Remember in the 1990s and the noughties when tabloid headlines love to blame everything bad about the world on video games, as if games were some kind of interactive Pandora’s box? I spent a lot of time defending games from ignorant politicians and small-minded newspapers who loved nothing better than to discover that some damaged youth played DOOM or Grand Theft Auto right before he committed a crime (it was usually a he). Well, if you were missing those day, don’t worry, they’re back. Donald Trump has decided violent games and films could be partly responsible for tragic shootings in US schools, such as the one seen recently at a school in Parkland, Florida.
In the first seven weeks of 2018, there were 18 school shootings in the US, resulting in death or injury. On Valentine’s Day this year, 17 people were reported dead in a shooting at a Florida school. The incident has prompted student protests, as the issue of US gun legislation was up for discussion again.
Parents, students and politicians questioned an America where kids go to school fearing that they could be shot in a place that should offer safety from the world outside. However, Congress refused to tighten the rules surrounding gun ownership.
Rather than answering tough questions on real world gun legislation, US politicians and gun lobbyists would rather point the finger at games. It’s easier. Games are the traditional scapegoat of the conservative right. And we all know how Trump likes to court the right.
We thought we were past the days when games were seen as childish, yet dangerous distractions. Everyone plays games on their phones, these days. We’re ubiquitous, right? People get games now because we make money and we have our own BAFTAs and exhibitions in museums. Well, yes. Sometimes. But mostly no, especially when violence in games can be used to a sensible debate about violence on our streets.
Trump’s response to the latest school shootings has been to suggest arming teachers. More guns is the answer to preventing more deaths, apparently. He then brought up fictional violence in games and films, calling for a rating system, which he doesn’t seem to realize already exists.
Kentucky Governor, Matt Bevin quickly shifted the blame away from guns and firmly towards games in an interview. Bevin said, “There are video games that, yes are listed for mature audiences, but kids play them and everybody knows it, and there’s nothing to prevent the child from playing them.”
He describes games I’m not familiar with, “They celebrate the slaughtering of people. There are games that literally replicate and give people the ability to score points for doing the very same thing that these students are doing inside of schools, where you get extra points for finishing someone off who’s lying there begging for their life.”
When asked if he wanted to ban these types of games, Bevin said, “I think we need to start by having an honest question about what value any of these things add. Why do we need a video game, for example, that encourages people to kill people?”
Bevin is clearly asking the wrong question. The figures just don’t add up, when it comes to the correlation between gun violence and video games. If you consider the amount of games played worldwide, Bevin should expect an epidemic of school massacres across the world, but that’s not happening. In fact, looking at countries like Japan and South Korea or Germany, where gaming is popular, gun related deaths are incredibly low. In 2014, gun deaths in Japan totalled 6, compared to 33, 599 in the US in the same year.
The US stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world, when it comes to gun deaths and arming teachers or blaming video games isn’t going to fix that.
I’ve spent much of my career both defending and criticising games. Yes, we do fall back on violence as a gameplay mechanic all too often because ‘dead’ or ‘alive’ is easy for a computer to determine. Yes, games do have issues when it comes to the representation of women and minorities. Yes, there are some pockets of the gaming community that are toxic and we haven’t dealt with properly, as an industry. But no, violence in games isn’t why children in US schools are being shot on a far too regular basis.
Research into the connection between video game violence and violent behaviour in gamers has struggled to find any strong link. There is difficulty in comparing games and even narrowing down what constitutes a ‘violent’ game or even the differences between ‘aggression’ and ‘violence’ in gamers. Even the idea that violence in games desensitises gamers to real world violence is tenuous at best.
Politicians must be at a loss, when all they can do is waggle a finger at video games in mock horror to prove to conservative parents that they do care and they are doing something about the rising death toll of school children, in the US. It seems more than Orwellian to focus on fantasy violence in video games, while ignoring the physical guns that are freely available in the real world and continue to be used to enact real violence. Blaming games is easy. So much easier than reassessing a broken system that’s propped up by powerful lobbyists who could make or break your political career.