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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 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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