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Violent games a part of the post-shooting pageant | 10 Years Ago This Month

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, games and mental health proved handy distractions from gun control

It has now been a full decade since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when a 20-year-old man went into the school with an AR-15-style rifle and killed 26 people, most of them first graders.

It was a senseless tragedy, and one that has only been compounded in the years since by the complete lack of action to prevent similar tragedies from happening again, and again, and again.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, politicians and pundits pointed to three possible culprits: guns, mental health, and video games.

We'll get to the games bit, but first it needs to be said that it's the guns. Of course it's the guns.

It's the guns. Of course it's the guns

They say "guns don't kill people, people kill people," and it's true that guns are basically a tool, and someone with murderous intent could find other ways to kill people. But it's the difference between demolishing a house with a wrecking ball and demolishing it with a sledgehammer. They're both tools that can get the job done, but one makes the destruction considerably quicker and easier. (That one's also not readily available at your local hardware store.)

As for mental health, it's undeniably a significant societal issue. The CDC says 50% of people will suffer from a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime, with one in five Americans experiencing mental health problems each year. We definitely need to do a better job taking care of people in general, erasing stigmas surrounding mental health issues and lowering the cost and other hurdles in the way of treatment.

Would that actually help reduce the number of mass shootings? Maybe? Let's do it and find out. Worst case scenario would seem to be that we help a lot of people.

How about violent video games? I'm guessing most of us would wince to watch parents give the latest Call of Duty or Mortal Kombat to their six-year-old, but people aren't dying from exposure to killstreaks and fatalities.

I'm not entirely dismissing the idea that mental health issues or games that wallow in senseless violence could nudge an individual further along a path that ultimately ends in a school full of bodies. But the rest of that path is long and winding, with countless other steps and influencing factors in between. On the other hand, the path from a gun to a victim of gun violence is going to be as straight as a bullet.

I know a gun control rant isn't really germane to this site's reason for existence and covering the games industry, but it's frankly obscene to look at any such tragedy and skip right to asking, "But how did this affect video games?"

So now that we've established that the real problem is the guns, how did this affect video games?

Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was one of the first to decry games in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, which makes sense because Sandy Hook was in his state and he led the early '90s Senate hearings on violence in video games that resulted in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board and the ratings system used in North America.

"We've got to again start the conversation about violence in the entertainment culture"Joe Lieberman in 2012

"We've got to again start the conversation about violence in the entertainment culture," Lieberman said. "Obviously not everybody who plays a violent video game becomes a killer, but the social science is pretty clear here. Particularly for people who are vulnerable because they do have mental problems, the violence in our entertainment culture stimulates them to act out."

Time political columnist Joe Klein likewise pointed at violent media, calling for people to treat the creators of violent movies and games "with the same degree of respect we accord pornographers. They need to be shunned."

And of course, the National Rifle Association gun lobby refuted the scurrilous accusations that guns were somehow involved in the problem of gun violence, instead putting the blame squarely on video games.

"There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against own people," NRA executive VP Wayne LaPierre said, head-faking a confession before continuing, "through vicious violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, and Splatterhouse."

I don't know what's more grimly humorous here, that LaPierre dragged up an utterly irrelevant and mostly forgotten series like Splatterhouse that had a bomb of a remake effort two years earlier, or that he considered "Bulletstorm" to be an appallingly violent name when the guns he so cherishes don't really do much without bullets. But hey, if the NRA will put up less of a fight on bullet control than gun control, by all means, let's pivot to that.

LaPierre also said the answer was more guns – the answer for these people is always more guns – and suggested armed guards be deployed in every school in America, saying, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

In May of this year, an 18-year-old armed with an AR-15-style rifle walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde Texas and killed 21 students and teachers. The school district had its own police force. The good guys with guns were on the scene within minutes, but waited for over an hour to intervene, doing more to prevent parents saving kids than they did to prevent the shooter killing them.

Getting back to December of 2012, within days of the Sandy Hook shooting, President Barack Obama tasked then-Vice President Joe Biden with developing a set of proposals to cut down on gun violence and to have them ready by the end of January. He also had some ideas of his own, as he didn't wait for Biden's proposals before calling for Congress to fund research into the effects violent games have on kids.

"...little creeps..."Joe Biden, referring to unknown games industry executives

Biden met with heads of the games industry, one of whom he was not terribly impressed with. He would later tell a New York Times reporter about a meeting with industry execs, saying, "one of the little creeps sitting around that table, who was a multi- – close to a billionaire – who told me he was an artist because he was able to come up with games to teach you how to kill people. (There's some debate about which meeting and which executive this might have been, but whatever the circumstances, the utter disdain for the games industry's go-to defense is clear. And honestly, I can't blame him; how many games industry executives do you think could credibly carry the "games are art" message?)

