In 2005, then-Senator Hillary Clinton co-sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA) with Lieberman. Among other things, the bill pledged to enact criminal penalties for selling games to minors, and emboldened the Federal Trade Commission to investigate misleading ratings. Clinton became an enemy to games, portraying the form—or at least part of it—as a sin industry: “We need to treat violent video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol, and pornography.”
Then, in 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 more at Virginia Tech. There had been plenty of mass shootings since Columbine, but none nearly as deadly. Before the dust had settled, Jack Thompson, a Florida attorney who had made a name for himself based on public opposition to violent games, connected the shooting to video games, especially Counter-Strike. Dr. Phil also blamed games, in part, saying that they glamorized mass killing sprees. As with Columbine and FEPA, the opposition was broad and nonpartisan: A distaste for video games was a matter of cultural rather than political disfavor.
By this time, there was already some pushback against the research that was partly inciting the crusades of Lieberman, Clinton, and Thompson. “People were saying, ‘Wait a minute, a lot of these studies are kind of crappy,’” Ferguson told me. The Virginia Tech massacre poured some cold water on the rage, too. Cho’s roommate quickly reported that he had never seen the man play video games, let alone titles that glorified firearms. An investigation later revealed that the most violent game Cho had played regularly was Sonic the Hedgehog.
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In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court finally got to weigh in on violent video games. The case, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, affirmed that a California law restricting the sale of violent games violated the First Amendment. Game creators and players celebrated the verdict as an endorsement of games’ status as speech. But the case also defanged much of the research on video-game violence. “The State’s evidence is not compelling,” the decision reads. “These studies … do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively … and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.”
The next year, when Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, video games were again blamed in the media. But on the ground, nobody ever seemed to consider the likelihood that games had driven Lanza to murder. As vice president, Joe Biden convened an inquest of the games industry after Sandy Hook, but it was hardly the witch hunt that Clinton had taken on earlier. According to Ferguson, who reviewed hundreds of pages of documentation released from the investigation, law-enforcement representatives even started reporting that they had begun dissuading victims’ families from paying attention to “hoax theories” of video-game violence. When the official reports finally came out, it turned out that the game Lanza had played most was Dance Dance Revolution, an electronica dance-performance game popular at miniature golf courses and bar mitzvahs.