Opinion: Meeting with Biden is a mistake for the game industry

If you're meeting with Joe Biden about gun control, you're stating that you are part of the problem, and therefore, you are part of the problem, says Gamasutra Editor-in-Chief Kris Graft.
If you're meeting with Joe Biden about gun control, you're stating that you are part of the problem, and therefore, you are part of the problem, says Gamasutra Editor-in-Chief Kris Graft. A couple weeks ago, an industry friend of mine told me that the office for Vice President Joe Biden was reaching out to so-called "game industry leaders." Very nice! Biden is taking an interest in this medium, a medium that not so long ago won a huge victory in being recognized as a protected form of free speech. Wonderful. But no, this outreach by his office had nothing to do with learning more about the art and craft of video games, or what this industry can do for the country's economy, culture or creativity, or its potential to boost an interest in math, technology and science in the U.S. No, this outreach, this long-overdue acknowledgment of this dynamic, burgeoning, creatively driven, highly-academic, highly commercial and cultural, billions-dollar industry was to get an answer for this question: What will the leaders of the game industry do to help reduce the occurrence of mass shootings in the U.S. of A.? 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, and therefore, you are part of the problem. Here is what I've learned, on good authority: In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Biden wants "concrete proposals" from game industry leaders on how to help alleviate the death and destruction brought on by the use of firearms in mass killings. So now I read in Reuters a confirmation that representatives for the video game industry are meeting with Biden and his task force, right alongside the good ol' National Rifle Association. (UPDATE: The ESA confirmed with us that its CEO Mike Gallagher will be taking part in the talks on Friday.) You, video game developer, and your work, represented right alongside the powerful gun lobby -- a group that, in the wake of Sandy Hook, proposed to put more guns in schools. A group that said you're all part of a "shadow industry." Lovely company, right? Well, here we are.

Mac and cheese and semi-autos

This week I read that Walmart, retailer of mac and cheese, bologna, and semi-automatic weapons, was refusing to meet with Biden about gun control. At least Walmart had the guts to refuse to meet with Biden. You know why they refused to meet? Because by entertaining Biden's inquiry for "concrete proposals" to curb gun violence, the gun-toting Walmart knew that in a way, it would be admitting guilt and accepting responsibility for mass shootings. It wasn't until pressure from the media that Walmart caved and said "Ok, we'll meet." But Walmart obviously understood the implications of attending this meeting. Not some leaders of the game industry, who are apparently so happy to receive any kind of acknowledgement that games might have an influence on society and culture that they will happily lap up positive or negative attention from this Vice President like a neglected lapdog. Walmart is attending, and should be there -- they sell guns. The NRA should be there -- they... really, really love guns. Mental health advocates should be there -- they can offer their expertise on how to prevent maniacs from going on shooting sprees. Family members of victims should be there. These groups have a stake and a responsibility in shaping gun policy. Representatives for video games, movies and other forms of protected speech have no reason to be there. By being there, you're admitting you're involved in, or had the power to stop, what happened in Aurora, in Happy Valley, in Newtown. If any of your colleagues in the game industry did things differently or made different games, do you -- you industry leaders, voice of your peers -- believe they could have prevented any of these tragedies? Everybody knows what Biden is implying when inviting the game industry to "participate" in these talks. He's not asking the game industry to gamify not-shooting-people. He's saying that he believes the answer to the above question is "yes," and by taking him up on his request in any capacity, you give this obvious, implied (and thoroughly incorrect) notion credibility.

Make a statement by refusing to meet

Look, I don't know what our game industry leaders are going to propose, or what they will say. But what should have been done is give Biden's office a polite "No, this issue has nothing to do with us," then cite the numerous scientific studies that show no link between video games and real-life violence, and also attach that little thing called the First Amendment, which hey, is right there above the Second one. Send a link to the ESRB's website while you're at it. The end. No meeting required, as this "issue" has already been quite thoroughly addressed. And consider this: Whatever this "concrete proposal" turns out to be, it's part of Biden's preparations for his State of the Union Address, expected later this month. This proposal will be given to the VP, and he will construe it however he likes before Jane and Joe America, who are now just as familiar with the obscure, non-commercial game "Kindergarten Killer" as they are with the billions-dollar Call of Duty, thanks to the mainstream media and NRA. Regular readers of Gamasutra might know about my views on this shallow fetishism of violence and guns in video games and their marketing -- it's old and overdone. I've said it before and I'll say again, I'm actually quite the fan of violence in my media. It's a powerful tool that I think is often wasted or dumbed down in video games. But I would never imply that they need to be reviewed, deconstructed and explained to the American people by the Vice President in the context of gun control laws or as the cause of mass shootings. When I've expressed my anger -- yes, I'm mad about this -- that we're even entertaining Biden's request, I've heard a couple times, "Well, we need to keep Biden in check," or "It's important that we meet so they know what we can do about this." The game industry can make a much bigger statement by outright refusing to partake in these talks, and raising a shitstorm about it. Again, look at Walmart and how much press the company got for simply (initially) refusing. A statement could have been made, but that ship may have sailed. Getting the game industry in on these meetings is just typical political peacocking that perpetuates this notion that video games are the source of society's ills. The game industry has no obligation to explain mass murders any more than Salinger should explain the death of John Lennon, or than Harvey the dog should have to explain David Burkowitz' serial murders.

Reality of a gun culture

We live in a gun culture: We won our independence through force. Our Second Amendment is the right to bear arms. We've been at war for the past several years. That's just a fact. It's our gun culture that breeds this fascination with firearms and the popularity of violent, shooty video games. It's not the other way around, and I think that people outside -- and apparently inside -- the game industry have lost sight of that. Here's a reality check: I'm a father of young children (and incidentally, the owner of a big M97 shotgun and former holder of a hunting license). Remember fire, tornado and earthquake drills? Well, kids today have another drill called a "Level 3 Lockdown." My nine-year-old explained that if a "bad guy" breaks into the school, there are two bigger boys whose job it is to push a large piece of furniture in front of the classroom's locked door. Everyone else stands far from that door and hopes that the bad guy can't get in. My friend has a daughter of about the same age. The door to their classroom opens outward into the hallway, so a large piece of furniture won't do the job. Instead, in a Level 3 Lockdown, they are to throw their heavy textbooks at the perpetrator if he comes in, then they're to bolt out the window and run to the nature preserve behind the school. These routines were in place well before Newtown. That's reality today. "Leaders of the game industry": Do you really want to place this unwanted, undeserving and misdirected burden on the shoulders of your colleagues, just to get an audience with a man who never really understood or cared for your art?

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