Vice President Biden's warning to the video game industry

Vice President Joe Biden says that while he's convinced there's no link between video game violence and real-life aggression, the industry must address a big PR problem: convincing grandma and grandpa.
Vice President Joe Biden's meeting with the video game industry representatives on Friday was, on the surface, meant to be a roundtable discussion on what the video game industry could contribute to his recommendations on reducing gun-related violence in the country. Read between the lines, though, and it was more like a warning. "I think the message was that the industry needs to think of some things to improve their image," researcher Cheryl K. Olson, who attended the meeting, told us over the phone on Monday. "He said that even though you had the Supreme Court ruling go your way... just because you have that on your side doesn't mean you have public opinion on your side." Mr. Biden is scheduled to present a set of proposals to President Obama on Tuesday for reducing gun violence in the country, which he and a task force have been working on since last month's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Friday's meeting with video game industry representatives and researchers came on the tail end of a series of discussions on gun violence he had with representatives from several groups, including law enforcement, educators, civil rights organizations, gun safety advocates, and the film industry, among others. By all accounts it doesn't appear that any restrictions on video game sales will be a part of that proposal. Indeed, he and his task force appear unconvinced that there is a link between violent video games and violent behavior. "He said upfront that he didn't think the evidence he'd seen showed a link between violent video games and real life violence," says Olson. "And he said even if the research were to show a link, it would be a tiny influence compared to the influence of the other factors he was looking at." But public opinion is a powerful thing, especially in politics, and a large, uneducated part of the population remains convinced that games are harmful.

"You have not been 'singled out for help,'" Vice President Joe Biden told a clearly relieved John Riccitiello of EA on Friday.
"I think Biden's point was to that to those individuals you're not that much different from the cigarette industry, in the sense that they think that you're hiding research that suggests that video games are bad and that you're peddling something that you think is harmful," Texas A&M's Christopher Ferguson, who was also in attendance, tells us. "I think his message was, 'I don't believe that, but other people do. So what can you do to try to fix that?"

Around the room

During the meeting, Mr. Biden went around the room and asking all in attendance to speak for three-to-four minutes to suggest ways to improve the industry's perception. The researchers in attendance suggested, appropriately, further research should be done, but by accounts most of the industry executives and representatives weren't prepared to give positive suggestions. "I don't think they were quite ready for that," says Ferguson. "I think their mission was to come in and emphasize over and over that there wasn't really any evidence for any harmful effects." In addition to Olson, Ferguson and other researchers, industry representatives in attendance included ESA president Michael Gallagher, EA CEO John Riccitiello, Epic Games' former president Mike Capps, the ESRB's Patricia Vance, Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg, and ZeniMax Media (parent company of Bethesda and id) CEO Robert Altman. "One person said their games were an art form, and that we shouldn't even be talking about risks and benefits here, that's not what this is about," says Olson, who was unable to recall who that may have been. "And another said, 'I'm a parent, and I think our products are good products. I don't think they hurt people. So if there's something we can do to reduce the risk of harm, I want to know about it.'" And what did Olson herself say during her four minutes? "I know some games have a reduced violence option in them, which they never publicize! I said one thing you might consider is looking at if they're making those features for other markets like Japan or Australia anyway, to maybe think about making those an option in the U.S. games," she says. "My opinion is that the industry's best bet is to show parents that they want to support their efforts to regulate their children's media use, and be able to say that we're providing options. We're providing controls. We're providing content options for you to do that."

Continued research

One thing everyone in attendance (minus one unidentified person) agreed on was that further research would be beneficial for everyone. By accounts, Mr. Biden implied that he'd like to see industry-sponsored -- though not conducted -- research. "If the industry came up with it, it would of course have no credibility, but if the industry and the White House worked out that yes, the industry would help support research then that would go somewhere," says Olsen. "And a number of people from the industry there were open to that." Not only would it help curtail negative public perception, it could also suggest some of the positive benefits of playing video games -- even violent ones, something that the International Game Developers Association addressed in its open letter to the Vice President (no IGDA representatives were in attendance at the meeting). "I think it would help us see how to promote the benefits of games as much of the risks," says Olson. "My research for example found a link between sports video games and exercising more. There's a lot that they could be promoting." Research isn't a guaranteed path toward positive change, however. "I do worry that if research happens, it may not be in a neutral and objective context," says Ferguson. "The timing coming after Sandy Hook, all that political pressure, I worry that it could corrupt the scientific process. So I think there's going to be some funding for research, but the government will have to think of some way of how to do that or dole that out in a way that they can be sure that that research takes place in an objective environment where whatever the results are, there's no pressure to produce one set of results or another."

Fair warning

The Vice President's suggestion that the video game industry improve its public perception wasn't just friendly advice. It might have been a warning: clean up your act, or bad things could happen if it comes down to a vote. "He didn't say this, I'm reading between the lines, but there might have been an element of... [video game violence] might come up when we have to address gun control or mental health or whatever else," says Ferguson. "There's just been so much talk about video games in the news media, there's been so much discussion about that, and there's been of course Senator Rockefeller's bills. I think they weren't going to get away without addressing it." "Hopefully the industry will come up with some positive suggestions."

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