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.

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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.

Among my colleagues in the games industry, many have followed Lynch's lead in empathizing with the Biden commission, arguing that it would be a mistake to shun the vice president's invitation for feedback, to spurn the opportunity to make a case for our medium. And neither Kris Graft nor I disagree. Rather, we urge citizens to see that invitation for what it really is: a political operation meant to produce a feeling of progress, a sense that the key topics are "on the table." You can't lose when you invite input, because anyone who doesn't respond will appear to have ceded their position, lost their chance.

The truth is, the games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap, and the only possible response to it is to expose it as such. Unfortunately, the result is already done: Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education.

Game industry responses to this latest political affront have again worsened matters by accepting the opposition's terms. Video game trade group the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) published a letter to the vice president in response to the establishment of a task force, asking that "that any new government research look at the totality of imaginary violence," including the "benefits of violent video games, ... [such as] a steam valve effect in which violent video gameplay helps release stress and aggression." Nowhere in their letter does the IGDA ask that the White House consider the totality of uses to which video games are put, including educational purposes inside the very elementary schools they are supposedly also endangering. And worse yet: Responses like the IGDA's (heck, even like the one you read at this very moment) are bound to appear as prurient and selfish distractions, as thoughtless calls to support a wealthy entertainment industry that maintains near-total social disengagement except when its profits are threatened, in the wake of the horrific murder of kindergarteners. Truly, we cannot win.

I can understand why my video game brethren feel such desperation for official approval, such hope that entry into a conversation spearheaded by the nation's second-in-command amounts to a proxy for the cultural legitimacy we have so long felt we lacked. Last weekend, one of my game industry colleagues contacted me, full of pride that she had been selected to commune with the vice president's office on this important issue. As a "leader in the video games industry," she asked me what "concrete solutions" might I want to propose to Biden's task force.

I offered the same one I've been advocating for a decade, both in my books on games and in my own games about issues ranging from pandemic flu to energy policy to consumer debt to immigration reform to the politics of nutrition. It's the step that's ironically the most compatible with video games rather than the most endangered by them: If the White House is really interested in games, they could start using them as sophisticated communication tools to help break out of politics as usual, instead of using games as convenient rhetorical levers when the need arises.