How the Video-Game Industry Already Lost Out in the Gun-Control Debate

Firearms, not entertainment, lead to mass shootings, and yet gamers have irrevocably become implicated in the conversation over violence in America.

Paul Sakuma banner yee.jpg
Calif. State Sen. Leland Yee wrote a ban that would bar children from buying or renting violent video games. It was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2011. (AP / Paul Sakuma)

This week, Vice President Biden announced the establishment of a task force on gun violence. Invitations for input were sent to the NRA, of course, but also major gun retailers like Walmart and representatives from the video game industry. In response, Kris Graft, the editor-in-chief of video game trade publication Gamasutra, penned an editorial criticizing the games industry for allowing itself to be implicated in debates about mass shootings in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre. "Everybody knows what Biden is implying when inviting the game industry to 'participate' in these talks," writes Graft. "If you're meeting with Joe Biden about gun control, you're stating that you are part of the problem, and therefore, you are part of the problem."

Casey Lynch, an editor at game enthusiast website IGN, responds in An Open Letter to Gamasutra's Kris Graft: You're Dead Wrong. Lynch's post has proven popular among game industry operatives who seem to believe that maybe this is the time when an entry into the national political conversation will go their way. Like many, Lynch assumes that Biden's task force meeting might actually result in some sort of definitive political outcome. Given such a possibility, argues Lynch, "do you really believe the topic of violence and gun control as it relates to video games is better left to people who have no interest in appreciating video games?"

But it's far more likely that the task force is its own primary outcome. A year and a half ago, after former Vice President Al Gore made a booster's appearance at a games industry conference, I wrote an essay titled "Why Debates About Video Games Aren't Really About Video Games." The context was less charged, but the lessons are the same: The actual use, function, or content of games never has a place in political discussions about games. Instead, games are cogs in someone's favorite discourse machine. Not just negative ones like gun violence, but also apparently beneficial ones: a commitment to STEM education, a generic technological wherewithal, an empathy with the social practices younger voters, and so on. Whether for good or for ill, games become instruments in public debate rather than as mechanisms through which players can participate in a variety of activities—including reflecting on the very debates they now serve as puppets.

As it happens, that's just what happened to games (and popular media more generally) in the NRA's good guy with a gun response to the Newtown shooting. Guns aren't a factor in gun violence for the NRA—rather, games, media, and law enforcement failures must take the blame. Once the terms of the debate are set like this (and set they very much were thanks to the over-the-top bravado in this press conference) then it's very hard to extract oneself from the debate without shifting the frame, without changing the terms of the debate.

I certainly believe that the White House would like nothing more than to see an end to mass gun murders in America's elementary schools. But the fact remains that gun violence takes place every day, all across this country, at a rate of dozens of deaths a day, and as the leading cause of death among African-American youth. But when the vice president establishes a task force on gun control and violence that includes the media industries that the NRA has once again chosen as their patsies after a particularly heinous and public example of gun violence, all it can do is shift attention away from guns.

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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