With Donald Trump, everything old is new again, it seems. His latest effort to grapple with the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, sees him joining his fellow Republicans, such as the Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, in resuscitating a long-dormant culture war, blaming video games for mass shootings.
“I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” Bevin said this week at a White House meeting on school security, where he also launched into a tirade about violent films. This echoes the thoughts of Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), in 2012 when he tried to pin the Sandy Hook shooting on “vicious violent video games, with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse”.
It’s a remarkable series of logic leaps that allows a person to scorn a simulator while holding the actual gun whose use is seen as blameless, but here we are again. Video games, for all their newfound cultural hegemony, remain a soft target for sententious conservatives who want to moralise, cost free. (In 2015, Bevin opposed the resettling of Syrian refugees in Kentucky. Where was his concern for the US nation’s “moral compass” then?)
The US comprises 4.4% of the world’s population, but has 42% of its civilian-owned firearms
The best evidence we have suggests – inconclusively – that some video games may increase aggression in their players. But, as is so often the case with media influence, this is neither straightforward nor monocausal. What has been clear to social scientists for a long time is that the “monkey-see-monkey-do” model of media influence is a fiction. They may influence passive behaviours such as stereotyping, but they absolutely do not cause active, violently antisocial behaviour like murder. In short, zero evidence exists to suggest playing violent video games will turn anyone into a criminal or a mass shooter.
One need only look to every other nation on earth, where video games are widely available but guns are, conspicuously, not. Though Germany and Australia are often bedeviled by similarly tedious debates about whether “violent video games” should be banned, such games are still widely played in both nations and neither is plagued by the relentlessly frequent mass shootings that afflict the US. But both countries have dramatically tougher gun laws, and neither conceives of gun ownership as an inalienable right. In every other industrialised nation, gun ownership is a privilege with numerous attendant responsibilities.
In the US, the opposite theory reigns, ensuring that a gun is easier to acquire in most states than a car. This has led to a nation awash in guns, where in a nation of 300 million, there’s more than one gun per citizen within our borders. The US comprises 4.4% of the world’s population, but has 42% of its civilian-owned firearms. Despite the fact that all research suggests that the availability of guns is the only reliable predictor of increased gun violence, this issue is never broached by conservative gun advocates. But it must be manna from heaven for the NRA, which is, in reality, a lobbyist group for gun manufacturers rather than rank-and-file gun owners.
Instead, a far more tenuous and vague link between video games and guns is sought, presumably to appeal to conservative parents who don’t want to give up their umpteen rifles and handguns, but do want their children to stop playing Grand Theft Auto.
We ought to be past this as a society. As a gaming critic, I’m the last person who would argue that there are no difficult discussions to be had about video gaming culture – I’ve critiqued the gambling impulses summoned up by loot boxes, and the subcultures of prejudice that exist in gaming fandoms, for instance. But as a democratic polity we should be able to conduct these discussions with maturity, and with respect for video games as a novel but rapidly evolving art form. When they are scapegoated for mass shootings, something else is at work; not academic critique, but a shabby cover-up meant to obscure the literal smoking gun.
This becomes especially galling when one looks at the morally squalid two-step played by the US military and gun manufacturers when it comes to video games. Gun makers sell lucrative licences to the largest video game studios, which are then able to use popular trademarked firearms in military shooter games such as Call of Duty, double-dipping from both the licence and the de facto advertising.
Militaries worldwide, meanwhile, have a well-documented interest in using video games both in advertising and as training tools; this was brilliantly skewered by German artist Harun Farocki in a recent exhibit on virtual reality at the Zeppelin Museum in Germany, where he set two videos of US soldiers using virtual reality side by side. In one, they trained for combat. In the other, they were treating the post-traumatic stress disorder caused by real combat.
That the NRA and its lavishly funded Republican allies should then try to restrict access to video games for the general public is not only wrong at face value, but a galling hypocrisy that sees the gun-manufacturer lobbyist talk out of both sides of his mouth.
In the meantime, the harder conversations we need to be having – about romanticising and glorifying imperialism, say, or dissociating soldiers from the fatal consequences of their actions – are glossed over. So long as the maximum number of guns are being sold, the NRA and its pet lawmakers are content; this is what makes sense of the otherwise horrifying suggestion that we should arm teachers. It sells more guns.
We would do well to refuse rightwing attempts to cloud the issue by reigniting irrelevant culture wars and focus instead on the problem’s core: the freely-available weapons used time after time in these crimes. As the bodies of our schoolchildren pile up, it’s remarkable that Republicans want to regulate video games that poorly simulate killing, but leave virtually untouched the guns that punch exit wounds “the size of an orange” in our children.
• Katherine Cross is a gaming critic