Obama released a set of 23 executive orders in January 2013, mostly measures that worked around the edges of the issue to do things like improve background checks, provide first responders with active shooter training, and direct the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.

Separate from the executive orders, Obama laid out plans to close loopholes in background checks, to ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, to make schools safer, and to improve access to mental health services.

But there would be no federal gun legislation, with an assault weapons ban and a bill requiring universal background checks both defeated in the Senate. Even below the federal level, more states loosened gun laws in the months immediately following the shooting than tightened them.

Perhaps the most substantive change on gun control would have been a problematic Obama administration rule that the Social Security Administration would identify people receiving benefits because of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or neurocognitive orders and share their information with the Attorney General for inclusion in the national background check database. While the rule took effect just days before Obama's presidency ended, the deadline for compliance was almost a year later. Within a month, the Republican-controlled Congress passed a bill to scrap the rule and newly sworn-in President Donald Trump signed it into law. Er… out of law.

(Biden would have slightly more success on this front than Obama, as he signed a gun control bill into law this year putting tougher background checks in place for people under 21 and closing a loophole on a ban prohibiting people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun.)

On mental health, Obama did manage to get some measures passed as part of a broader 21st Century Cures Act (with bipartisan support, no less), pushing insurance providers to actually meet existing requirements to cover mental health care on par with medical and surgical benefits, and creating a slew of grants for community mental health services (particularly for emotionally disturbed children), suicide prevention, substance abuse, and numerous other concerns. That's all well and good, but not exactly victory lap material for addressing mass shootings.

As for the proposal to research violent games, it doesn't seem to have ever amounted to anything. Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller had already introduced legislation for researching violent games in the days after the shooting, but it was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in January of 2013 and never heard from again.

The NRA got what it wanted, as Obama in 2013 would allocate $45 million to put armed police officers in schools

That's not to say everybody went home unhappy here. The NRA got what it wanted, as Obama in 2013 would allocate $45 million to put armed police officers in schools. Also, gun sales went through the roof because of people fear-buying firearms – although I'm not sure there's any other way to buy them – in case the government decided to take their guns away. (Not-so-shockingly, accidental firearm deaths also went through the roof.)

And lest it go without saying, since 2012 we've seen a lot more people die in mass shootings, and with each one people clamor for significant gun control that never happens, which spikes sales again and again, which makes it that much harder to do anything to stop the mass shootings. (Even if the US banned all gun sales tomorrow, it would still have more guns than people.) The NRA must love this.

We reluctantly must ask again, "But how did this affect video games?" The answer is "not much," because violent games were brought up as a distraction after Sandy Hook, one of several scapegoats intended to muddy the waters and keep the search for answers from focusing on guns and guns alone. Just like they were in 2018 after a 19-year-old killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and after the Uvalde shooting earlier this year.

I'm not absolving gaming of all responsibility in this long-running series of tragedies. When companies glorify guns and feed into gun culture, or when they allow for bigotry and extremism to flourish in their communities unimpeded, they are aggravating a wound, spreading an infection.

But as long as we have the discussion about violence in games whenever it's convenient for the gun lobby and don't redirect the conversation back where it needs to be – the guns – this will just be another part of a mass shooting pattern that has become simultaneously unthinkable and yet routine.

What else happened in December of 2012

● The FTC sent a warning shot across the bow of the tech and gaming industries to get their act together with a report expressing disappointment at how mobile apps "made little or no progress" in handling privacy disclosures for kids apps. As we saw from this week's $520 million FTC settlement with Epic Games, not everyone got the message.

● Square Enix pulled a Facebook promotional app for Hitman: Absolution that invited fans to put a "hit" on one of their Facebook friends, allowing them to pick out an identifying feature of the person – for example small breasts, a small penis, or ginger hair – and send that target a video in which Agent 47 would study their Facebook profile, prepare a sniper rifle and then fire a single shot off screen. While the promotion would be in bad taste any year, 2012 had already seen international attention drawn to a series of suicides by teenagers who had been subjected to relentless bullying, making this controversy-baiting marketing campaign particularly ghoulish.

● The holidays are layoff season in the games industry, and 2012 had a ton of companies doling out severance packages instead of year-end bonuses, including NCsoft, Petroglyph, GREE, Trion Worlds, Machinima, Square Enix, Portalarium, Frontier, and Zynga. UK retailer Comet and Eurocom also shut down entirely.

