An Open Letter to Politicians and any concerned that video games add drastically to the number of incidents of gun violence and mass shootings.
I watched a video from The Daily Show. In it, Trevor Noah responded to a tweet from Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The tweet came in the wake of a pair of mass shootings, drawing the ire of the collective internet. In the video, Trevor Noah pointed out that in all the events in which there are statistically more deaths than mass shootings, we as a society have many mitigating factors in an effort to ensure the health and safety of the populace. From medical errors, illness, car accidents, suicide and homicide, he went down the list of how we as a society try to stave off a mounting death toll.
After the video, my mind turned to the blame that violence in video games was recieving once more. Is there a some valid history here? I think so. I have heard of times in which shooters used games and their engines to make mock ups of the grounds they aimed to terrorize and essentially practice their runs. I am also willing to admit that “you are what you eat”, and as such have to be mindful about what you consume. But in the vein of Trevor Noah’s segment, I began giving focused thought on what the gaming industry could do to police itself, more than lip service or pandering. To do something with the aim of quelling violence. After solid consideration there is only one thing that could be done: Rate games more harshly, namely rating more games as Adult Only rather than Mature.
Back before the 90s, video games were seen solely as a medium of entertainment for children. The game series Mortal Kombat, still in its infancy, gained a lot of attention for bucking that trend and playing to an older audience. The gratuitous death animations and the over-the-top blood sprays on every hit gained the attention of the American government, leading to creation of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board). Since then, all video games, and many other form of computer software and electronic media, have been subject to a division akin to movies and books. These are…
Everyone 10+ (E10)
Teen (T)- Geared towards ages 13 and up
Mature (M)- 17 and up
Adults only (AO)- 18 and up
I am of the opinion that the rating system is not all that useful as it is not accurately utilized. For starters, I have always found it quirky how closely spaced the ages in the latter ratings are. Next, brick and mortar salesman were savvy gatekeepers when such was the only way to purchase games. The staff were, and still can, recognize if a T title is appropriate for younger audiences. Beyond that, in cases where an obvious child strolls up with a Mature game or one for Teens more on the Mature side, a parent is normally not too far away. They are likely to see their child as being “mature enough to handle it” and support the purchase. In this vein it has always been an adult, not the rating system, that has barred my access to a game. If you pull aside an adult gamer and ask them to assemble a collection of their most adult games and you will likely see that they are all rated as Mature. This rating is “as bad as it gets”. Thus I doubt you’ll see any Adult Only games. Why?
Cue my Social Cynic for the answer: Money.
The video game industry generates billions of dollars worth of annual revenue. Amongst that is Grand Theft Auto Online, an extension to GTA V, which is the most lucrative entertainment property of all time. Not most valuable video game. Highest earning entertainment outlet in history. More than Avengers: Endgame or Avatar. More than Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, or any other popular book series.
I repeat: Grand Theft Auto Online is THE highest grossing entertainment property of all time. And, as it is ongoing, its revenue will only continue to grow.
So how is this possible? The first answer on the board is microtransactions, which are gaining a number of articles from me and the internet abroad as it stands. But in relation to this article, availability. The difference between a Mature and Adults Only rating is where they are sold. With the former it is virtually everywhere, and it is virtually nowhere with the latter. In the pre-internet age, making a game Adults Only would have killed any chance of it turning a profit. And, while removing a title from retailers shelves may seem major even now, the people that want the game will purchase it online and get a download key or the like. If they want a physical disc instead, they can order it from the company, and will likely be given a key while they wait. In fact, an Adults Only rating would only serve as free publicity.
I have seen games earn the Adults Only rating. I have watched as they were banned from sale in Wal-Marts, Gamestops, and many digital marketplaces. The fact that they were officially deemed heinous by the ESRB was not taken lightly. But any other game earning a lesser rating that does not gain national news attention for one reason or another? ‘Eh… must not be so bad’ echo the thoughts of most people. This acceptance assures that any game can be easily accessed by anyone. Even though I have gamed most of my life and view video games as a burgeoning artistic medium, there is a part of my brain that is conditioned to think of them as “just toys for kids”. And the games’ industry benefits from this social perception, both from myself, other gamers, and the world at large.
