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Video Games Under Fire

Recent tragedies have once again called into question the role of video games in real-life violence -- and Brandon Sheffield talks to Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford, developer of many first person shooters, about where responsibility lies.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

June 7, 2013

15 Min Read

The game industry comes under fire from politicians and the media nearly every time there's a shooting in a school, or any time a young person commits a notorious act of violence. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, Joe Biden invited industry executives out to Washington to discuss games' role in violence, and more research has been proposed.

But there's been a lot of research done already to show that games do not have a direct correlation with violent behavior -- and it seems as though much of the fear comes from ignorance of games, since current lawmakers didn't grow up with games as a popular medium.

The ESRB does a pretty excellent job of self-regulating, and very few people, even in Washington, have proposed a better system. As games came under fire from not only Washington but also the NRA, many in the industry wondered whether the NRA wasn't just passing the buck.

I discussed these issues with Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software, and no stranger to violent games, a couple months after the Sandy Hook tragedy, and around the time of the NRA's comments blaming the game industry for violent youth. We wondered 0- how much better a place would the United States be if the NRA regulated its customers as well as the ESRB does?

I've been having this internal debate with myself, what with Washington getting mad about video games. I think there was a strong suggestion, from Biden bringing out a bunch of game execs, that we are complicit in this. The NRA accused us of being responsible.

Randy Pitchford: Yeah. I saw the NRA's position. My take on Washington, on the White House position... There's no doubt that there's some noise out there that suggests that there's some relationship. I don't believe it's irresponsible to question that. And if you're going to question that, I feel a lot better about him questioning the industry then questioning the NRA. Because the NRA has already made up their mind.

Sure. But then I was thinking about this in context of games where they actually do use real weapons and then market that as an exciting element of the experience. This is a realistic weapon that you can actually own. And then we're going to put you in this world where you can actually kill people.

RP: There was a recent example of that. I think it was an EA game.

Medal of Honor, yes.

RP: I wonder how that worked out, though. I couldn't tell as an observer whether they believed that was beneficial, like net positive or net negative... It was kind of a stunt, too, wasn't it?

I don't think it was totally a stunt. It was a "here's our legitimacy" kind of thing.

RP: Oh, interesting. Though, that's a bit of a stunt too. If I remember correctly, and again, I don't have a perfect memory on this, but my memory is that the products were being offered before the game existed, which is a push-side approach instead of like...

The opposite of that is after I first saw Star Wars in 1976, I frickin' wanted an R2D2, and I wanted a Vader, and I wanted an Obi-Wan. And then Kenner said, yeah. It felt like one followed the other. 

 I feel like, at least on the marketing side, there's some kind of responsibility there when you're saying "this is a real gun that you can actually shoot, and then we're going to put you into this world where you will realistically shoot people in it." That gives me, even as a person that wants to defend the industry, some pause. This specifically could be a bit of a negative thing here.

RP: I don't know. I think that's a risk that is part of that decision. I mean, I'm not sure what specific case you're talking about. We can create a hypothetical case and figure out where the line is.

If someone were to say, "Hey, here's a needle. It's a syringe, and it's got poison in it. If you injected this into another person, it would kill them. I want you to read a book over and over about someone who does that, or watch a movie where that's done and it's made to look awesome and cool, or a video game where you actually press the button or whatever."

You move into a position, press the button, and then it does... You use all the media to enforce that. That's a hypothetical. There's a certain case where it's like, "Wow, the creator is really interested in trying to..." Imagine the creator who is interested in using real-world product in every medium, everything he has in order to encourage another human being to commit violence. That's a problem, I think.

But what we actually have is something very different. I don't know of any game makers that believe that the world would be better off with more violence. In fact, I think most game makers, especially people that are making games that have violence in them, see the opposite, that when we simulate things than no one has to get hurt.

It's kind of an interesting way to explore a premise without having to deal with the real-world ramifications, the real-world consequences. In fact, simulating things are what our brains are equipped to do.

Medal of Honor

I agree with that. It's just that when we've got M16s in tons of games. And we try to make them realistic. It strikes me that there's a fine line between aspiring toward realism and showing people how easy it would be. That kind of thing. I keep feeling like I'm actually arguing against what I actually think, here. I don't think that games cause people to commit violence. The gun fetishism just makes me feel a little gross when it's put in this context.