● November's US game sales at retail were down 11% year-over-year despite having heavy hitting new releases in the chart-topping trio of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Halo 4, and Assassin's Creed 3.

● It's fascinating reading this interview we did with Chris Roberts about Star Citizen, because it seems like every other line comes across very differently in a world where the game still hasn't shipped a decade later and has racked up $536 million (and counting) in crowdfunding.

There's Roberts deciding to make the project PC only because the three-year dev cycle would put it in the early stages of a new console generation with a small installed base. And then there's his strategy on entertaining the audience "during the two years they'll be waiting for the game."

"I want to make the journey, for everyone that backed it, as fun as the actual game," Roberts said. "I want them to get to the point where they feel they got their money's worth before the finished game is actually released. That's a big priority for me."

There's even a bit near the end that talks about the difficulty of developing a game with an eye for it to take advantage of the cutting edge of PC hardware when it officially launches, which at the time was going to be 2014.

"I'm confident now that we'll be able to compete with any AAA game out there," Roberts said. "I can't do what I did with Freelancer, or what id did with Rage, and take five years to release it. At that point, the moment in time will be gone. But in two years, it will be pretty great."

Good Call, Bad Call

GOOD CALL: THQ president Jason Rubin said the company's December bankruptcy represented "a new start for our company." He was saying that believing that the company would be purchased kit-and-kaboodle by stalking horse bidder Clearlake Capital for $60 million, but that would only go through if the company could not raise as much by selling properties off piecemeal at auction. The auction topped $60 million and the company was split up.

As for why Rubin gets a Good Call, check out last month's column for a detailed rundown of how the various THQ brands and studios were scattered to the wind at auction and largely reassembled over the last decade by Nordic Games, known these days as Embracer Group.

GOOD CALL: Ubisoft's Tony Key said Just Dance would not share the same fate as the shelved Guitar Hero franchise because it was reflecting whatever was popular in dance music at the moment, whereas Guitar Hero relentlessly mined classic rock to the point of exhaustion. I would not have agreed with Key at the time, but Just Dance continues to be an annual staple for Ubisoft, and last year's edition debuted as the 11th best-selling game of November on the NPD charts. Sales for the series on the original Wii were even justifying annualized releases up through Just Dance 2020. (The last Wii U entry was Just Dance 2019.)

ALL THE CALLS: Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has never been shy about predictions, and his opening talk at the 2012 Digital Game Monetization Summit had a ton of them. Let's recap:

Pachter said the industry was overall really healthy and non-traditional forms of gaming would continue to thrive like they had in the past decade. Assuming he meant mobile and free-to-play and broad appeal "non-traditional" instead of motion controls "non-traditional," this one's a Good Call.

He said despite initial support at launch, third-party publishers would give up on the Wii U in a hurry. Pachter might have been surprised at just how quickly this one came true, with EA giving up on the system six months after launch. Good Call.

"Next-generation consoles are going to have big hard drives, they're also going to have disc drives." Good Call.

"I would guess that the PS4 and the Xbox 720 will have 2TB hard drives." Bad Call. Both the Xbox One and the PS4 would see 2TB models eventually, but the launch consoles only had 500GB.

Pachter said Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was a failure, explaining, "This multiplayer thing being free was a mistake. I don't think anybody ever envisioned it would be this big. It's a mistake because it keeps those people from buying and playing other games." Bad Call, although maybe Activision agreed with him because it certainly stopped making other games in the past decade. Its upcoming slate consists of nothing but Call of Duty projects and Crash Team Rumble.

He said Bungie's next game (the Activision-published Destiny) would be single-player only with the multiplayer being gated behind a subscription "because [Activision are] greedy pigs, and they're bold." Can't fault the logic, but it ended up a Bad Call nonetheless.

"I think Nintendo becomes completely irrelevant. They have their niche, Nintendo's first-party content is great content, and hardcore people will keep buying their consoles, but they're not going to only play with Nintendo consoles."

The Wii U tanked pretty thoroughly and 2015-2016 were probably as close as the company has come to irrelevant since it got into video games. But even then, the Nintendo brand was still relevant and valuable enough that the news it would be going into mobile gaming had investors eagerly buying up shares. And it's more obviously a Bad Call if you go slightly longer term to bring the Switch into the picture.

"I think the first thing Activision buys is Take-Two, because that fits in very nicely. Activision should buy Zynga - I just don't think Mark Pincus is a seller." Bad Calls. Activision did not buy Take-Two, and Pincus was the executive chairman at Zynga when it sold to Take-Two earlier this year.