Violence in video games has long been a hotly debated topic. Ever since the days of Mortal Kombat, when Senator Joe Lieberman chaired a subcommittee on violent games in Washington that ultimately led to the formation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in North America, it's been a political football. The tide turned in 2011 when games won first amendment rights in the U.S. in a Supreme Court decision that granted the medium the same protections enjoyed by films and books.
After the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, however, some politicians and mainstream news media immediately began scapegoating games once again. Then the unexpected happened - representatives of the game industry, including at-the-time EA CEO John Riccitiello, were asked to meet with Vice President Joe Biden. There was a sense of "here we go again, games can't seem to escape being targeted by legislation." But, that's not what happened at all, and in fact, Biden stressed to Riccitiello that games were not being "singled out."
While that was encouraging to hear, industry veteran Mark DeLoura, who was appointed to the position of Senior Advisor for Digital Media at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy just a few months after the Biden meeting, backed up the notion that actually, no, the government really isn't looking to target violent video games.
"The funny thing is it felt like I was bringing the violence conversation to the table because I have 20 years of scars and I'm from the game industry"
"Getting there I was prepping for the violence in video games debate," DeLoura commented to GamesIndustry.biz. "I went to a meeting with Biden - and there were a lot of people upset that the meeting even happened - but now having been over there for a couple years I understand why that made sense. And there are things that make sense from one perspective and not from another. One of the big concerns was the common perception in the public at large that games might result in some sort of violent behavior, therefore we should bring people in and have a discussion around it to see if there's any merit to it.
"I think the perception of having a meeting like that leads people to think that there's an actual problem. From one angle, it's 'we need to have a meeting to talk about it' and from the other angle it's 'Oh my god they're meeting, that must be awful!' That is one of the challenges that I realized working inside of government is sometimes it's just difficult to engage people in conversation because they come in with a set of beliefs and concern about what other people will say."
The way DeLoura sees it is that the problem was more about perception and the game industry's fear that government still had plans to act. "The funny thing is it felt like I was bringing the violence conversation to the table because I have 20 years of scars and I'm from the game industry. So I come in and it's like I have my armor on, and nobody ever really said, 'what about violence in video games?' Or very, very rarely did that ever come up. It was more about the opportunity than it was about the past, which is great," he added.
Indeed, now rather than worrying about Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, the White House is more interested in pursuing the positive impact that games can have. Education in general is a big focus, and it's certainly an area which games can contribute to.
"My takeaway after having been in the White House is there's an interest in seeing if games can be used to address societal challenges. That's the primary interest in games - we've seen other modalities in other media have an impact in different ways over time as we learn how to use them to teach people or express concepts. Can games do that? If they're not doing that how do we get them to do that? If they're doing it a little, do they want to do it more? How can we encourage this? That's the interest," DeLoura said.
"When I would have a conversation inside the White House it would be about ebola. The conversation didn't typically start with games, it started with a challenge, and then it was like, 'Is there any way that this community of smart, brilliant passionate people who are working on this new media form... is there some way that they can plug in, do they want to help?' There was this ebola hack-a-thon in Seattle with a bunch of game developers and it was awesome. When I heard about it, we hooked them up with people who were working on the rollout of the ebola treatment centers."
DeLoura noted that feel good stories in the press are never as sexy as negativity or fear mongering, but the more the mainstream media can do to report on all the great things games can do for people, the better public perception will be, and the concerns about violence will merely become a footnote in the industry's history.
"There's a hype cycle that comes of course from mass news - but I think a lot of that comes from the stories that end up in the press and the conversations that we've had for the last 20 years have been around the negative impact of games. You don't get a ton of positive stories. They are out there, they are hard to find and they don't get huge press. In general, great feel good stories don't get huge press anyway. That's the challenge, as games are doing more and more great things. UCSF neuroscience research, for example, they're looking at games and maybe getting FDA approval on a game to help people multitask. That's a great story to get out there, to say look video games can do more things," DeLoura continued.
