The video game industry took two hits on Wednesday, in the aftermath of the double shootings across the weekend. ESPN, which had been planning to air an Apex Legends tournament as part of the X Games, decided to delay the program until after the X Games tie-in. Meanwhile, Walmart, which had been the site of the El Paso shooting, decided to remove advertising for “violent video games” — despite, absurdly, continuing to sell the guns used in the shootings.
The latter illustrates the core issue facing the video game industry: It’s too cowardly to actually speak the truth about why it’s being targeted, thus Walmart (and ESPN, or its corporate parents Disney/ABC) felt like they would face absolutely zero consequences for scapegoating games. The video game industry will continue to fail in the political arena as long as it is terrified to speak the truth that it is deliberately being targeted by Republican politicians as a distraction for their failed gun policies and complicity in hate crimes.
Bad faith, worse logic
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this whole story is how detached it is from reality. It’s a ritual, not an argument, at this point: a shooter murders people in America; Democrats call for gun control; and Republicans suddenly pretend to care about mental health and violent video games to grind all debate to a halt. They don’t even talk about which video games the shooters might have played anymore! It’s just that the idea that violent video games exist is sufficient to mention.
The facts are obvious: The United States is the only nation where this happens regularly because of its incredibly lax gun laws. Video games exist all over the world without this happening elsewhere. There’s no evidence that violent media causes violent actions, let alone in games specifically. We all know these things. They’re barely even worth mentioning! Yet Republicans think it’s safe to use video games as a punching bag.
The statements released by two of the most influential groups, the ESA and IGDA, demonstrate the cowardice on display here. Both statements do nothing but state the fact that games don’t contribute to violence. They do not name names — saying that they’re under attack by conservatives specifically — nor do they explain why this is happening again — that those Republicans need a scapegoat to distract from their failed gun control policy. They are playing the turtle, hoping it goes away, instead of taking the simple, just, and pragmatic tack of stating the obvious.
Yes, it’s the right
Some of it is historical. Back in the 1990s, at the height of the violent video game moral panic, attacks on the industry were bipartisan and generally in good faith, albeit ignorant. With good faith criticism, simply presenting the evidence, or lack thereof, would have helped.
Now, the criticism is in bad faith, and explicitly partisan. It’s the Republican party, from the president to the governor of Texas and Congress members in-between. Only Joe Biden of major Democrats — the most conservative of the major presidential candidates and a relic of the 1990s culture wars — gave any attention at all to violent video games, saying in essence that he didn’t like them, but that they were irrelevant. This is party politics: Republicans are in favor of guns and opposed to violent video games. The NRA knows this and supports the GOP. The ESA and IGDA are still confused.
But the bigger reason that the video game industry is paralyzed in the face of direct attacks is that it’s terrified of looking like it’s taking sides, and it’s terrified of the conservative video game “fans.” Decades of attempting to do nothing in an attempt to play both sides of the culture wars have left the industry unable to see that a side has already been chosen for it.
This learned helplessness damages the industry already. Its pathetic reaction to the alt-right GamerGate movement gave it a deserved PR black eye that it hasn’t shed, as well as hurting game developers, particularly marginalized game makers, across the world. An inability or unwillingness to police users have led to game spaces like Steam or Discord to be used as white supremacist recruitment and organizational tools.
Or there’s another, seemingly unrelated bit of game news from Wednesday: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare developers giving a pathetic non-answer to the idea that their game is political. This is a game that specifically advertises itself as being about the hard decisions the military has to take to win the War on Terror! It’s yet another in a series of public relationships mishaps from the game industry, pandering to a reactionary “make games great again” cadre of commenters who throw a temper tantrum if a game acknowledges the existence of injustice, particularly in terms of race or gender.
And for what? Pandering to the reactionary right certainly doesn’t stop them from complaining — these are people who get upset at the idea that there’s a fictional end to slavery! Not, obviously, has it stopped right-wing politicians from taking actions to limit the exposure and sales of video games.
Cowering in the face of conflict
There are some explanations, and they’re not good ones. The satirical website Point-and-Clickbait posted a barely joking article after the shootings about how the ESA might consider donating slightly less to President Trump when he blamed games. Meanwhile, Vice’s Rob Zacny makes the clever argument that the ESA’s current scandal of accidentally/deliberately leaking media members’ private information and their inability to rise to the need of the industry when its under attack both stem from its short-sighted profits-over-people mentality, where it praises tax cuts for the megacorporations and seems to stand for nothing else.
Or perhaps there’s an even more cynical argument. The biggest companies in the game industry have a cozy relationship with the gun industry, needing to license accurate firearms to keep a tiny set of gun fetishists happy. Maybe it’s hard to criticize the NRA when you work hand-in-hand with it. Maybe it’s hard to have a tiny bit of moral courage when you’re being attacked by facilitators of mass murder — after all, there’s profits to be made.
A game industry with courage, that stood up for itself, would have gone on the offensive when it became the target of bad faith political attacks. It would have made it a political decision for ESPN or Walmart to remove games from their spaces. The game industry thinks it can win by doing nothing, but it’s already in the match and a side has been picked for it. If the IGDA and ESA and other faces of the industry can’t tell the truth that they’re being targeted by Republicans for evidence-free political reasons, they are failing games and deserve no support.
Of course, nobody expects the ESA or IGDA to do anything like this. They’ve been useless at best for decades. But if you’re a person of influence in the video game industry, a person who’s shocked and disgusted by just how cynically Republicans have used video games to distract from their gun worship, it’s worth acknowledging how and why these organizations have failed. This way, they can be reformed or replaced by groups that stop chasing short-term cash, and instead fight for the long-term health of the video game industry and the nation as a whole.