The violent games debate isn't about facts; it's about hearts and minds
America's continuing culture wars bemuse the rest of the world, but the industry has no choice but to engage positively
It is both tragic and despicable that the Sandy Hook massacre - one of the most horrific of the school shooting attacks which plague the United States to an extent unthinkable in any other first world nation - has returned us to tawdry and predictable round of finger-pointing and scapegoating. Once again, violent video games have been among the prime targets, and while the calls for regulation, censorship or any other knee-jerk reaction you can imagine have lost much of their power and their volume in the past decade, the finger-pointing itself has been enough to rattle the games industry and lead to some interesting internal debates.
"While in the UK, much of Europe and indeed much of the rest of the world, the war on violent video games is effectively over, America is a whole different ballgame"
It's also been a reminder that while in the UK, much of Europe and indeed much of the rest of the world, the war on violent video games is effectively over (British politicians, for example, are now far more likely to be found praising the innovation and business success of videogame creators than excoriating them for the content they produce), America is a whole different ballgame - one which, perhaps appropriately, is best played while wearing body armour. It's rough and underhanded in a way rarely seen elsewhere.
The reasons for that situation have been explored at great length by a great many more politically and socially aware authors than I, and I would waste my time and yours by going over them again in any detail. In brief, though, America is a nation more divided than most others, culturally; for all its much-vaunted freedom, it has since its birth as a nation played host to a powerful streak of interfering, nannying ultra-conservatism, which found expression throughout the 20th century in the form of various strict "codes" for media creators. Running alongside this conservatism, and intersecting with it on regular occasion, are the nation's powerful Christian groups, whose impact on America's political life has no parallel in Europe's largely secular democracies.
Then there's the NRA, the villain of the present melodrama, at least from the point of view of the games industry. The NRA purports to represent gun owners in the United States, of which there are a great many - the US has more guns per citizen than any other nation on earth - but it doesn't, not really. In reality, it's the industry lobby for multi-billion dollar weapons manufacturers who want to continue to sell their lethal wares to the lucrative American market. A vital distinction, since the wishes of the gun-carrying public (who do tend to favour some common-sense regulation of gun ownership) do not always align with the desires of the arms manufacturers (who are more keen on the "from my cold, dead hands!" hardline stance, as the cash paid by a mentally disturbed person with a criminal record for an assault rifle is no less green and enriching than the cash paid by a sensible, grounded outdoorsman in the countryside for a hunting rifle or shotgun). In this instance, the bodies in Sandy Hook were barely cold before the NRA was alluding to violent games as being the real cackling villain behind the screen - as clear and distasteful an attempt to deflect blame and reframe the debate as anyone can imagine.
"This is a culture war, a clash not of scientific evidence but of firmly held beliefs, so rationality isn't invited."
Ultimately, the arguments are hollow and the stance of those blaming video games doesn't add up - just as it didn't when countries like the UK were subjected to it - but this is a culture war, a clash not of scientific evidence but of firmly held beliefs, so rationality isn't invited. This is about mud-slinging between two parties fuelled by fear; the gun lobby thinks the government is coming to take all their guns (a belief carefully inculcated and nurtured by the NRA and its backers), while the games lobby thinks the government is coming to censor its work (a belief often reinforced by the raising of the spectre of the notorious Comics Code, which crippled the creative output of the comics industry and left it a ghettoised, marginalised form of media for many years).
The interesting thing to come out of all of this is the internal debate within games, which flared up when representatives of the games industry were invited to meet with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss violent media last week. There have been some good contributions on both sides, actually, but the crux of the argument is this - should we be engaging with this debate at all? Does even getting involved in such a discussion, in the wake of such an awful massacre, not suggest an acceptance of culpability? The NRA's finger-pointing has, in effect, left the games industry with a "so when did you stop beating your wife?" question; even to acknowledge the question, some argue, is to give credence to the ugly accusation it contains.
