The Video-Game Industry Needs to Defend Itself—Here's How

Video games don't cause violence. The fact that so many people believe otherwise means that the those who make and play games need to speak up.

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A copy of the book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games sits at the table as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden convenes a meeting with representatives from the video game industry, in a dialogue about gun violence. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

In the wake of the recent mass killings, one thing is clear: Change is necessary from politicians, the press, and even the video-game industry—just not the change most people think.

Ferocious new, evidence-free attacks on the video-game industry remind us how much politicians and the press can wildly overreact. But even though the facts are overwhelmingly on the side of game makers, the industry's tepid response shows that it need to change as well.

We, the gaming community, need to be better informed debunkers of anti-game fallacies. We need to demonstrate how seriously we take not just our rights but also our responsibilities to society. We need to talk about pro-social games, like games for conflict resolution, anti-bullying, and solving medical problems.

We need to talk about how many games transcend the limitations of other media to become inspired meditations on and explorations of the consequences of human actions, including violence. In short, we need the conviction to be fearless advocates for our art.

The facts

Politicians are proposing new video-game regulations, taxes, and outright bans. Senator Charles Grassley questioned some games' "artistic value." He should have checked with the US Supreme Court, which said in 2011, "Video games qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas ..."

Citing no facts, Senator Lamar Alexander called games "a bigger problem than guns." But the Supreme Court found that "Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively." Violent video games have no more effect than "video games like Sonic the Hedgehog that are rated 'E' (appropriate for all ages)" or "cartoons starring Bugs Bunny."

Even before the recent mass shootings, Congressmen Joe Baca and Frank Wolf wanted to place advisory labels on all games, even games with no violent content: "WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behavior." It's as if no one told them that the Supreme Court already threw out every one of those "links," finding that "These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason."

That "good reason" includes the fact that the tests that some researchers use to measure aggression have never actually been validated for aggression, just for competiveness. At best, all the anti-game researchers can show is that imaginary violence leads only to imaginary violence. At no time can they show that imaginary violence ever crosses over to cause actual violence. Or even real aggression. Just competiveness.

Some political representatives are simply ignorant of the facts and need to be informed. But some might be informed and shamefully exploiting public ignorance. Either way, whose job is it to inform the people? Everyone who loves video-games: developers, executives, journalists, and players.

The media

The media has largely failed to make these distinctions. A spate of recent news stories uncritically reported attacks on video games or made fresh attacks of their own without attempts to balance the coverage with the game-industry perspective. Not many people from the industry stepped up to defend our work, our art, and our rights. I can't say I blame them, based on my recent experience, but that doesn't make engaging with the press less necessary.

After the recent tragic shootings, I volunteered to answer media questions, representing the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) through the Anti-Censorship and Social Issues Committee that I chair. I made the rounds including NBC Nightly News, Fox News, Fox Business, MSNBC, etc., I found many of my questioners had not done their homework prior to the segment and were sometimes quite resistant to facts.

They scoffed at the growing body of research showing benefits of violent video games, including helping people reduce and release their anger and stress. They accused the video-game industry of being just like the gun lobby, even though we have not lobbied to stifle research into our industry, we have not lobbied for liability protection, and we are not proposing that violent games be bought by every school as a solution to school shootings. And I got a substantial amount of hate mail.

But despite all that, the results of my media tour were overwhelmingly positive. I heard from many game developers and game players who said they were grateful to have games defended and to see the facts survive the media buzzsaw.

Game-industry response

Which leads to the question, why don't more people in the games industry step up to defend our work? So many stories that ran on TV and in the press were one-sided because they lacked any kind of industry response. But rather than calling for a full-throated defense, many in the industry surprisingly called for further disengagement.

When Vice President Biden invited video game publishers and lobbyists to the White House as part of the task force on violence, many gaming websites, influential developers, and game journalists called for a boycott of the meeting.

My IGDA letter to the vice president prior to the task force meeting was criticized in The Atlantic by the well-regarded game researcher Dr. Ian Bogost in a piece headlined, "How the Video-Game Industry Already Lost Out in the Gun-Control Debate."

Bogost called the meeting "a trap," and insisted that, "the only possible response to it is to expose it as such." Except it wasn't a trap.

Instead, Vice President Biden's task force on gun violence rejected the political clamor to scapegoat video games. "You have not been singled out," Biden told the representatives of the game industry, his hand on the shoulder of the president of Electronic Arts.

In my letter to the vice president, I wrote that I welcomed research but asked that the government study the totality of the effects of violent games, including the benefits. Bogost said responses like mine were "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..."

But despite Bogost's certainty, the White House was not "bound" to see us that way at all. The task force recommended no video-game bans, taxes, or regulations. Just more studies. The vice president's measured comments actually seem to be helping defuse the media backlash against the video-game industry and could even provide an opening to help the public see us in a new light, based on facts rather than misguided fear.

We cannot let bleak assessments like Bogost's stop us from speaking truth to power. We can't let fears about how we "appear" stop us from being part of the discussion and part of the solution.

It would have been a big, self-defeating mistake for video-game makers to insult the Vice President by snubbing his offer to meet. The massively powerful gun-seller Wal-Mart reversed its initial snub after swift and overwhelming public pressure, and even the NRA agreed to attend. Imagine if the video-games industry actually had been the only industry to boycott the task force meeting. Would the public see this as a principled stand against false accusations? Or would they wonder what we have to hide?

I think the public is bound to view such isolationism as a tacit admission of video-game culpability in real-world violence. The uproar in the press and public would threaten two decades of gains against censorship. The First Amendment protects our games, but it does not protect an industry from sales losses by a public who thinks of us as "selfish and thoughtless" for refusing to even sit down for civil dialogue with their democratically elected representatives. We gain nothing by taking extreme positions except a reputation for extremism. We should not be afraid to engage in respectful but resolute dialogue with our elected leaders, and save the extremes for our work.

The administration deserves credit for its fact-based restraint, but I have not seen much credit coming from those in the gaming industry, including those who initially wrongly claimed the meeting was a "trap" to scapegoat games. Some have acknowledged they prejudged the situation, but not all.

Constructive engagement

Supporting more well-validated research into the psychological effects of gaming is nothing to fear. I will not hide from facts about the games I make. I want to know. More than a decade ago I had said that if violent video games proved to be a genuine danger, I would stop making them. Rather than fearing science, I sought to use evidence-based research as a compass to guide my way through the moral and ethical dilemmas of my life and my work. I feel even more strongly about that now.

It would be a better world if politicians and the press likewise agreed to change their words and actions based on the facts. And it would be a better world if the gaming industry had the courage of their fact-based convictions.

Daniel Greenberg will discuss defending video games at the annual Game Developers conference, in San Francisco, along with Ian Bogost and former President of Epic Games, Mike Capps."