The frustrating, enduring debate over video games, violence, and guns

The Call of Duty World League Finals 2019 at the Miami Beach Convention Center on July 21, 2019 in Miami, Florida.  | Jason Koerner/Getty Images

We asked players, parents, developers, and experts to weigh in on how to change the conversation around gaming.

In the wake of two mass shootings earlier this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the societal role of video games grabbed a familiar media spotlight. The El Paso shooter briefly referenced Call of Duty, a wildly popular game in which players assume the roles of soldiers during historical and fictional wartime, in his “manifesto.” And just this small mention of the video game seemed to have prompted President Donald Trump to return to a theme he’s emphasized before when looking to assign greater blame for violent incidents.

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” he said in an August 5 press conference. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”

Trump’s statement suggesting a link between video games and real-world violence echoed sentiments shared by other lawmakers following the back-to-back mass shootings. It’s a response that major media outlets and retailers have also adopted of late; ESPN recently chose to delay broadcasting an esports tournament because of the shootings — a decision that seems to imply the network believes in a link between gaming and real-world violence. And Walmart made a controversial decision to temporarily remove all video game displays from its stores, even as it continues to openly sell guns.

But many members of the public, as well as researchers and some politicians, have counterargued that blaming video games sidesteps the real issue at the root of America’s mass shooting problem: a need for stronger gun control. The frenzied debate over video games within the larger conversation around gun violence underscores both how intense the fight over gun control has become and how easily games can become mired in political rhetoric.

 Alex Wong/Getty Images
Protesters, including Daisy Hernandez of Virginia (3rd L) and Hunter Nguyen of Maryland (2nd L), hold their hands up as they participate in the March for Our Lives gun control rally, March 24, 2018, in Washington, DC.

But this isn’t a new development; blaming video games for real-world violence — any kind of real-world violence — is a longstanding cultural and political habit whose origins date back to the 1970s. It’s also arguably part of a larger recurring wave of concern over any pop culture that’s been perceived as morally deviant, from rock ’n’ roll to the occult, depending on the era. But as mass shootings continue to occur nationwide and attempts to stop them by enacting gun control legislature remain divisive, video games have again become an easy target.

The most recent clamor arose from a clash among several familiar foes. In one corner: politicians like Trump who cite video games as evidence of immoral and violent media’s negative societal impact. In another: people who play video games and resist this reading, while also trying to lodge separate critiques of violence within gaming. In another: scientists at odds over whether there are factual and causal links between video games and real-world violence. And in still another: members of the general public who, upon receiving alarmist messages about games from politicians and the news media, react with yet more alarm.

What is new, however, is that recent criticism of the narrative that video games lead to real-world violence seems particularly intensified, and it’s coming not just from gamers but also from scientists, some media outlets, even mass shooting survivors: David Hogg, who became a gun control advocate after surviving the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, unveiled a new March for Our Lives gun control initiative in August, pointedly stating in his announcement on Twitter, “We know video games aren’t to blame.”

And on all sides is a sense that frustration is growing because so little has changed since the last time we had this debate — and since the time before that and the time before that.

There’s no science proving a link between video games and real-world violence. But that hasn’t quelled a debate that’s raged for decades.

Historically, video games have played a verifiable role in a handful of mass shootings, but the science linking video games to gun violence is murky. A vast body of psychology research, most of it conducted before 2015, argues strenuously that video games can contribute to increases in aggression. Yet much of this research has been contested by newer, contradictory findings from both psychologists and scholars in different academic fields. For example, Nickie Phillips, a criminologist whose research deals with violence in popular media, told me that “most criminologists are dismissive of a link between media and crime” and that they’re instead interested in questions of violence as a social construct and how that contributes to political discourse.

That type of research, she stressed, is likely to be less flashy and headline-grabbing than psychology studies, which are more focused on pointing to direct behaviors and their causes. “Social meanings of crime are in transition,” Phillips said. “There’s not a single variable. As a public, we want a single concrete explanation as to why people commit atrocities, when the answers can be very complex.”

