So, what did we learn from Trump’s hour long video game summit?
It began with a minute and a half video reel showing particularly violent scenes from various video games, which appeared to set the tone for an ambush that should’ve been obvious from a mile distant. And beyond that? It’s difficult to argue that anything of value was accomplished.
Here’s the White House’s press release on the meeting:
"Today, President Trump and senior members of the Administration met with leaders in the video game industry and experts on violence to discuss violent video game exposure and its impact on our children. To date, the Administration has led many discussions about how to prevent violent behavior in our schools, with a focus on stopping those intent on committing mass murder. During today’s meeting, the group spoke with the President about the effect that violent video games have on our youth, especially young males. The President acknowledged some studies have indicated there is a correlation between video game violence and real violence. The conversation centered on whether violent video games, including games that graphically simulate killing, desensitize our community to violence. This meeting is part of ongoing discussions with local leaders and Congress on issues concerning school and public safety and protecting America’s youth."
Emphasis mine. The highlighted lines suggest what Trump’s takeaway was, or at the very least, who he was trying to impress.
It seems fair to say that he was catering to the views of the more conservative attendees, like Representative Vicki Hartzler (R-MO). In a 2013 op-ed for Politico, she wrote that "unproven and emotionally driven gun control legislation is a simplistic response,” which is truly awe-inspiring in its lack of self-awareness, considering that her push against gaming is both unproven and driven by emotional reactions. She inveighed, at the time, against “simplistically and emotionally attacking the tool used by criminals," which makes simplistically and emotionally attacking a game not used by criminals per se all the odder.
This is who Trump is listening to. Or at least, who he is eager to please; he always truckles to the GOP party line, in the end. On video games, Hartzler’s views are Republican gospel. As if to drive the point home, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (Ret.), author of "Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing,” rounded out the list of attendees (note: Grossman lacks a good deal of formal training; he does call himself a “killologist,” however).
As I’ve written elsewhere, the whole point is to use videogames to deflect from any discussion on guns. Their direct and obvious role in shootings is to be ignored or diminished, while cultural objects with an oblique association with these events are to be centralized.
In fairness, according to a spokeswoman for the Parents Television Council, which sent its founder Brent Bozell to the meeting, “I don't believe anyone came in there with a policy outcome in mind. The President was not walking in there with his mind already made up.” But this is belied by the White House’s own statement which, while sober in tone, does clearly take a side. It emphasizes misrepresented research that indicates “a correlation between video game violence and real violence,” while failing to mention the preponderance of evidence against that claim.
But, as I said in my last column about this issue, you cannot expect better from a president or party so thoroughly hostile to science.
I intend to evaluate the complexities of this research in a future column focused on the relevant science, but for now it’s enough to say that the White House press release is vast overstatement of very weak evidence.
In addition, it’s worth noting that the Parents Television Council’s Bozell has a history of opposing videogames in a very specific way. In his capacity as president of the conservative Media Research Center, he viciously attacked Carly Kocurek and Allyson Whipple’s Choice: Texas, an interactive fiction game meant to illustrate the difficulties of getting an abortion in that state. In this he was, ironically, in line with the loud minority of reactionaries in video gaming who scorn games with an “agenda.” See also the right’s censorious attacks on Elizabeth LaPensée’s Thunderbird Strike by oil industry lobbyists.
If there’s any worthwhile lesson to be drawn from this meeting at Trump’s White House, it’s simply this: despite all the handwringing over the last few years about whether internal critiques of video gaming constitute “censorship,” the true censors, the real enemies of all modes of videogame expression, are clustered on the political right. From Trump’s reel, which attacked heavyweight titles like Wolfenstein and Call of Duty, to wealthy lobbyists who go after small indie games like Choice: Texas and Thunderbird Strike, the true enemies of artistic freedom are not the dreaded “SJWs.”
Just as games have been scapegoated for sins of men with guns, diverse developers and critics have been scapegoated for prejudice against video games as a medium--and they face the same headwinds from this renewed conservative attack on video gaming as everyone else in the industry. (With the added predicament, of course, that the very existence of people like myself is an affront to these same ideologues.)
But, in short, we are all in this together and must act like it.
I was heartened to see a counternarrative emerge from the nonprofit Games for Change, which did its own 90 second highlight reel showing breathtaking and emotional moments from numerous games--and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this face of our medium was a more diverse one, either.
There’s been some criticism of this counter-reel that’s worth reckoning with, of course. The violence of our medium is not merely an atavistic indulgence; it can be art in itself. As IGN’s Chloe Rad notes, “there is truth and even beauty in ugliness, horror, and despair and there are countless games that speak to that in deep and surprising ways.” That mustn’t be forgotten as we bat this tiresome argument back and forth against the right wing ideologues.
But it’s perhaps fairest to say that in recognizing the common interest that unites Firewatch with CoD, Life is Strange with Doom, we acknowledge the incredible diversity of our medium’s narrative vocabulary. Violence in games can be artistic; videogames are also more than violence.
If any good is to come from this sham of a meeting--an invitation to which no one, least of all the head of the ESA, should have accepted--it is clarity about who the real enemy is, and where the real battle for our freedom of expression is actually going to be fought.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.