Veep’s Violent Media Debate Leading Nowhere

Biden meets with game reps

This week, President Obama is expected to issue a list of recommendations for Congress and executive actions that he may take in an attempt to prevent mass shootings similar to the one that happened in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14. These recommendations will be based on findings compiled by Vice President Joe Biden, who has been meeting with advocates for gun rights and mental health treatment, victims of gun violence and — inexplicably for many — representatives from the entertainment industry. As with virtually every mass shooting by a young male, violent media, particularly video games, have been blamed for inspiring the gunman to act. But is there actually any link between video games and violent behavior? And can the government even do anything to regulate games? Read on for a roundup of some of the recent articles and blog posts on this subject from around the Web.

Last week, Biden held a series of separate meetings over three days with representatives of the National Rifle Association and three sectors of the entertainment industry: movies, music, and video games. The NRA cited a 2009 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics as proof that “a culture that glamorizes violence bears more responsibility for mass shootings than access to a wide range of weapons and ammunition,” but as Texas A&M University professor Christopher J. Ferguson pointed out in a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the AAP is often flat-out wrong:

[I]ts policy statements have been found to be riddled with errors, like inflating something as simple as the number of studies by a factor of 10 and repeating discredited scientific urban legends such as that the effects of media violence are similar to secondhand smoking on lung cancer (something that should never have survived the ‘sniff test’).

Ferguson laments that in the emotional and intensely media-scrutinized aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, some of his colleagues have been quick to claim a link between video games and violence that is far from proven. While several hundred studies of media violence exist, he says, reviews conducted by respected entities from the U.S. Supreme Court to the government of Sweden “have all concluded that the research is inconsistent and weakened by methodological flaws.” Certainly, the results of his own research would seem to indicate that no such link exists:

I find no evidence that video games or television contribute to youth violence, dating violence, bullying, or adult arrests. Further, the societal-violence data don’t support the effects hypothesis. Youth violence has declined to 40-year lows during the video-game epoch, and countries that consume as much violent media as we do, such as Canada, the Netherlands, and South Korea, have much less violent crime, even if you factor out gun violence.

Finally, Ferguson points out that the possible influence of video games is only invoked in cases where the shooter is a young male, even when he turns out not to be a gamer at all. Although it appears Adam Lanza, like millions of other Americans, did play video games, the narrative in this case was jump-started on the day of the shooting when his brother Ryan was initially misidentified as the perpetrator. Ryan Lanza (or someone else with the same name) had at some point clicked “Like” on the Facebook page for Mass Effect. Soon after news of the shooting broke, the game’s page was mobbed by people calling for it to be banned. Even though the case of mistaken identity was sorted out within hours, video games entered the conversation in association with Ryan, not Adam, and have been unable to extricate themselves ever since.

Indeed, argues Georgia Tech researcher and game designer Ian Bogost in an article for the Atlantic, simply by participating in the talks with Biden, the game industry is lending legitimacy to the idea that their product had anything to do with Adam Lanza’s attack:

Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education.

Thanks to the 2011 Supreme Court ruling that video games are protected by the First Amendment just as surely as movies or books, there is little if anything that the government can directly do to restrict them — but it can certainly pressure the industry until it self-imposes new restrictions. Sound familiar? That’s probably because both our old friend the Comics Code Authority and the current video game content rating system were developed by their respective industries after Senate hearings produced much sensational media coverage but no legislation. Kotaku’s Owen Good says that it’s certainly not a stretch to compare those two and the current environment:

Senate hearings on video game violence echoed the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigating comic books 50 years earlier. Rather than fight the threat of federal regulation, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board was born. Nowhere near as petty or as draconian as the CCA—which banned undead creatures (no, really) and prohibited depicting law enforcement in ways that encouraged disrespect for authority—the ESRB is likewise criticized for a fixation on sex as more objectionable than violence.

Entertainment industry trade groups, for their part, are cautiously trying to make it clear that they will not tolerate government-imposed content restrictions. Six organizations, including the Motion Picture Association of America, obliquely referenced existing ratings systems in a statement issued after their meeting with Biden:

The entertainment community appreciates being included in the dialogue around the Administration’s efforts to confront the complex challenge of gun violence in America. This industry has a longstanding commitment to provide parents the tools necessary to make the right viewing decisions for their families. We welcome the opportunity to share that history and look forward to doing our part to seek meaningful solutions.

Separately, former Senator and current MPAA President Chris Dodd said that “we don’t want to get involved with…content regulation. We’re vehemently opposed to that. We have a free and open society that celebrates the First Amendment.” Likewise, the Entertainment Merchants Association emphasized in a letter to Biden (embedded below) that while the majority of retail and rental outlets already restrict unaccompanied minors from accessing R-rated movies and M-rated games, the ultimate responsibility rightly lies with parents and cannot be imposed by law on businesses.

As of Tuesday evening, reports of the concrete actions to be proposed by President Obama on Wednesday make little mention of video games or other entertainment media; as noted above, any new restrictions are likely to be self-imposed by the industry. But as Ian Bogost notes in the Atlantic, games have already served the purpose that they so often seem to in political debates:

The actual use, function, or content of games never has a place in political discussions about games. Instead, games are cogs in someone’s favorite discourse machine. Not just negative ones like gun violence, but also apparently beneficial ones: a commitment to STEM education, a generic technological wherewithal, an empathy with the social practices younger voters, and so on. Whether for good or for ill, games become instruments in public debate rather than as mechanisms through which players can participate in a variety of activities—including reflecting on the very debates they now serve as puppets.

EMA Letter to Vice President Biden

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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.