As a major industry within the overall field of technology, the White House would also like to see more diversity in the games business. Rather than pursuing legislation, though, it's more about how to offer a guiding hand.
"There's all this research now about how there's a pipeline problem and I think for years people have talked about the pipeline problem being the important thing to fix. Yes it's important to fix, but there's actually a huge problem when people get into the industry and they go into a tech company and it's 80 percent guys and they don't have people to talk with and maybe they don't have the support system they need there, and then they're like 'I'm out.' There's no silver bullet," said DeLoura.
"So from the federal level, when you talk about what can you do, you can see there's a bunch of interesting places where you can plug in and you don't want to regulate things but you want to encourage things. So there's tons of different non-profits popping up around trying to encourage girls to get into tech or to try and fix the problems in the work environment, so that's one of the things we did a lot at the White House was to try to encourage those things and really lift them up and shine a spotlight on them so they get more support."
"What I wonder is if some congressperson...went out there to advocate for us to have tax credits...would they be met with a 'what's the redeeming value games?' argument... They don't ask that about films"
Another area that the White House may be looking at more carefully is how to help out the U.S. games industry with financial incentives. There are a number of countries that offer far more assistance with tax breaks for game development, but DeLoura said that, again, it's all about leveraging games' positive impact.
"It's like the first thing I asked about when I got to the White House. Coming out the other side, now I think I have a different perspective on it. It's more outcome based perspective," DeLoura explained. "In my heart as a game industry person, I'm like of course I want some assistance with R&D tax credits or whatever you can do to help me to build a small business. From a small business level, if I can get some kind of support I would love that. But I think the question I would ask is 'what's the outcome?' Let's say we can get more tax credits in different states or nationwide, what's the intent of that? Is it to drive more small businesses that make games? If it's that, why don't we do it for all small businesses? What's the uniqueness of games?
"If it's for games, is the interest there that it's encouraging people to learn more tech and that's great for our country? That's definitely an interesting thing. Is it that maybe we're looking to support particular kinds of games, like incentivize people to make educational games? I think the vision of it is what kind of needs to come first. That's my personal perspective."
The fact is that other entertainment fields have benefitted far more from tax credits, and game companies may look to other countries if that doesn't change. "I think the visual effects industry has been getting tax credits for quite a long time as part of the film industry and over the last five years or so, you've seen that industry abandon the US and they're moving to Vancouver or going to China or Australia," DeLoura referenced.
He added that it all ultimately ties into the conversation about how society views games: "What I wonder is if some congressperson at the state level went out there to advocate for us to have tax credits for games, would they be met with a 'what's the redeeming value games?' argument. Is games just like popcorn [entertainment] and it's all shooters and violence, and why are we supporting that? They don't ask that about films. Films are already past that level of conversation in the media."
The area that currently has the most promise is educational games - there's clearly no argument about their redeeming value.
"The Walden game that Tracy Fullerton is working on, they've gotten grants from NEA and NEH to support their work. The challenge is that those grants take a long time to get and it's a lot of work to do. And for an indie game that's not going to have a super long development process and is still typically done on a shoestring budget, you don't have time to do that," DeLoura noted. "You'd be done with the game before you get the grant. But I think right now the Department of Education is closer to an opportunity that works for folks because they have the SBIR program for small businesses and they've been funding a bunch of games, especially in the last 3 or 4 years.
"The predominant number of grants are to educational game opportunities. Those also take a significant amount of work to apply for but the level of grant is a little bit higher as well. So those are interesting, but one of the things I was trying to encourage inside the federal government are other programs to pop up to support games that way. So, 'Hey NSF can you support games that encourage people to learn how to code?' Each particular agency has their area of expertise and if they can find opportunities in games and fund small business and get more small businesses to pop up and address those issues then thats win-win. We also have to figure out how to make that grant process take less time!"