RP: I don't think people do or do not commit violence based on how easy it is. We're terribly fragile. Any one of us could kill another one of us very easily in a lot of different ways if you're really motivated. If you're really motivated, you don't even need a knife.

Yeah, of course.

RP: We can really kill one another if we're really motivated. It's not how easy it is that is why some people break.

No, it's certainly not why they break. But when I went to a gun range for the first time, I was shocked... I knew conceptually what firing a gun would be like. Then when I actually did... My first shot, I didn't know how to anticipate when it would fire, and it happened before I expected it to. And I hit the target with it, and that thing would be dead if it had been alive before, and I had barely made the decision to squeeze the trigger.

RP: I tell you, when I take myself back, there's a weird thrill that comes with the feeling and the power, but there's also the acknowledgment of that power. Jeez, with one motion, I could just end someone. 

That's exactly what I was thinking about. I had the experience of shooting machineguns an hour or so outside Saigon, in a place where U.S. soldiers and Viet Cong were fighting each other in the '60s and '70s. It was such a strange experience doing that next to guys dressed like Viet Cong soldiers. I was just shooting at wooden pictures of tigers or whatever, but there was this heavy feeling thinking about how people my father's age were fighting here only 40 years ago.

RP: I'll tell you one thing. One of the reasons why we don't all kill each other when we make each other mad is because we experience empathy. We, generally, as people have learned -- we've evolved as such -- that we survive better when we work together. So we've developed in cultures, in societies, and we work together.

And this gives us compassion for one another. Where I'm going with this is society is a tool that helps us realize that hurting other people is bad, through experience and understanding. A completely inexperienced mind with no understanding can accidentally do horrible things.

Imagine a baby that doesn't know anything. And someone puts a gun in a baby's hand. That gun could very reasonably go off, firing a random bullet, killing someone else, killing the baby -- someone could die. And if the baby accidentally fires that gun and kills someone else, the baby might be shocked by the loud noise, but the baby will probably feels nothing toward the life that was just ended.

Now, an adult will feel something. The difference between the baby and the adult is experience and understanding. Without media, we are limited in experience and understanding by just that which can be around us. With media, you can get a broader range of experience and understanding. If your video games were participating in the simulation, the potential for us to contemplate consequences and grow from that is much higher than... Well, take us back to the beginning of media. Imagine the first expression that we know of our species, and our minds will take us to the cave wall. And what is the drawing? It's violence.

There's a dude stabbing a buffalo.

RP: There's a spear and, yes, exactly. It's hunting. This is a combination of recording their history, and it's also for the young people in the tribe that haven't yet gone on the hunt. Saying, look at what's involved. This thing is big. Look how small you are compared in size. If it tramples you, you can get hurt. They're using it as training. And as a result, through the stories and through the media, the young people in the tribe are more equipped to survive.

And yet it is also an exhibition of power, and how we can control and dominate our environment.

RP: You think that's why the cave drawings existed?

I think there is that element to it, in concert with what you said. It does show human power over the elements. Because now we have this spear, and we can take care of this thing that's out there. And I think that's where the politicians get weirded out, because they see 12 year olds on Call of Duty being like "Fuck yeah, I'm gonna kill that guy," or whatever, and they don't understand where the fantasy ends. They don't trust young people.

RP: It’s easy to misinterpret that if you are yourself not a gamer. I can imagine it's excruciating. When I think about the generation gap we're experiencing, it’s probably the widest generation gap in the history of all media. Like, I think about what my parents went through with rock 'n' roll, and how their parents thought that rock 'n' roll was going to bring the downfall of civilization. But at least that older generation understood the value of music. They didn't discount music in general. They just had a problem with that content.

The generation gap we're in today is one where the oldest generation, which are also the policy makers in our culture, they grew up in a world where this did not exist. They have no reference for it. It's very dangerous. Yet look at how responsible we are. Our industry regulates itself.  

Yeah, we do quite well with that.

RP: That's interesting. And maybe it's because they did live through things like the rock 'n' roll revolution. The policy makers today were the people whose grandparents told them their music sucks.

I don't want to get too political with this, but the weird thing to me is, if you look at recent news, it is now technically legal for the executive branch of the government to have drone strikes on U.S. citizens now. Unmanned drones can kill U.S. citizens, and it was considered with Christopher Dorner.  

