Video Game Scapegoating is More Shameless Than Ever

STARTING SCREEN | Thoughts on the game industry's big meeting with Donald Trump, this week's upcoming games, and more.

Feature by Kat Bailey, .

Last week, representatives from the video game industry gathered at the White House for a "contentious" meeting about violent video games. It was the latest step in what has become a predictable cycle following a mass shooting: shock, anger, calls to ban guns, debate about video game violence.

What made Thursday's White House meeting especially galling was how transparent it was. It was a shameless bit of political theater meant to distract from America's explosive gun debate. And it worked. The media is now talking about video game rather than the wide availability of the AR-15, a gun capable of essentially shredding people from the inside out.

Of course, blaming video games for mass shootings is nothing new. Video games has been a convenient target going back to the early 80s, with video game scapegoating really coming into its own in the early 90s, when Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were the subject of congressional hearings. Video games have since been blamed for a multitude of horrific events: Columbine was blamed on Doom, Aurora shooter James Holmes was said to be a big World of WarCraft fan, and on and on and on.

The video shown at last week's summit with Donald Trump.

The National Rifle Association has seemingly taken notice of how easy it is to shift the discussion to gaming. In a over-the-top press conference, NRA executive vice president Wayne Lapierre took aim at games like Bulletstorm and Grand Theft Auto. "Isn't fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography," LaPierre said.

This was in 2012, not long after Sandy Hook. The shooter's favorite video game wasn't GTA—it was Dance Dance Revolution.

In the wake of Parkland, gun advocates have once gone back to the well. Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz "incessantly played violent video games, as if this was somehow uncommon for a teenager his age. Pressed about the gun debate, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin called for an "honest conversation" about violent video games. Not long after, President Trump said that video games and movies should have a "rating system," never mind that games have had a rating system for close to 25 years now.

Video game remain a convenient target because the dialogue around the medium is immature. The persistent mainstream stereotype of gaming is still the pasty basement dweller who is unable to engage with the real world. Thus, when an opportunistic politican takes aim at violent games, the public happily goes along, even if the actual science is basically settled.

The tragedy of the sort of political theater like the Trump meeting is that it takes the focus off the very real and pressing problems concerning guns in this country. It ignores that games like Call of Duty are readily available in countries like the UK, where guns are strictly controlled and shootings are surpassingly rare. And it ignores the actual horror of readily available weapons like the AR-15.

The New York Times recently took a lengthy look at what a bullet from an AR-15 does to the human body. It's truly ghastly.

"The tissue destruction is almost unimaginable. Bones are exploded, soft tissue is absolutely destroyed. The injuries to the chest or abdomen—it's like a bomb went off." If a bullet hits an arm or a leg, he said, the limb often hangs at an unnatural angle. Such victims can need a dozen surgeries over months. "Some eventually decide to undergo an amputation if there is severe pain in the limb and it is dysfunctional."

These are the weapons that readily available in the U.S. for anyone who gets it in their head to shoot up a school or strafe a Las Vegas concert. But per usual, we're talking about video games. Sadly, the only way video games will stop being a cheap target is if the media and public are willing to take them seriously. At some point we have to acknowledge that the majority of adults play video games in some capacity, and that their link to aggression has been largely disproven.

Video games will continue to be scapegoated as long as we allow politicians to dominate the narrative.

This admittedly requires some introspection by the industry itself. In a piece about the recent Trump meeting for the New Yorker, Simon Parkin quoted Obama video game czar Constance Steinkuehler, who observed, "If you go into that room arguing that video games cause gun violence, you will be on the wrong side of facts. Video games are not a gun-violence problem. But video games do have a PR problem."

She mentioned a separate White House gathering that took place around the same time, in which a group of Hollywood executives had first brushed aside blame, then went on to offer suggestions, however modest, for how the film industry might lend a hand—by commissioning films that combat stigmas around mental health, for instance. "The conversation then pivots away from the stupidity of whether or not you are to blame," Steinkuehler said. "It becomes about: What can we do to help the people who love our work and thrive on our cultural output?” By contrast, she said, the leaders of the video-game industry "went on and on about how they have no responsibility in this situation whatsoever.” She added, "Nobody offered any solutions. In that moment, I felt like the industry and its leaders are incredibly immature."

If we're to stop politicians from easily scapegoating video games, the industry itself will have to take the lead in changing the narrative. But until then, video game scapegoating will remain a matter of convenience for those who want to change the subject. All it will take is a few choice quotes and a quick montage of violent clips to rev up the conversation.

