On Thursday afternoon, President Trump held his cobbled-together listening session on videogame violence at the White House, and details of what occurred are beginning to emerge. The meeting itself was announced last week, much to the surprise of the ESA and its members.
The ESA stated that they had not been contacted by the White House about the meeting prior to its announcement, and a list of attendees, which was promised to be revealed Wednesday night, wasn’t released until Thursday morning. When it was released, there was little surprise as to its composition. The videogame industry was represented by ESA Head Mike Gallagher, ESRB Head Patricia Vance (who is listed as Mr. Pat Vance in the official White House release), Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick and Zenimax CEO Robert Altman. The four were accompanied by Republican members of congress, including Sen. Marco Rubio, media critics and anti-gaming activists. Whether invitations were extended to Democratic members of congress or psychological experts who could speak to the countless studies that show no link between violent videogames and real-world violence is not clear.
According to Polygon, the meeting itself opened with an 88-second supercut of overtly violent scenes from various games, including snippets from the controversial “No Russian” mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The video stunned some in the room to silence due to the over-the-top depictions of violence, including head-bursting decapitations from Fallout 4 and slo-mo x-ray death blows from the Sniper Elite series. “They were violent clips where individuals were killing other human beings in various ways,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler. Another interesting inclusion was an image from Wolfenstein depicting the stealth takedown of a Nazi. As the video played, Trump commented, “This is violent, isn’t it?”
The video itself has become the most prominent facet of the discussion to be released to the public. The White House released it via their YouTube channel, though it is unlisted. Some criticism did arise as the administration, which used the video to criticize how videogame violence can impact young minds, did not age-gate the video.
The “respectful but contentious” discussion that followed the video featured a reportedly open-minded Trump listening to the defense of industry veterans, pointing out that those games are not meant for children under 17 and are rated as such. On the other side, the majority of the group cited studies supporting their position that there is a correlation between violent videogames and acts of violence, even though no scientific studies supporting these claims actually exist. “The entertainment industry is still fighting to maintain the status quo and is not ready or willing to confront the impact that media violence has on our children,” said Melissa Henson, program director for the Parents Television Council. The PTC was in support of the California law that criminalized the sale of violent videogames to children that was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, ultimately leading to videogames attaining the status of protected speech.
The White House characterized Thursday’s meeting as the first of many on media’s impact on school shootings and acts of violence, though critics have cited this and as-yet-unscheduled future meetings as smokescreens meant to shift the narrative away from gun control in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla. “Focusing entirely on videogames distracts from the substantive debate we should be having about how to take guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal to the Washington Post. While the president was reported to have listened to both sides, the White House’s statement after the meeting cited the same false point that “some studies have indicated there is a correlation between videogame violence and real violence.”
Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Council and founder of the PTC, was also present at the meeting, and proposed that videogames be regulated similarly to tobacco and alcohol.
Even disgraced lawyer Jack Thompson, perhaps the most infamous critic of the videogame industry, tried to get in on the “fun.”
The ESA issued a statement following the meeting:
We welcomed the opportunity today to meet with the President and other elected officials at the White House,” said the ESA. “We discussed the numerous scientific studies establishing that there is no connection between video games and violence, First Amendment protection of video games, and how our industry’s rating system effectively helps parents make informed entertainment choices. We appreciate the President’s receptive and comprehensive approach to this discussion.
Following the meeting, the International Game Developers Association, a non-profit representing the game development industry, issued a sharp response to the resurrected anti-videogame sentiment that was thought dead via Twitter. “Let’s be blunt on videogames and gun violence-we will not be used as a scapegoat … making videogames—or any form of media—a scapegoat for consistently refusing to even CONSIDER the reasonable, rational firearm restrictions Americans want and deserve isn’t fooling anyone,” read the IGDA’s statement.
It’s clear that no decisions, or honestly anything of substance, were determined in the hourlong meeting Thursday, but the return of anti-game arguments does nothing but distract from real issues that need to be addressed and empower voices that seek to subvert protected speech with which they don’t agree.
There are plenty of issues within the videogame industry that could potentially affect children and adults alike that deserve a round-table like the one that occurred Thursday, but the classification of gaming disorder, the correlation between gambling addiction and predatory blind boxes and “crunch” practices that potentially violate workers’ rights apparently aren’t as sexy as a FPS being classified as mass shooting training ground.