On the other hand, there are those who argue that the industry must engage, and in a positive way - if only to distance ourselves from the intransigence and knee-jerk defensiveness of the NRA. Show the public how a proper, responsible, grown-up industry behaves in response to criticism, and they'll realise who the real villains are - that's the theory, anyway. It's a lovely theory, but I fear that politics and public opinion is rarely that sensible or intelligent in its execution.
What's needed, I suspect, is a nuanced approach that features aspects from both sides of this discussion. The industry must remain absolutely firm in its insistence that all of the credible evidence is on its side - which it is, with even the US government's own research into video game violence failing to show any causative link between violent games and violent or unruly behaviour among children (correlation has been found, but never causation, the implication being that unruly kids are more likely to seek out violent media, rather than well-behaved kids being transformed by the media they consume).
It must reject attempts to tie it to violent acts, and not be afraid to point out that in other nations where video game consumption is extremely high, violent crime is extremely low. The UK and several continental European nations (the Netherlands has a particularly high spend on games) provide good counterpoints; closer to home, so does Canada, while Japan, famous for its huge video game market, is one of the safest countries in the world to live in.
Equally, though, the games industry needs to lose its pervasive fear of being slapped with Comics Code style restrictions, and be prepared to work with the government on common sense initiatives - even to propose them, where possible. Jim Matheson, a Democrat congressman from Utah, has tabled a bill proposing that ESRB ratings be made legally binding, so that it would be illegal for stores to sell M-rated games to children, for example. The industry should enthusiastically support this move; if there are concerns about constitutionality, let those be handled by someone else, rather than having the ugly spectacle of a media industry fighting a legal battle to be allowed to sell M-rated games to kids, a practice which the industry (not entirely honestly) claims to be diametrically opposed to. Other common-sense initiatives for the industry would include working more prominently and publicly to educate parents, teachers and others engaged with kids about ratings and content - and bluntly, there'd be a fair bit to be said for ending the practice of marketing children's toys based on M-rated properties, too (although movies have always been equally bad if not worse in this regard).
"The games industry needs to lose its pervasive fear of being slapped with Comics Code style restrictions, and be prepared to work with the government on common sense initiatives"
The elephant in the room, in some regards, is the issue of the AO-rating. The M rating is not meant to be the top of the ESRB scale; extremely violent or sexual content rightly belongs in the AO (Adults Only) category, which is more directly comparable to the PEGI 18 (or the old BBFC 18) rating than M. The problem is that the US' big retailers, hypersensitive to the danger of offending the conservative and religious lobbies, have almost uniformly refused to stock AO games, leaving them confined to the same kind of specialist outlets that stock hardcore pornography. An AO rating, as a consequence, is the kiss of death at US retail - no high-budget game with that rating would ever make its money back.
Predictably enough, what has happened instead is that the boundaries of the M-rating have been tested at every turn. Without a higher rating available, and with the whole rating system being voluntary rather than enshrined in law anyway, game creators have pushed ceaselessly at the boundaries of the M rating, aided by advancing technology which makes it possible to display increasingly detailed and gruesome violence. Were the AO rating to be available as a commercial option, M-rated games would inevitably calm down; were the ratings system to be legally enforced and properly respected, the industry could, with complete honesty, state that it has given parents the tools they need to control their kids' media consumption, and that what happens beyond that is out of our hands.
We're not there yet. This is a battle that's going to be won in the USA, just as comics and movies won their own battles in the past, just as games won the debate in Europe and elsewhere (Australia just published the first game under its brand new 18 rating, finally allowing adults to access adult game content legally, and as yet the sky has not fallen in on the nation), but it's not yet at the point where we can sit back and refuse to engage at all. There's work to be done. Violent games don't breed killers - if they did, the frantic amount of research that "concerned family organisations" in the USA have funded and backed trying to find such a causation would have turned up something, anything, by now. This isn't even a debate about that any more. It's a straight up battle for hearts and minds, and in that regard, sitting down for a chat with Joe Biden is only the first step in the right direction.