It happened again last week, and it will keep on happening for as long as politicians and the NRA are able to get away with it. We need to be able to finally call them on it.

This Week's Notable Releases

  • Devil May Cry HD Collection [March 06]: Well this one has kind of flown under the radar, hasn't it? The Devil May Cry HD Collection bring Devil May Cry, Devil May Cry 2, and Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition together in one package for the PS4, Xbox One, and PC. That's two great games in in one package (the less said about DMC 2, the better). Alas, the PC version appears to have some issues, so you may be better off playing this one on console.
  • Surviving Mars [March 15]: Haemimont Games may not have quite the same clout as Firaxis, but the studio nevertheless has a pretty solid strategy pedigree, and Surviving Mars is looking like a gem. As the name suggests, Surviving Mars is all about building up a sustainable colony on Mars, from the initial shuttle landing to the development of an advanced civilization on the red planet. It's a tightly-constructed, unforgiving construction sim with just the right amount of style to it. It'll be out on PS4, Xbox One, and PC later this week.
  • Kirby Star Allies [March 16]: Kirby is a mid-tier Nintendo franchise at best, but its consistently strong platforming and adorable aesthetic has won the series a loyal audience. I personally haven't touched Kirby since the Wii's middling Kirby's Return to Dream Land, but I've got my eye on this week's Switch release. Kirby has always been most at home on handheld, and I suspect that will continue to be the case on the Switch.
  • Burnout Paradise [March 16]: God I love Burnout Paradise. As far as I'm concerned, it's still the best open-world arcade racer, even if it's no longer the prettiest. It's been long overdue for a true revival on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. I wish I weren't busy with other games, because I'm ready to spend another hundred hours doing stunt runs. Needless to say, I recommend it.

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Snowman from Super Smash Bros Brawl

It's almost spring, but nobody dropped a memo to winter in this corner of the world. It's snowing pretty hard today, and the storm, combined with the hype for Super Smash Bros on the Nintendo Switch, inspired my musical choice for this week: The remix of Snowman from Super Smash Bros Brawl.

Snowman pops up in all three Mother / Earthbound games, usually as a punctuation mark on each games' snow-covered area. The remix for Smash Bros Brawl shows up in a different context: It plays when you visit the lonely Ruined Zoo stage. While there's a serene cheer to Snowman when it plays in Mother / Earthbound (one of my favorite instances of the song is its use in the boarding school of Earthbound's far-north country, Winters), the "choir" at the start of Brawl's version of the song gives it that spooky edge that makes it perfect for a walk through some cold ruins. Brr. Poor Lucas.

This Week's News and Notes

  • Last week's Nintendo Direct brought with it worth that Super Smash Bros will be coming to the Switch. The reaction has to be seen to be believed. It reminded me of the video reactions to the Minneapolis Miracle—Minnesota's incredible last-minute win over the New Orlean Saints in the playoffs. Or the reaction to Landon Donovan's game-winning goal in the World Cup. Seriously, video game announcements have become sports events.
  • Also in last week's Nintendo Direct: A surprising number of Nintendo 3DS announcements! USgamer alum Bob Mackey broke down the reasons via Twitter.
  • A Final Fantasy VII job posting recently up over in Japan, and it seems to suggest that they're still putting together a team for actual development. It's been three years now and I would seriously be surprised if the Final Fantasy VII Remake is finally released by 2020. So much for optimism.
  • In the meantime, Blizzard came out today and revealed their first Hearthstone expansion of 2018: Witchwood. This is where I confess that I barely played the most recent expansion, mostly because I was terminally bored with the 2017 cycle by around August. With so many cards primed to finally rotate out of Standard Play, it may soon be time to dip a toe back in.
  • Capcom revealed that Monster Hunter: World is their bestselling game of all time last week. Of all time! This makes me immeasurably happy because Monster Hunter: World is currently my Game of the Year for 2018. My only regret is that I'm not playing it right now.
  • As for what I am playing, I suppose I can share some quick thoughts on Ni No Kuni 2 now that the preview embargo has lifted. Actually, there's not much more to say at this point: It's very cute, its got a retro storybook flavor to it that I really enjoy, and it's got an unexpectedly crazy opening. Its charmingly simplistic view on politics—just be nice to everyone!—is refreshing in this day and age. I'll leave deeper thoughts, but so far I'm liking it. Look forward to my review next week.
  • And finally, we're in for a busy few weeks as we head into the last half of March. Next week we'll be heading off to GDC, where we'll be attending panels for NieR Automata, Monster Hunter: World, Horizon Zero Dawn, and a whole lot more. We've also got a huge number of exciting games incoming, including Ni No Kuni 2, Far Cry 5, and Sea of Thieves. It's going to be busy, busy, busy around these parts. For now, we'd love to hear what you're most excited to play at the end of March heading into April. Let us know in the comments!
  • The USgamer Podcast: Mike and Nadia are on their own this week, but they still have plenty to discuss in the latest episode of our flagship podcast. Diablo on Switch rumors, H1Z1 Auto Royale, and the Nintendo Direct are all big topics of conversation. Subscribe here!
  • Axe of the Blood God: Nadia and I are joined by RPG enthusiast Anthony Agnello to talk Radiant Historia, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and Thursday's Nintendo Direct. It's a really fun episode! Download it and have a look. Subscribe here!