The debate over the science is easy to wade into, but it obscures just how preoccupied America is with dangerous media. The oldest moral panic over a video game may be the controversy over a 1976 game called Death Race, which awarded players points for driving over fleeing pedestrians dubbed “gremlins.” The game became mired in controversy, even sparking a segment on 60 Minutes. Interestingly, other games of the era that framed their mechanics through wartime violence, like the 1974 military game Tank, failed to cause as much public concern.

In his 2017 book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong, psychologist Patrick Markey points out that before concerned citizens fixated on video games, many of them were worried about arcades — not because of the games they contained, but because they were licentious hangouts for teens. (Insert “Ya Got Trouble” here.) By the 1980s, “Arcades were being shut down across the nation by activist parents intent on protecting their children from the dangerous influences lurking within these neon-drenched dungeons,” Markey writes.

Then came the franchise that evolved arcade panic into gameplay panic: Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat, infamous for its gory “fatality” moves. With its 1992 arcade debut, Mortal Kombat sparked hysteria among concerned adults that led to a 1993 congressional hearing and the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB. The fighting game franchise still incites debate with every new release.

 Didier R. Collard/Kombat Pavilion
The infamous “spine rip” which started with the original Mortal Kombat game, shown here in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 (1995).

“Like people were really going to go out and rip people’s spines out,” Cypheroftyr, a gaming critic who typically goes by her internet handle, told me over the phone regarding the mainstream anxiety around Mortal Kombat in the 1990s. Cypheroftyr is an avid player of shooter games and other action games and the founder of the nonprofit I Need Diverse Games.

“I’m old enough to remember the whole Jack Thompson era of trying to say video games are violent and they should be banned,” she said, referencing the infamous disbarred obscenity lawyer known for a strident crusade against games and other media that has spanned decades.

Cypheroftyr pointed out that after the Columbine shooting in April 1999, politicians “were trying to blame both video games and Marilyn Manson. It just feels like this is too easy a scapegoat.”

Politicians have long seized on the idea that recreational fantasy and fictional media have an influence on real-world evil. In 2007, for example, Sen. Mitt Romney (R–UT) blamed “music and movies and TV and video games” for being full of “pornography and violence,” which he argued had influenced the Columbine shooters and, later, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter.

Video games seem especially prone to garnering political attention in the wake of a tragedy — especially first-person shooters like Call of Duty. A stereotype of a mass shooter, isolated and perpetually consuming graphic violent content, seems to linger in the public’s consciousness. A neighbor of the 2018 Parkland shooter, for instance, told the Miami Herald that the shooter would play video games for up to 12 to 15 hours a day — and although that anecdotal report was unverified, it was still widely circulated.

A 2015 Pew study of 2,000 US adults found that even though 49 percent of adult Americans play video games, 40 percent of Americans also believe in a link between games and violence — specifically, that “people who play violent video games are more likely to be violent themselves.” Additionally, 32 percent of the people who told Pew they play video games also said they believe gaming contributes to an increase in aggression, even though their own experience as, presumably, nonviolent gamers would offer at least some evidence to the contrary.

One person who sees a correlation between violent games and a propensity for real-world violence is Tim Winter. Winter is the president of the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan advocacy group that lobbies the entertainment industry against marketing graphic violence to children. He spent several years overseeing MGM’s former video game publishing division, MGM Interactive, and moved into advocacy when he became a parent. Growing up, his children played all kinds of video games, except for those he considered too graphic or violent.

In a phone interview, Winter told me his view aligns with the research supporting links between games and aggression.

“Anyone who uses the term ‘moral panic’ in my view is trying to diminish a bona fide conversation that needs to take place,” Winter said. “It’s a simple PR move to refute something that might actually have some value in the broader conversation.”

