The video-game industry and its fledgling lobby have been on the losing end of America's new gun conversation since the minute the NRA and Wayne LaPierre unleashed their post-Newtown strategy, blaming Mortal Kombat instead of guns. And the political justification for absolving itself from blame for mass violence has not gotten any easier, largely because leaders in the $67-billion industry have few good defenses: research is in their favor but scant, psychological arguments still show signs of violence, and calling Call of Duty artistic isn't going to win over many families of the victims.
Capping off a week of meetings in advance of his task force's unveiling of gun legislation proposals next Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden met with key members of the gaming world Friday afternoon — from Activision to Electronic Arts and researchers behind the few existing studies on violence and video games. By all indications it went better than Thursday's fraught talks with the NRA and gun-rights advocates ("I don't have any comment about what anybody said at meetings," Biden said Friday of that gathering), with the vice president offering a clean slate of sorts: "I come to this meeting with no judgment," he said. "You all know the judgment other people have made."
With the now soon to be departing Sen. Jay Rockefeller having already introduced a bill to update government-funded studies into the link between gaming and violence, and lobbying against the industry both local and national — for every set of parents trying to ban first-person shooters, there is another NRA strategy around the corner — how do gaming's top dogs steer clear of blame as they remain in the spotlight? As this comic strip and a look at the lobby's strategy reveals, it's all about the revenge of the nerds:
Defense No. 1: The Statistical Option
Despite a lack of recent, authoritative research, the government has studied the connection between video games and violence before. As ThinkProgress's Alyssa Rosenberg points out, in 1999 Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to look as part of the Missing, Exploited, Runaway Children Protection Act. And Katherine Newman, the Johns Hopkins professor who headed up the study, concluded the following in her book on the subject:
"Millions of young people play video games full of fistfights, blazing guns, and body slams. Bodies litter the floor in many of our most popular films. Yet only a minuscule fraction of the consumers become violent. Hence, if there is an effect, children are not all equally susceptible to it."
That's turned into an argument of logic in favor of the gaming industry: Time and money might be better spent, the argument goes, figuring out why that very tiny number of consumers becomes so violent — instead of spending money and mobilizing research teams to study video-game violence as a whole.
The Entertainment Consumers Association likes to point to statistics showing that more violent video games on the market do not lead to more gun violence:
While video game sales have increased, violent crime has been steadily decreasing according to FBI statistics. In 2011, video game sales increased to over $27 billion dollars and violent crimes nationwide decreased 3.8 percent from 2010. Since 2002, violent crime has decreased 15.5 percent. This is all during the time when games like Call of Duty and Halo have dominated sales.
Defense No. 2: The Steam-Valve Effect
Linking a decline in gun violence to video-game play is dicey, because it still makes a link — and that's open season for groups like the NRA. But the gaming industry seems to be citing the same FBI statistics from above in articulating what it refers to as "the steam-valve effect." Playing games, goes the argument, gives violent people something fake to do — instead of using a real gun.
Even though mass shootings are up, that FBI data shows that gun violence has gone down each year for the past four years. And the International Game Developers Association, in a recent open letter to Biden, makes the careful connection that they're providing a healthier alternative:
For example, recent research shows a steam valve effect in which violent video gameplay helps release stress and aggression before it can lead to violence. Others studies have indicated that recent declines in real world violence can be attributed in part to potentially violent people spending more time looking for thrills in video games instead of on the streets.
Of course, the idea that an hour of Call of Duty is the only thing separating someone from killing an actual person — well, that it isn't exactly comforting. So the IGDA developers take their argument a level deeper:
Psychologists tell us that playing with imaginary violence is healthy and can help children master experiences of being frightened. This is beneficial and can even be life saving. We can supply links to this research and spokespersons on these issues. The IGDA supports good research and we ask for more science, not less.
Defense No. 3: Free-Speech
And then there is video game as art: Censor a video game, goes this final (and relatively thin) argument, and you're basically silencing an author, a musician, or an artist. As the IGDA points out, "The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Constitutional protection of video games in 2011, finally extending to video game developers the same legal protections enjoyed by authors, filmmakers and musicians." And just like books, or music, or art, not all video games are the same. Lots of them involve puzzle-solving, or decision-making, or dancing to "Call Me Maybe." The letter to Biden continues:
Many popular video games offer tough lessons in making better choices through interactive storylines that let players experience the consequences of their actions. And some game developers have responded to real world violence by creating games designed for conflict resolution, anti-bullying and aggression reduction. The government can help this process by supporting this unique, cutting edge research into harnessing the power of video games to help solve our nation’s problem with violence.
Most of all, video-game supporters want critics to know that video games did not kill the children of Newtown — Adam Lanza and his gun did. That they're even being folded into Biden's task force at all might be a bridge too far, especially with non-government research and market trends proving them mostly right. "If you're among the 'game industry leaders' entertaining this question in the court of the Vice President of the U.S.A. and his task force on gun control and violence, you, my well-meaning friend, are stating that you're part of the problem," wrote Kris Graft, the editor of the video game trade magazine Gamasutra. And Ian Bogost, a researcher, designer, and critic of videogames wrote at TheAtlantic.com Friday: "It was a trap, and the only possible response to it is to exposé it as such."
Whether the gaming industry falls for that trap or fights its way out should play out parallel to the gun-legislation debate. Revenge, it seems, is in the digital air.