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for novacav #1 novacav 9 days ago
    Describing the scapegoating as 'shameless,' to me, implies that Trump knows anything about video games or the related research. He doesn't - why would he? Oblivious makes more sense.

    He specifically had the ESA and gaming CEOs in for a meeting for that reason, so they could have an open discussion and also fill him in. They likely presented the research, Trump saw it, and as a result it's unlikely any anti violent video game game legislation will be pursued. And just like the tech CEOs, I'm sure the gaming CEOs were cordial and professional in meeting with POTUS, a fellow highly successful business person.

    Problem where?

    The notion that Trump is talking video games to "change the subject" is farcical. Is it not obvious by now that he says whatever comes into his mind? Violent games came to his mind, that's it. I doubt he planned so cunningly.

    Trump critics seem to hold the notion that Trump is a dastardly mastermind but also dumb as a rock/incompetent at the same time - can't really have it both ways, in my opinion.

    POTUS is old school - if he doesn't know something, he brings in high level people who do. That's what happened. Now obviously if Trump goes on some anti-gaming crusade from here, I'll change my tune, but I don't see it happening.

    The complete context of his gaming-related comments, seen in full on the Whitehouse YouTube channel and elsewhere, are pretty mild for someone completely un-involved with the video game industry. You don't know what you don't know. At least he pursued an avenue of correcting that. There's gun purchase age, bump stock, and school security legislation being voted on next week by the way, so if this is meant to "distract" I guess it didn't work.

    Lastly, none of the research on violent games has included their effects on kids using SSRI drugs, as most school shooters either are using or have used in the past. It's perfectly possible that violent media impacts a small percentage of people on these drugs. And obviously, even a tiny percentage is enough to spur the occasional shooting.

    I think we're all getting flashbacks to Jack Thompson and it just isn't the same thing.
    .Edited 4 times. Last edited 2 weeks ago by novacav
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #2 Kat.Bailey 9 days ago
    @novacav Donald Trump called that meeting because he heard through either Fox News or the NRA that video games are responsible too, then hopped on Twitter as he always does. As I noted in the article, he wasn't exactly the only one to start demonizing games right on cue.
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  • Avatar for discohospital #3 discohospital 9 days ago
    Like Bob, I'm not really understanding the surprise at continued support for the 3DS. Nintendo said at the time of the Switch's launch that it would continue supporting the 3DS alongside the Switch. And why would it not? I can't think of many examples of a new platform completely replacing an earlier one within as little as a year, especially when the two are as different as these, and when the previous one has such a large install base. I'm also not sure where the talk about the Switch vs the 3DS turned from the former being a prospective successor to the latter to having actually accomplished that is coming from. On the software front, the first major release I'm seeing - from my RPG-biased perspective - that looks like the kind of game I'd associate specifically with the 3DS is Octopath Traveler, which of course isn't out yet. But perhaps there's some elephant in the room I'm missing. In terms of software, what the Switch has accomplished quite handily is coming into its own as a successor to the Wii U in very short order. Of course it's portable, but up until now it's done a lot more towards providing a portable version of the console experience than it has the kind of experience I'd associate with Nintendo's previous handhelds.