It's interesting to hear about these policymakers saying these people are irresponsible because they're creating this media that can maybe kill people, whereas they have the actual ability to kill people without touching them at all.

RP: Sure. Some policymakers are saying that. Here's the reality. I don't own a gun, but if you're a gun owner and you understand responsible gun ownership, you know that it's not the act of owning a gun that causes someone to kill other people.

And if you are in that world but have never played a video game because you're on the wrong side of the generation gap, and you’ve heard other people try to make correlations, and something like Sandy Hook happens, I mean... When Sandy Hook happens, we all should think, "What went wrong? What could we do differently?"

There's no great proposals on the table. There aren't. I don't understand what even the proposal is regarding video games. I think that's it's a kind of scapegoat. Is it censorship? Is it "no interactive entertainment now"? I don't know what the proposition is there. What if there's a correlation? What should we do? I don't think it's bad to ask questions. But even the proposals about guns, like really? A ten round clip?

Yeah, that's not really going to help.

RP: That’s not going to prevent... Maybe reduce the body count a little bit, which is nice. That would be good. But it won't actually get to what caused the problem. What's funny is there's been some media that's thought about those questions, too, and you get things like Minority Report and stuff where it's like how do you actually prevent something before it's happened? There are broken people in this world. And there will be more people that break.

I think it’s actually down to a lack of mental health care and education, personally.

RP: I think that's a big part of it. When Sandy Hook happened, I was getting certified for scuba. Again, I don't own a gun, so I don't have a gun license. But my understanding is it's not difficult as long as you haven't done anything bad in the past because of background checks. I was thinking to myself, "Man, to get my scuba license, I did about 16 hours of online courses, I did live instruction, and I had to actually go with an instructor who walked me through things in this very deliberate process." It took a matter of weeks for me to just to get the most basic of certifications to scuba dive. And I can only really hurt myself if I do this wrong.

And there’s no government regulation causing that. That's industry-regulated. I think about how well our industry does with ESRB, we have really high compliance, really great enforcement at retail. I wonder what it would be like in a world where instead of the NRA saying media is the problem, what if instead of the NRA scapegoating, what if they said, "Hey, you know what? We think everyone should take responsibility for whatever their role is in this society. Here's what we want to do. We want to encourage industry-regulated certification." Imagine if the mom, the Sandy Hook mom, had to watch a movie like what I watched when I was getting a driver's license. I watched Red Asphalt. 

Right, of course.

RP: And I'll tell you, I have never gotten on a fucking motorcycle. Because I don't want my kneecaps ripped off. Imagine if the mom of the kid that went nuts... What if she was educated about other people who've had children that go nuts? What if every future mom that gets into the hobby of weapons is taught the story of Sandy Hook? "By the way, if your kid is a little off-center and goes crazy and there's guns around, they might kill you and a bunch of other people. Secure your shit."

Imagine if there was a place -- hell, here's a range you can go with the right license. We'll let you shoot a tank. But I don’t have one in my own driveway. You can own the baddest ass machinegun in the world, but it has to be a designated place where it's safe to fire and you have structures that are good with dealing with all that. There might be some other ways where we can have our fun, maybe even more fun, with guns. Because I think guns are cool. What if we could have even more fun with guns but do it in a safe and responsible way?

Yeah. I totally agree. Self-regulation on their part would be a lot better. Especially if everyone in the family had to have training.

RP: Imagine if the NRA's position, whatever they were offering, from a self-regulation point of view changed right now. Yeah, there's a lot of gun owners, and I understand they have a lot of members, like half a million or whatever, and there's probably a lot of people that are on the team of the NRA, but if there's like 300 million people in this country, I think most of the people right now are like, "Dude, really? These are the guys that are looking out for guns right now? They sound a little crazy to me."

Imagine if that was shifted because the NRA's position was changed to where all of America said, "I'm glad the NRA is on this because look at how responsible they are. Look at how much they care about safety. Look at what they're advocating."

And they could totally do that. And that way everybody would be rooting for them instead of being worried about their position and what that might mean for a future society. I think the vision for the future that was kind of interpreted from the words that came after Sandy Hook made us all a little concerned about the kind of future that the NRA might imagine. I get the impression they would imagine a future where everyone is packing heat in the schools.

They're imagining the Wild West, basically.

RP: Yeah -- and I don't know if that's right.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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