On February 14, 2018, a 19-year-old killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, using a legally purchased AR-15 rifle.
Less than a week later, amid a resurgence in the gun debate in the United States, President Trump suggested that the influence of violent video games plays a role in mass shootings.
“The level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” Trump said on February 22. “You see these movies, they’re so violent, and yet a kid is able to see the movie. If sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved. And maybe they have to put a rating system for that, and you get into a whole very complicated, very big deal.”
On Thursday, Trump is scheduled to meet with prominent video-game industry executives to discuss, “violent video-game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children.”
But there’s good reason to expect that nothing will come of this meeting. Here’s why:
Discussing violent video games is a distraction from the real issue: Gun violence.
When a 19-year-old gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, he used an AR-15 rifle to kill 17 students and staff members.
The gunman was reportedly “fascinated by guns,” and had a record of aberrant behavior. A profile from the Sun Sentinel in Broward County, Florida — where Marjory Stoneman Douglas is located — details a history rife with problems.
Notably, that history doesn’t include video games (let alone violent video games).
It’s entirely likely that, as a 19-year-old in 2018, the gunman played video games at some point. What’s clear is that video games played no role in the mass shooting on February 14.
So, why are we talking about violent video games? Good question.
As Parkland shooting survivor Chris Grady told CNN in a recent interview, “That’s just a really pathetic excuse on behalf of the president. I grew up playing video games — ‘Call of Duty,’ those first-person shooter games — and I would never, ever dream of taking the lives of any of my peers. So it’s just pathetic.”
Violent video games don’t lead to real life violence.
The suggestion that violent video games and films are at least partly responsible for the rise and persistence of gun violence in the US dates back to the early ’90s. But the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 brought it into the national conversation once again.
The two Columbine High School gunmen were active “Doom” players. Since the game primarily focuses on shooting a gun — at demons, in outer space — commentators suggested that the gunmen had trained for the real-life shooting by playing “Doom.” The game featured a gun as the main point of interaction and perspective — the “first-person shooter” was a relatively new concept in video games back in 1999 — and thus arose suspicion.
If these teenage gunmen were playing this game, and capable of committing such a horrific act, what did that mean for all the other kids playing these games?
There’s a simple answer to that, of course: The same video games are sold all over the world, yet gun violence is far more prevalent in the United States than the vast majority of countries where games are sold. In other words, video games are not the determining factor.
Video games have ratings already.
If you’ve ever purchased a video game, you’ve probably run into a video game rating. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is responsible for giving out video game ratings in North America. If the game contains enough graphic violence, and enough sexually suggestive themes, it’s likely to be rated for play by teens and/or adults.
Games are rated for various groups based on a variety of factors, from violence to depictions of sex (and many other things). If you’re publishing a game in North America, and intending to sell it in a retail store, you’re required to have an ESRB rating.
And if you’re buying a game in a retail store that’s rated “M for mature,” you’re almost certain to be carded — independent reports put retail compliance with video game ratings at north of 90%.
Simply put: It’s very difficult to buy a violent video game in a store as a minor.
The ESRB was actually created in response to previous calls from government officials to regulate video game ratings in the early ’90s. Moreover, it was created by the video game industry lobby group that’s scheduled to meet with President Trump and other lawmakers on Thursday.
If the call from Trump is to “put a rating system for that,” there’s an easy answer: One already exists.
Where the video game industry could find a sticking point is in the push toward digital game sales. Without parents monitoring, it’s entirely possible to buy any game you want through digital storefronts — all you need is a credit card or a prepaid card (which can be purchased by anyone online or at retail). Will that come up in this meeting? We’ll find out soon.