During our conversation, he compared the connection between violent media and harmful real-world effects to that between cigarettes and lung cancer. If you consume in moderation, he argues, you’ll probably be fine; but, over time, exposure to violent media can have “a cumulative negative effect.” (In fact, studies of infrequent smokers have shown that their risk of coronary disease is roughly equal to that of frequent smokers, and their risk of cancer is still significantly higher than that of nonsmokers.)

“What I believe to be true is that the media we consume has a very powerful impact on shaping our belief structure, our cognitive development, our values, and our opinions,” he said.

He added that it would be foolish to point to any one act of violence and say it was caused by any one video game — that, he argued, “would be like saying lung cancer was caused by that one specific cigarette I smoked.”

“But if you are likely to smoke packs a day over the course of many years, it has a cumulative negative effect on your health,” he continued. “I believe based on the research on both sides that that’s the prevailing truth.”

The debate endures because gun control isn’t being addressed — and games are an easy target

Like many people I spoke with for this story, Winter believes that the debate about gun violence has remained largely at a standstill since Columbine, while the number of mass shootings nationwide has continued to increase.

“If you look at the broader issue of gun violence in America, you have a number of organizations and constituencies pointing at different causes,” he said. “When you look back at what those arguments are, it’s the same arguments that have been made going back to Columbine. Whether it’s gun control, whether it’s mental illness, whether it’s violence in media culture — whatever the debate is about those three root causes, very little progress has been made on any of them.”

The glorification of violence is so culturally embedded in American media through TV, film, games, books, and practically every other available medium that there seems to be very little impetus to change anything about America’s gun culture. We can define “gun culture” here as the addition of an embrace of gun ownership and a nationwide oversupply of guns to what Phillips described as “a culture of violence” — one in which violence “becomes our go-to way of solving problems — whether that’s individual violence, police violence, state violence.”

“There’s a commodification of violence,” she said, “and we have to understand what that means.”

 Whitney Curtis/Getty Images
Bailey Chappuis, 12, holds a Beretta ARX 160 during the NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits April 13, 2012, at the America’s Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

Naomi Clark, an independent game developer and co-chair of New York University’s Game Center program, agreed. “I find it more plausible that America’s long-standing culture of gun violence has affected video games, as a form of culture, than the other way around,” she told me in an email. “After all, this nation’s cultural traditions and attachments around guns are far older than video games.”

In light of incidents like Walmart’s removal of video game displays after the recent mass shootings while continuing to advertise guns, the connection between the shootings and America’s continued valorization of guns feels extremely stark. “We could ban video games tomorrow and mass shootings would still happen,” Cypheroftyr told me.

“What’s new about the current debate is that the scapegoat of videogaming has never been more nakedly exposed for what it is,” gaming sociologist Katherine Cross wrote in an email, “with Republicans and conservatives manifestly fearful of blaming systematic white supremacism, Trump’s rhetoric, or our nation’s permissive and freewheeling gun culture for the recent rash of terrorism.”

Because of the sensitivity around the issue of gun control, it’s easy for politicians to score points with constituents by focusing a conversation on games and sidestepping other action. “Politicians often blame video games because they are a safe target,” Moral Combat author Markey told me in an email. “There isn’t a giant video game lobby like other potential causes of mass shootings (like the NRA [National Rifle Association]). So [by targeting games], a politician can make it appear they are doing something without risking losing any votes.”

And the general public is often susceptible to this rhetoric, both because it’s emotional and because it may feed what they think they already know about games — even if that’s not a lot. “The narrative that violence in video games contributes to the gun violence in America is, I think, a good example of a bad idea that seems right to people who don’t look too closely at the facts,” Zak Garriss, a video game writer and designer who’s worked on a wide range of games, told me in an email.