    Additionally, it's not only Nintendo that has more 3DS titles up its sleeve: Atlus has Persona Q 2 and the as-yet-unnamed final dual-screen Etrian Odyssey title, neither of which even have dates for Japan yet - and on this side of the ocean, there's still Alliance Alive, Strange Journey Redux, and (unannounced, but presumably) Etrian Mystery Dungeon 2.
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  • Avatar for novacav #4 novacav 9 days ago

    "he wasn't exactly the only one to start demonizing games right on cue."

    That's true.

    Thanks for replying. I hate clashing with my favorite games media people but it's important to get more opinions out there. Not enough diversity of thought, politically, on gaming sites IMO. Been following your work since the 1UP show, cheers.
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  • Avatar for docexe #5 docexe 9 days ago
    Sigh… Regardless of this new round of “let’s blame this new media we don’t quite understand for all the current ills of society”, you can argue indeed that the ESA and its members have a bad tendency of trying to wash their hands of any responsibility whenever some controversy regarding videogames arises, as exhibited by how they handled the loot box fiasco. It’s clear that approach isn’t really working that well.
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  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #6 ShadowTheSecond 9 days ago

    It’s interesting to try and link SSRI use to violence when they’ve been repeatedly shown to reduce violence. But it’s getting into an overly circumstantial set of events to go with “SSRIs and violent games together did this” when the positive effects of these medications (particularly with well done therapy) has been repeatedly shown to benefit people.

    One also doesn’t put out a sporadic highlight reel of violence when they aren’t already pushing a specific take.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #7 riderkicker 9 days ago
    It's easy to blame video games when you can make sure the government does not conduct any research on the effects the actual weapons have on the American populace.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #8 riderkicker 9 days ago
    I'm cool with more 3DS games coming down the pipeline, especially when Sony just up abandoned the Vita like any of the other proprietary devices they sell. Sony could've bothered to release a SD Card adapter to Vita Card adapter with a firmware update, but they won't for "reasons".

    I'm interested in seeing what experiences the 3DS can provide as it's year eight of the system. I know Atlus is still releasing games for it because it's what Atlus does, but Nintendo themselves? That's amazing. Maybe finally other major publishers and developers can give it another college try.
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  • Avatar for moochan #9 moochan 9 days ago
    "It's the games. It's the movies. It's the [insert things parents don't really understand fully but kids enjoy]" That's how it's always been. Just say something else is the cause and guns aren't the thing that is the thing that helped with the mayhem. And look at how Trump decided to "fix" it. By arming teachers because more guns is always the solution in America which just leads to more gun death. NRA is a evil thing that we allow exist and sadly our politicians are too gutless to stand up against them.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #10 pdubb 9 days ago
    I will believe it's the games when they cover all parts of a combat engagement.

    You know, when was the last tine you had to clear a double feed in CoD? Or the last time you lubed your magazines during a cutscene where everyone is sitting around joking?

    Or what about when the lefties (handed) find out the hard way why using an AR15 with their dominant hand is a bad thing?

    If video games are supposed to be the reason for gun violence then why are all the shooters practiced enough?

    Video game gunmen would have way more incidents of making the mistakes untrained firearms users do that cause theur weapons to malfunction.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #11 Roto13 9 days ago
    I hope they announced Link Between Worlds 2 or something for 3DS and blow everyone's mind.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #12 SatelliteOfLove 9 days ago

    He just bitched out to the NRA a second time:


    And since his little brother is on the board of Zenimax, nothing will be done, ie the point after the initial babbling once they could put it into action. Getting the target to stick on Teh Vidyer Gaemz like it was 1994 wasn't the goal, getting them off one of the crew who paid him $30m's goals was.

    Cuz you see...there is no diversity of thought reguarding the snarl of bullshit and disrespect swirling around that president...there is only "do you act like you're believing it" or don't, and once one stops falling for it, it doesn't work on them like responsible leadership does reguardless of whether or not the citizen believes or not.

    signed: a responsible gun owner whose been on this rodeo too many times to feign giving a shit any more and wants what works, not what the NRA or their lapdogs want
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  • Avatar for novacav #13 novacav 8 days ago
  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #14 donkeyintheforest 8 days ago
    @novacav if you just do a google search of that address you can find the actual link. Alternately you can try this.

    Also, the thing with the antidepressant drugs is completely spurious (ie doesn't even consider how many more shootings they may have prevented). I've seen that same talking point posted other places and it makes no sense. It seems to have been pushed by an anti-pharmaceutical lobbying group and gained steam among conspiracy theory types. If you have a better source than the one I'm talking about, I'd be interested.
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