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I spoke with IGN about games and gun policy...
by Kris Graft on 01/16/13 03:45:00 pm   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Last week, I ran an editorial about the game industry's meeting with Joe Biden, kicking over a bit of a hornet's nest, but at the same time prompting some honest, open discussion about our involvement in these gun policy talks in the wake of Sandy Hook.

Contributing to that discussion was IGN's editor-in-chief, Casey Lynch, who said I was dead wrong. Meanwhile, Ian Bogost wrote in The Atlantic, "The games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap."

Casey told me recently he was reaching out to bunch of people (his giant article is out now), gauging their opinions following last Friday's meeting in Washington. He sent me three questions, and my answers ended up being pretty long, so I thought I'd post them here on my Gamasutra blog in full, for the sake of transparency and continued discussion (Note: These answers were given prior to the President's proposals Wednesday morning):

What did you think of the tenor, the topics of discussion, and the outcome of meeting? 

From the reports that I've seen, this was a cordial, respectful meeting quite devoid of any real substance. Perhaps some of the proposals from the game industry had real-world practicality, but the meeting itself was a political formality wrapped in a photo opp, meant to ensure the American public and mainstream media that anyone who could be possibly held accountable for mass shootings is being held accountable. And of course, it was also meant to build consensus on new gun legislation. The Vice President appeared neutral about the game industry, neither damning it nor patting it on the back. The game industry was just kind of "there." 

The real, productive and impassioned discussion -- the discussion that isn't couched in scapegoatism and carefully prepared comments -- is happening right now, in articles like this one that you're putting together, on social media, on forums, and it will continue. It's exceedingly important that it continues.

People accused me of advocating "hiding" from the issue, keeping quiet or "muzzling" creatives, when in practice that's exactly the opposite of what I was advocating. My article and [Lynch's] response were featured in some pretty big mainstream news publications. Before, this supposed "national conversation around violence in video games" (as you put it) consisted of quietly submitting proposals, a meeting with the VP behind closed doors and off the record conversations with journalists such as myself. Now it seems much more about open, honest discussion. 

It's, at best, optimistic (at worst, naive) to expect that this meeting was any more than a political formality. News reports suggest President Obama, prior to these meetings, has all but decided on the shape of his executive action, and these meetings are about building a consensus around new legislation. Paraphrasing a line from Ian Bogost, the game industry was, once again, a cog in the machine of political discourse. 

So yes, this meeting wasn't about video games at all, rather about the larger issue of gun policy in relation to mass murder. In the rebuttals to my editorial, I don't think I ever saw anyone adequately address the true endgame -- introducing new gun legislation. Sorry folks, but Biden isn't all that interested in the emotional impact of Journey, or entertaining a professor's pitch for an anti-violence ARG, or to deeply examine the potential of the art. The game industry was there in order for the administration to get to the ultimate goal, which is introducing new legislation in the wake of the mass murder of children. 

Do you maintain your original position? 

Yes: By the game industry being there, it implicated itself as part of the problem, that problem being the scourge of gun violence that has plagued our country, this time in the context of one of the most horrific deeds this country has ever seen. But I know as well as anyone that an industry can't really turn down an invitation like this from the VP without facing serious political repercussions down the line. We were stuck, and had to do it, though I sincerely wish that wasn't the case. The public sees video games as a medium deeply invested in gun violence -- that's just the reality. Perhaps my views on the matter have evolved to "We were screwed well-before we got that invitation." So now the industry has to focus on getting "un-screwed" (see the answer to the next question). 

My editorial was intended to wake people up and expose the real reason why we were offered what some saw as a "privilege," and to remind them of the context of this meeting. Intelligent, well-meaning folks in the game industry were complacently -- even enthusiastically -- going with the flow, without actually thinking of or openly talking about the obvious implications of their participation. The misguided "Hurray, we're at the grown-up table" mentality was alarming to me. There was this blind enthusiasm of being included in the discussion in this context, with few really standing up, asking questions and saying, "Wait, hold on a minute here."

The primary argument against my editorial was that we needed to be there to "defend" the industry in some way. I think the immediate results of the meeting prove that argument was an empty one. Of course, there was nothing that needed to be defended. The VP graciously made it clear he wasn't on a witch hunt. That only highlighted how the reason for the meeting really had nothing to do with video games. So why was the game industry there, implicating itself? It was there as a cardboard set-piece in a larger play called "gun legislation."

Following my editorial, I've been really pleased with the response, from both people who supported my views, and those who didn't. While it does seem like a polarizing issue, the discussion, for the most part, has been civil. I think that's because in the end, everyone who cares about video games wants the same thing -- for this art and business to garner the respect it deserves. And of course, we all want to curb real-world gun violence.