“Video games are a global industry, dwarfing other entertainment industries in revenue in markets comprised of gamers from the UK, Germany, France, Japan, the US, and basically anywhere there’s electricity. Yet the spree shooting phenomenon seems to be seriously and uniquely a US issue right now. It’s also worth noting that the ratings systems across these countries vary, and in the case of Europe, are often more liberal in many regards than the US system,” Garriss said.

He also pointed out that this conversation frequently overshadows the important, innovative work that many games are engaged in. “Games like Stardew Valley, Minecraft, or Journey craft experiences that help people relax, detox after a day, bond with friends,” he said. “Games like Papers, Please, That Dragon Cancer, or Life Is Strange interrogate the harder and the darker elements of the human experience like love, grief, loneliness, and death.”

In other words, a conversation that focuses on games and guns alone dismisses the vital cultural role that video games play as art. “Play video games and you can jump on giant mushrooms, shoot a wizard on the moon, grow a farm, fall in love, experience nearly infinite worlds really,” Garriss told me. “If games have a unifying organizing principle, I’d say it’s to delight. The pursuit of fun.”

He continued: “To me, the tragedy, if there is one, in the current discourse around video games and violence, lies in failing to see the magic happening in the play. As devs, it’s a magic we’re chasing with every game. And as players, I think it’s a magic that has not just the potential but the actual power to bring people together, to aid mental health, to make us think, to help us heal. And to experience delight.”

But for some members of the public, games’ recreational, relaxational, and artistic values might be another thing that make them suspect. “If they don’t play games or ‘aged out of it,’ they might see them as frivolous or a waste of time,” Cypheroftyr says. “It’s easy to go, ‘Oh, you’re still playing video games? Why are you wasting your life?’”

That idea — that video games are a waste of time — is another longstanding element of cultural assumptions around games of all kinds, Clark, the game developer, told me. “Games have been an easy target in every era because there’s something inherently unproductive or even anti-productive about them, and so there’s also a long history of game designers trying to rehabilitate games and make them ‘do work’ or provide instruction.”

All of this makes it incredibly easy to fixate on video games instead of addressing difficult but more relevant targets, like NRA funding and easy access to guns. And that, in turn, makes it a complicated proposition to extricate video games from conversations about gun violence, let alone limit the conversation around violent games to people who might actually be in a position to create change, like the people who make the games in the first place.

Yet what’s striking when you drill down into the community around gaming is how many gamers agree with many of the arguments politicians are making. As a fan of shooter games, Cypheroftyr told me she routinely plays violent games like Call of Duty and the military action role-playing game (RPG) The Division. “I’m not out here trying to murder people,” she stressed. But like the Parents Television Council’s Winter, Cypheroftyr and many of the other people I spoke with agree that the gaming industry needs to do a lot more to examine the at times shocking imagery it perpetuates.

Many members of the gaming community are already discussing game violence

Multiple people I spoke with expressed frustration that the conversation about video games’ role in mass shootings is obscuring another, very important conversation to be had within the gaming community about violent games.

Clark told me that the public’s lack of nuance and an insistence on a binary reading of the issue is part of the problem. “Most people are capable of understanding that causes are complex,” she said, “that you can’t just point to one thing and say, ‘This is mostly or entirely to blame!’”

But she also cautioned that the gaming community’s reactionary defensiveness to this lack of nuance also prevents many video game fans from acknowledging that games do play a role within a violent culture. “That complexity cuts both ways,” she told me. “Even though it’s silly to say that ‘games cause violence,’ it’s also just as silly to say that games have nothing to do with a culture that has a violence problem.”

That culture is endemic to the gaming industry, added Justin Carter, a freelance journalist whose work focuses on video games and culture.

