Trump's Video Game Attack Reignites Decades-Old Debate

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Left: a gamer plays the SEGA Dreamcast in 1999; right: professional e-sports athletes Leonardo ‘MKLeo’ Lopez and Gavin ‘Tweek’ Dempsey compete for the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate grand championship in Las Vegas in August

Violent video games have been a hot topic for nearly 30 years, and the heat on the industry typically increases following real-world shootings.

Since President Donald Trump made comments condemning "gruesome and violent video games" during a press conference Monday following multiple mass shootings over the weekend, a lot has happened in the gaming world. First, the Entertainment Software Association criticized Trump's statement. Next, video game makers such as Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick and God of War director Cory Barlog similarly lambasted Trump. Then, Thursday, ESPN and ABC opted to postpone a planned e-sports tournament showcasing EA and Respawn's Apex Legends over the weekend, citing the shootings as the cause. 

Criticism and scrutiny over violent content is nothing new for the gaming industry. The official ratings board for video games (the ESRB) was actually founded in 1994 in direct response to advocacy groups decrying the violence in games such as Mortal Kombat. In the intervening 25 years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have signaled rallying cries to their bases against video games and, largely, such calls have been made in response to real-world shootings.

The video game business has grown explosively in the past few years, now outearning the film, music and television industries annually. The level of scrutiny on gaming has remained high, but Trump's rhetoric — as it often is — on the subject has been blunt and inflammatory, reigniting the decades-old debate. 

The roots of moderating and rating creative content are deep (Humphrey Bogart wrote an essay on the topic of gangster films in 1941, saying, "I have never heard of any youngster going wrong, turning to crime, because of the movies"), but an oft-cited point of inception for modern discussions of content regulation is Tipper Gore's successful campaign to require warning labels on music albums. Gore co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985 which succeeded in its efforts to require record labels to place warnings on their albums with "violent or sexually explicit" lyrics. It was a landmark decision and laid the groundwork for what would come in the following years for media regulation.

By the early 1990s, the focus had shifted to video games, which had exploded in popularity with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System home console in 1985. Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl led two separate hearings before Congress on Dec. 7, 1993, and March 5, 1994, to condemn violent video games such as Mortal Kombat. The result was the the voluntary formation of the Interactive Digital Software Association (currently known as the aforementioned ESA) run by the American video game industry as an advocacy group and ratings board.

What preceded the 1993 hearings? Record gun violence and a spreading moral panic in America. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993 and 1994 saw the highest number of gun-related homicides (roughly 14,000) in the country since the mid-1970s. 

The conversation around violent video games was reignited in the wake of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999. Following the attacks, then-President Bill Clinton criticized a "media culture that so glorifies violence" and singled out three video game titles: Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct and Doom, the latter of which Clinton cited as the "very game played obsessively by the two young men who ended so many lives in Littleton" which "make our children more active participants in simulated violence."

Six years later, in 2005, Senator Hillary Clinton introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act alongside fellow Democratic Senators Lieberman, Tim Johnson and Evan Bayh, which aimed to impose fines and community service on any retailer that sold an M-rated (M for "mature") game to minors. The bill did not pass.

"If you put it just really simply, these violent video games are stealing the innocence of our children — and it is certainly making the job of being a parent even more difficult," Clinton said at the time.

The introduction of FEPA followed two mass shootings in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and Red Lake, Minnesota, that March, the first two major mass shootings in the U.S. since 2000.

In 2008, a year which saw three major mass shootings across the country, then-President George W. Bush visited a rehabilitation center in Texas to play video games with injured veterans. According to a White House spokesperson at the time, Bush shot "bad guys" in the computer game that simulated a firefight in Baghdad.

In 2011, the landmark Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association decision by the Supreme Court struck down a 2005 California law banning the sale of certain violent video games to children without parental supervision. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown and then-District Attorney Kamala Harris were both involved in the case. The original bill had been sponsored by Democratic Senator Leland Yee and signed into law by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but a district court ruled in 2007 that it violated the First Amendment. Schwarzenegger appealed, vowing to "vigorously defend this law," again losing in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before SCOTUS struck the law down for good in a 7-2 decision.

As a result of the case, the ESA and Entertainment Merchants Association were awarded $370,000 from the State of California. 

In January 2013, following three mass shootings in 2012 and preceding four more to come that year, Barack Obama pushed Congress to fund research into the impact of violent video games. "Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds," said Obama at the time. "We don't benefit from ignorance. We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence." The results of that research have not been made public.

Now, it seems the criticism of violent video games has jumped to the other side of the aisle. In 2018, shortly after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, claimed the lives of 17 students, Trump, in part, put the blame on video games. 

"I'm hearing more and more people say the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people's thoughts," he said. "And you go one further step and that's the movies. … Maybe they have to put a rating system for that." By 2018, the ESRB had been rating video games for 24 years. 

That same week, Republican Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky also blamed games. "There are games that literally replicate and give people the ability to score points for doing the very same thing that these students are doing inside of schools, where you get extra points for finishing someone off who’s lying there begging for their life,” he said.

The Trump administration went so far as to release a montage of violent imagery from video games through the White House's official YouTube channel.

Following Trump's comments Monday, Republican House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy claimed video games "dehumanize individuals" and Republican Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Fox News, "I look at the common denominators. … We’ve always had guns, we’ve always had evil, and what’s changed that we have this rash of shootings? I see a video game industry that teaches people to kill.”

Numerous scholarly studies have explored possible connections between violent video games and real-world violence. Conflicting evidence from multiple studies show either a possible connection between playing violent video games and "aggressive" behavior (referred to as "priming") or no connection whatsoever. There is a stronger consensus that games can be used for therapy, particularly on patients suffering from PTSD.

Gaming industry insiders are blunt in their responses to allegations their medium influences violence. As Zelnick told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week, "Blaming entertainment is irresponsible and, moreover, it’s disrespectful to the victims and their families."

No evidence has been found that suggests a link between violent games and mass shootings.