To illustrate, there were children that I cared for that I allowed to play Saints Row IV, a game series much like GTA. It holds a rating of Mature. Why, if the content was not suitable for them, did I allow them to play it? Because I knew which part of the game they would play. I got their file to a free roaming sandbox portion, showed them how to access a garage for vehicles, change their load outs, and where to shop for clothes and even five years out that’s what they think Saint’s Row is. A fun game to dress up, drive around, and use super powers in. They never got into the story, character development, dialogue, and the bulk of what makes the game mature. They had similar play habits in similar, yet more kid-friendly, titles such as the Lego video games.
But let us say that one finds my actions with the children appalling. That my supervision was not enough. That my foreknowledge of the the game itself and the playing behaviors of the children was negligent. That I was not a dutiful parental figure. And so we make our Grand Theft Auto, Fortnite, Call of Duty, and other questionably violent game series Adult Only. If your aim is to limit access to the games, it does nothing. It just means that sales of these games migrate from physical to online.
If re-rating games would do no good, why not take other measures? Perhaps ban games like GTA from being brought to completion in the first place? On the one hand, the Video Game Lobby would push to counter these efforts. As I pointed out, it generates too much money to be written off. On the other, remember the digital marketplaces I mentioned? Even now independent creators make games and post them without ESRB sanctioning. Some companies and platform holders (e.g. Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony)are more exacting when it comes to quality control. Without an ESRB rating, these companies will not allow games to be sold on, through, and for their platform(s). And while the PC market has checks and balances, they are comparatively lax. Some of the most heinous “games” (a term I am using very loosely here) I have ever seen exist in the gutters of Steam. And much like society at large, they thrive in numerous pockets. You take down one and, not only will more just like it take its place, but the original game is likely to be taken down and uploaded again as something else. It’s a whack-a-mole that cannot be won unless you want to take drastic action.
Now… do I want to see this happen? Do I want more games to be bumped up from Mature to Adults Only? I personally do not care. I am old enough to buy whatever games I wish. But you know what? As ineffectual as I think it would be, and as much evidence as I have seen showing that video games and shootings are unrelated on the whole, I would be willing to abide by a more stringent rating system.
That said, my abdication comes with one single ongoing condition:
Blame whatever you want, but if you identify a problem, fix the problem.
I’ve informed you what can be done about video games. If this is where you want to place the fault today… okay. Let’s make games with realistic and gruesomely violent conent harder to access for people who do not have enough external real life experience to contextualize what they are playing. (Ignoring for now how video games aided me in being able to contextualize so much of real life. A discussion for another time.) If, in the wake of another/the next shooter, you are going to point the finger at mental health? Vote for robust healthcare so people get the help they need. Enable that medications are affordable to help keep brain chemistry in check. Improve the quality of life of people so they aren’t driven to violent and deadly outbursts, or perhaps so much medical care to begin with. An ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure and all. Want to blame them being an outlier, racial supremacist and other radical ideologue? Then figure out what lawful measures there are to eliminate them wholly, from the fruit back down to the root. Don’t just denounce them and then tolerate them as they continue to spread hatred and foment terror. Peter denied Jesus Christ three times, but we still regard him as a faithful apostle. Don’t continue to pay lip service by pointing to a problem. Something has to be done at this point, and sooner than later.
As I was finishing up, Facebook reloaded and this was front and center.
In answer to the question “Do video games increase the potential of violence/mass shooting?” thirty years worth of science and study says no. Additionally, counties that have a larger population of gamers than the United States do not suffer from widespread gun violence. We may not be able to prove the mental soundness of each individual shooter. And things like manifestos and social media profiles can be spoofed if you want to give all sides their due.
All of these incidents have one common element beyond the shadow of a doubt. All of these killings were perpetrated by people with guns fine tuned to kill a multitude. Even with the current safeguards and measures we have in place, gun violence is still all too common. As what we are doing is not enough, more must be done. Referring back to Trevor Noah, we have to try something. If today it’s my turn with games, that is fine. If, after cutting at every other factor, gun-driven violence is still a problem will it then be time make compromises regarding firearms?
I am willing to Try, Do, and abide to something different in my life and industry to make the America safer.