Where do we go from here? 

As it's part of The ESA's job to maintain a certain image of the game industry and the members of the group, maybe it needs to give game companies more incentive to create high-profile, mainstream games that aren't all about shooting and killing. Maybe events like ESA's E3 should do more to highlight the diversity of video game subject matter. The core issue here is that video games are still seen as a medium that celebrates and profits immensely from the depiction of excessive gun violence. Of course, it is a craft that is much, much more diverse than that. But more meaningful action needs to be initiated in order to make this diversity more obvious to the world. 

Perhaps the better, broader answer is this: Keep making video games. The typical politician does not enjoy the hard-earned luxury of being able to make a statement using interactive entertainment. Maybe we'll see a video game someday that makes a strong statement about what happened over these past few months. That's the kind of thing that really matters to this craft, and I think everyone who loves video games can agree on that.


Out of all of these questions, the most important one is the last one. Keep the discussion going in the comments!

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Axel Cholewa
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"[...] video games are still seen as a medium that celebrates [...] the depiction of excessive gun violence."

How could they not be seen like that? This is a screen shot of today's homepage for video games:

The only non violent game in that picture is Journey, and there are sixteen games shown. 10 of them feature gun violence.

Kris Graft
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The public's perception is justified, I understand that. Changing the public's perception is the big challenge.

Axel Cholewa
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@Kris: exactly. And it's gonna be a big challenge, because the biggest problem is the mass market. Which, of course, gets more public attention than Indies. And which is rather resistant to change.

@Christoph: Yes, I think this just might be the time where things start to change. That Journey is on that screenshot already means something.

Greg Findlay
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As soon as the NRA mentioned games given public perception of games, Biden had to invite us or it would look like he wasn't addressing the whole problem (ie. it would hurt his public perception). Yes, being mentioned as part of the problem is another lump on public opinion but it was also an opportunity to be heard. If after the meeting Biden would have said, "The game industry had some really positive and interesting ways of addressing gun violence," being at the meeting would have improved public perception a lot more then it would have hurt. Instead we went in on the defensive and will get very little out of it.

Taking the stance of "It's not our fault," will never hold any ground with the public. It's self interested and at best it's a neutral position. Changing public perception is difficult but the only way to do it is to make an impact on society by either making games that have a positive impact or by participating in society discussions and be heard from people outside of our industry stating that we're making a positive difference. And making the games is probably the harder of the two.

Kris Graft
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I appreciate everyone's sentiments regarding this meeting and public perception. But I think it's overly optimistic to believe that anything _anyone_ could have said in that meeting would've brought about a different outcome. I've seen the ideas that game developers proposed, and some of them are really thoughtful, but like I said, that's not what this meeting was about. The shape of the executive action was in place before this meeting. Doing more media effects research on video games was a forgone conclusion.

But I do agree that changing public perception is difficult. I've read some recent commentary that amounted to "the industry needs to mix some veggies in with the 'junk food'". But it's not really just about that. There are a lot of "veggies" already. It's also about finding ways to highlight the diversity of games, and making that known to the public.

I am hopeful that down the line there will be a discussion between people in the game industry and the government that actually has some substance, and will have an outcome that goes beyond proposing more media effects research.

Alan Rimkeit
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I figure that this relevant. Just came up on Ars Technica a few minutes ago.

House bill wants $5,000 fine for video games without ESRB rating -

Crazy huh?

Axel Cholewa
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Well, I'm not sure how much the fines are in germany, but here retailers are, of course, legally obliged to not sell adult games to minors. And they do face monetary penalties if they do that anyway.

That news also reminds me of the new content warning we have in germany (for a couple of years now). Here are two examples:

And because these signs look ugly, they invented swapable covers (go to 8:55m to see it):

Interestingly, this video shows that these symbols alone do not prevent a minor (that guy's 16) from somehow getting various adult titles.

james sadler
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It amazes me whenever something like this tragedy happens the causes and reasons for them get thrown out the window and people focus on scapegoats. Yes lets take a look at gun laws, even though the mother bought the weapons so all those checks wouldn't have mattered. Yes lets take a look at "violent video games," even though that has little to do with this. Most of these tragedies are an issue of parenting and the environment in which the kid(s) are raised, or lack there of. Lets look at that and put attention on the parenting techniques and things to watch out for. But no. Instead lets jump right into external industries as the faults.

I completely agree that the game industry should have thought harder about how it actually looked being at that meeting. On the other hand, refusing to be there would only have come across worse. The greater game industry seems to be pulling away from the gun crazed violence that the media is accusing anyway. Yes there are the big outliers there like CoD and the likes, but we're beginning to see more games that move away from that.