“The industry does have a fetishization of guns and violence,” Carter said. “You look at games like Borderlands or Destiny and one of the selling points is how many guns there are.” The upcoming first-person shooter game Borderlands 3, he pointed out, boasts “over a billion” different guns from its 12 fictional weapons manufacturers, all of which tout special perks to get players to try their guns. These perks serve as marketing both inside and outside the game; the game’s publisher, 2K Games, invites players to exult in violence using language that speaks for itself:

Deliver devastating critical hits to enemies’ soft-and-sensitives, then joy-puke as your bullets ricochet towards other targets. …

Step 1: Hit your enemies with tracker tags. Step 2: Unleash a hail of Smart Bullets that track towards your targets. Step 3: Loot!

Deal guaranteed elemental damage with your finger glued to the trigger …

 Borderlands/Fandom Wiki
Borderlands is one of many shooter games that emphasizes violence as a selling point.

“There are very few [action/adventure] games that give you options other than murdering people,” Cypheroftyr said. “Games don’t do enough to show the other side of it. You shoot someone, you die, they die, you reset, you reload, and nothing happens.”

“I know that if I shoot people in a game it’s not real,” she added. “99.9 percent of people don’t need to be told that. I’m not playing out a power fantasy or anything, but I’ve become more aware of how most games [that] use violence [do so] to solve problems.”

An insistence from game developers on blithely ignoring the potential political messages of their games is another frustration for her. “All these game makers are like, there’s no politics in the game. There’s no message. And I’m like … did you just send me through a war museum and you’re telling me this?!”

The game Cypheroftyr is referencing is The Division 2, which features a section where players can engage in enemy combat during a walkthrough of a Vietnam War memorial museum. While she loves the game, she told me the fact that players use weapons from the Vietnam War era while in a war museum belies game developers’ frequent arguments that such games are apolitical.

 Ubisoft via operatordrewski/YouTube
Division 2’s Vietnam memorial museum.

Another game Cypheroftyr has found disturbing in its attempt to background politics without any real self-reflection is the popular adventure game Detroit Become Human, which displays pacifist Martin Luther King Jr. quotes alongside gameplay that allows players to choose extreme violence as an option. “You can take a more pacifistic approach, but you may not get the ending you want,” she explained.

She noted, too, that the military uses video games for training as part of what’s been dubbed the “military-entertainment complex,” with tactics involving shooter games that some ex-soldiers have referred to as “more like brainwashing than anything.” The US Army began exploring virtual training in 1999 and began developing its first tactics game a year later. The result, Full Spectrum Command, was a military-only version of 2003’s Full Spectrum Warrior. Since then, the military has used video games to teach soldiers everything from how to deal with combat scenarios to how to interact with Iraqi civilians.

 Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images
US Army soldiers play war video games during their free time on September 27, 2012, at the International Trainers Compound (ITC) in the Wardak province of Afghanistan.

The close connection between games and sanctioned real-world violence, i.e., war, is hard to deny with any plausibility. “When someone insists that these two parts of culture have absolutely nothing to do with each other,” Clark said, “it smacks of denial, and many game developers are asking themselves, ‘Do I want to be part of this landscape?’ even if they have zero belief that video games are causing violence.”

For all the gaming industry’s faults when it comes to frankly addressing gaming’s role in a violent culture, however, many people are quick to point out that critiques of in-game violence can also come from the video games themselves. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, for example, researchers Christina Fawcett and Steven Kohm recently found that the game “directly implicate[s] the player in violence enacted upon the bodies of criminals and patients alike.” Other games shift the focus away from the perpetrators to the victims — for example, This War of Mine is a survival game inspired by the Bosnian War that focuses not on soldiers but on civilians dealing with the costs of wartime violence.

But acknowledging that critiques of violent games are coming from within the gaming community doesn’t play well as part of the gun control debate. “It’s far too easy to scapegoat video games as low-hanging fruit instead of addressing the real issues,” Cypheroftyr said, “like the ease with which we can get weapons in this country, and why we don’t do more to punish the perpetrators [of gun violence].” She also cites the cultural tendency to excuse masculine aggression early on with a “b“boys will be boys” mentality — which can breed the kind of entitlement that leads to more violence later on.

