On February 14th 2018, the United States of America was rocked by another school shooting. The event, taking place in Parkland, Florida, has sparked a national outcry. That is not the purpose of this article. The topic of this article is the discussion that has been sparked by this travesty. The bodies of the 17 fallen students were still warm when the two major political parties took to the cameras to use this incident for their own political gain. Republicans and Democrats started their age-old dance of the Republicans trying to stall a conversation about Gun Control, and Democrats lined up to call for stricter measures. Both parties have rehearsed this performance dozens of times over the years, and all the while, nothing ever changes. This time, however, some wrinkles have emerged, with the victims starting a massive Twitter-based backlash that has caused lawmakers to take some notice. The NRA, however, and the Republican Party they speak behind the protection of, have tried to dust off one of their favorite diversionary tactics: a moral panic, and what target do these zealots love more than any other? The answer will not surprise you: Video Games.
An unwelcome blast from the past.
Let’s talk for a moment about video gaming’s boogeyman: Jack Thompson. A conservative lawyer from Florida, Mr. Thompson seized on video games after various controversies regarding violent depictions in video games as an easy target to create distractions. Video games are a new medium in entertainment, and in their infancy, they were mainly marketed toward children. This created a misconception in the mind of the public to this day that video games are for children. Even though the ESRB, an industry board that age-rates video game content, was established in 1994 in response to similar outcries, controversies about video games still almost universally take the tone of “protecting the children”, children have only ever been a small percentage of the audience for video games, which has led to games being made for different age groups, with different sensibilities. However, Jack Thompson took a slightly different tack, one that would change how this conversation would be couched to this day. In response to a school shooting in 1997, in which the perpetrator, a 14 year old boy, played violent video games, Jack Thompson attempted to spin the entire case such that video games were the real culprits of the violence. He called video games “Murder Simulators”, said that the perpetrators of mass violence “trained extensively” to commit their heinous acts in popular video games, particularly the “Grand Theft Auto” series, “Bully”, and “Manhunt”.
He was incredibly skilled at whipping up family groups and playing off fears of a new form of entertainment poisoning the youth. That all came to an end in 2008, when finally, a career of unprofessional and borderline illegal behavior finally caught up with him, and he was permanently disbarred. The damage, however was done. It was not lost on right-wing advocacy groups the chaos that these distractions caused, and as such, these tactics have come up whenever they need a distraction from an issue.
Back to now.
In the wake of the Parkville shooting, where 34 were killed or injured, the debate around America’s extremely loose gun laws has become incredibly fierce. Conservative groups advocating loose restrictions, if any, around firearms, most notably the NRA, have been losing ground to angry citizens. Corporations have ditched the NRA in droves, many retailers are making pledges to stop carrying certain hot-button firearms, such as the AR-15, and at least Florida has passed a conciliatory law to restrict firearm sales. As a result, these groups are desperate, and losing the support that really matters, from lawmakers. With their backs against the wall, those lawmakers and groups under siege have reached for their most reliable card in the deck: deflect the culprit to video games. Donald Trump, the President, as well as several close to him, have been trying to copy Thompson’s tactics, right down to the language, with Dave Grossman even using the term “murder simulators” in a recent Variety article. Grossman, a retired Army Lt. Colonel, is the second coming of Jack Thompson, with his arguments, lack of evidence, and perfidiousness eerily mirroring those of his predecessor. He has recently gained some footing, having been invited to a recent meeting with the President and several lawmakers, along with several other anti-video game activists, as well as several leading industry figures, including Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive, and Patricia Vance, President of the ESRB. This was little more than a thinly veiled attempt to blame video games for the massacre, and was recognized almost immediately as such, but in today’s political climate, that doesn’t matter. The debate is sparked, and unless the nation can get a hold on it in time, it will do exactly what it was designed to do: take the pressure off conservative groups and shift the conversation away from gun control.
I started this website to talk about things that I liked and didn’t in the industry and culture around video gaming, but those topics are becoming inextricable from the all-consuming black hole that is American politics. As I also have interests in this area, I have tried long and hard to keep politics away from here. That being said, I feel that it’s time to begin adding political stories. Given the prevalence of politics in everyday American life, it is becoming impossible to talk about some of the issues surrounding video games without addressing the cultural context in which they exist. As such, We’re expanding. I look forward to meeting any new readers.