to make their own judgments, and that would apply to any law that Trump may attempt to spearhead through congress.
Of course, the government could run a law back up to the Supreme Court with the hopes of getting a different ruling, but that’s unlikely. The makeup of the Supreme Court hasn’t changed much since 2011. Only Neil Gorsuch is new after replacing Scalia, who died in 2016.
I would never say never, but First Amendment protections are one of those things that are hard to take away once the court sets them as precedent.
The ESA is good at this
The ESA was a co-defendant in that Supreme Court case, and the group has spent the last quarter of a century advocating for the gaming industry. And it has done a fine job of protecting publishers from regulation and other government interference.
While most policymakers in Washington, D.C. are out of touch with gaming, the ESA doesn’t waste its time trying to educate them. Instead, it uses an old Dale Carnegie trick of presenting its case in a way that shows how the gaming industry is valuable to a congressperson. American game publishers create jobs, they sell products overseas and bring that money here and pay taxes on it. And the ESA can make these points and note that unnecessary regulation would hurt those jobs and tax revenues. That’s the argument the ESA is going to make about loot boxes and microtransactions when gamers come hollering to representatives and senators, and it could work in both situations.
But when it comes to violence and age restrictions, the ESA has a strong case that new regulations are unnecessary. The ESA’s Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has done an excellent job of informing consumers and enforcing its ratings guidelines at retailers and online. GameStop regularly checks IDs for M-rated games, and you can’t sell a game on the PlayStation Store, for example, without getting an ESRB rating first.
The ESRB also touts that 86 percent of parents are aware of its ratings, and research claims that the rating system works better than content warnings for other mediums like music and movies. Following the Parkland shooting, Trump called for a rating system on violent games, and I’m sure the ESRB will have a nice time teaching Trump about the one that already exists.
Everyone knows this is a distraction
In the ’90s, the generations that had spent their lives playing games were still young at that point. Now that it’s 25 years later, the sirens calling us to moral panic are finding their songs are falling on less fertile ground. Too many people understand games intimately to imagine them as murder simulators. Of course, that doesn’t mean people won’t try to make that case.
On Monday, CNN published an opinion piece from Stanford virtual reality professor Jeremy Bailenson who argued that video games and especially virtual reality are dangerous training devices.
“If a possible mass shooter wants to hone his craft, don’t hand him a virtual boot camp,” reads Bailenson’s headline.
That piece met with a lot of pushback. On social media, a former U.S. Marine had a number of problems with Bailenson’s reasoning. You can read his threaded response by clicking on the tweet below:
Ok. I’ve collected my thoughts. Let’s pick this insane bullshit apart, @NRATV. I’ve fought in numerous combat scenarios in Iraq and Afghanistan. First time I was ever shot at was just outside Fallujah on a shitty road about seven km East of the city. I’ll never forget it. https://t.co/Ai4vosHjGz
— John (@mistermegative) March 5, 2018
Bailenson essentially said that virtual reality can train people to do things better, so it’s irresponsible for entertainment developers to accurately represent real combat and tactical actions in a VR experience. He offered a couple of solutions like making games where bullets curve so people don’t get accustomed to aiming straight down sight, which would make VR skills about as useful to real firearms as paintball.
But Bailenson didn’t call for anything more than self-regulation. And that’s likely because he knows his central concern isn’t anything new for free expression. I mean, should a possible serial killer have access to books about how detectives track down murderers? The professor talks about the educational power of virtual reality, but literacy has a much longer track record of empowering people to learn, and we’ve settled as a society on letting anyone read and write whatever they want.
Of course, CNN only publishes an opinion like that because this is where the conversation has gone in the past, and Bailenson is a VR expert. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a distraction. But while someone like me can spot that in an instant, the distraction works because the conversation still turns into one about video games.
The difference this time is that young Parkland students who survived the shooting are leading the fight for gun control. They are laser focused on it and they are better at it than most of us. That means I, as someone who lived through Joe Lieberman or Jack Thompson, can focus on brushing off Trump’s uninformed sniping or an opportunist professor attempting to grab national attention for his educational field without having to worry about the responsibility of shifting the conversation back to guns.
Nothing to worry about
It’s starting to feel like the last time we’re going to have to do this dance. Maybe a certain game will still raise concerns, but at some point, people stopped blaming every book, comic, and song for people’s behaviors. I could still see virtual/augmented reality creating hysteria on cable news, but like with rap music, people will grow familiar with those technologies and learn to dismiss concerns as likely overblown.
As for this particular moral panic, it is fizzling out as everyone recognizes it for what it is: a 71-year-old Donald Trump’s flailing, ineffectual attempt to look like he’s doing something about an industry and a form of expression that he doesn’t understand.
But hey, at least you got that tax cut, ESA.