All these factors combine to make the conversation around violent video games inherently political and part of a larger ongoing debate that ultimately centers on which media messages are the most responsible for fueling real-world violence.

The conversation surrounding violent games implicates violent gaming culture itself — which, in turn, implicates politicians who rail against games

Games journalist Carter told me he feels the gaming community needs to, in essence, reject the whole debate entirely because at this point in its life cycle, it’s disingenuous.

“We’ve been through enough shootings that you know the playbook, and it’s annoying that gamers and people in the industry will take this as a position that needs defending,” he told me. “It’s not a conversation worth having anymore solely on post-traumatic terms.”

Discussions about video game violence need to be held mainly within the games community, Carter said, and held “with people who are actually interested in figuring out a solution instead of politicians looking to pass off the blame for their ineptitude and greed.”

But some gamers told me they don’t trust the gaming community to frame the conversation with appropriate nuance. All of them cited Gamergate’s violent male entitlement and the effect that its subsequent bleed into the larger alt-right movement’s misogyny and white supremacy have had on mainstream culture at large.

“The framing of that rhetoric that began in Gamergate as part of the ‘low’ culture of niche internet forums became part of the mainstream political discourse,” criminologist Phillips pointed out. “The expression of their misogyny and the notion of being pushed out of their white male-dominated space was a microcosm of what was to come. We’re talking about 8chan now, but [the growth of the alt-right] was fueled by gaming culture.” She points to Gamergate as an example of the complicated interplay between gaming culture, online communities full of toxic, violent rhetoric, and the rise of online extremism that’s increasingly moving offline.

Gaming sociologist Cross agreed. “At this moment, there is urgent need to shine a light on video game culture, the fan spaces that have been infiltrated by white supremacists looking to recruit that minority of gamers who rage against ‘political correctness,’” she told me.

“We treat video games as unreal, as unserious play, and that creates a shadow over gaming forums and fan communities that has allowed toxicity to take root. It’s also allowed neo-Nazis to operate mostly unseen. That is what needs to change.”

The resulting shadow over gaming has spread far and wide — and found violent echoes in the rhetoric of Trump himself. “Look at what the person in the very highest office of the US is cultivating,” Cypheroftyr said. “Toxic masculinity, this idea that men, especially white men, have been fed that they’re losing ‘their’ country.”

 Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
US President Donald Trump waves during a “Make America Great Again” rally in Topeka, Kansas, on October 6, 2018.

“While video games do not influence us in a monkey-see-monkey-do manner, they do, like all media, shape how we see the world,” Cross argues. “Republicans, in broaching that possibility, open themselves up to the critique that their leader, who makes frequent use of both old media and social media, might also be influential in a toxic way.”

And this, ultimately, may be why the current debate around video games and violence feels particularly intense: The extremes of toxic gaming culture are fueling the attitudes of toxic alt-right culture, which in turn fuels the rhetoric of President Trump and many other right-wing politicians — the same rhetoric that many white supremacist mass shooters are using to justify their atrocities.

So when Trump rails against violence in video games, as he’s now done multiple times, he’s protesting a fictionalized version of the real-life violence that his own rhetoric seems to tacitly encourage. If we are to accept the argument that media violence as represented by games is capable of bringing about real-world violence, then surely no media influence is more powerful or full of dangerous potential than that wielded by the president of the United States.

In 2018, Vice’s gaming vertical Waypoint devoted a week to “guns and games”; in a moving piece outlining the intent of the project, editor Austin Walker observed that unlike real-world violence, “in big-budget action games, and especially games that give the player guns and plentiful ammunition, violence is cheap and endlessly repeatable.”

Yet now, barely a year later, mass shootings and other incidents of real-world violence have also begun to seem endlessly repeatable. Perhaps that is why, at last, the urgency of shifting our cultural focus from fixing violence in games to fixing violence in the real world feels like it is finally outstripping the incessant debate.

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