March 8, 2018

Trump Ignores Facts and First Amendment to Create Scapegoat in Video Games

President Trump in a meeting with leaders of the steel and aluminum industries at the White House last week. / Win McNamee, Getty Images

By Domenico Montanaro / 03.08.2018

Since Columbine nearly 20 years ago, the conversation after mass shootings has inevitably included media that depicts violence — and its effect on children.

While Democrats focus on gun restrictions, conservatives often home in on music and video games — from Marilyn Manson to Grand Theft Auto — that are sometimes enigmas to parents.

“Unproven and emotionally driven gun control legislation is a common and simplistic response to gun-related tragedies, but such lawmaking usually fails to address the underlying problem,” Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican, wrote in 2013, for example, following the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “We must have a meaningful conversation about mental health issues and other possible cultural and societal contributors to violent behavior, such as violence in video games.”

On Thursday, that debate takes center stage — and maybe a place live on cable news — once again in the Trump White House.

The president has invited executives from the video-game industry, including the makers of games like Grand Theft Auto and Fallout, which have some violent themes. Fallout, for example, is a realistic game that has gone through several series (and even has a trailer) that depicts a post-apocalyptic world, following a nuclear blast.

But in addition to the video game industry, President Trump also invited some of that industry’s harshest critics, from Congress, like Hartzler, and outside.

“I like conflict,” Trump said Tuesday, addressing staff turnover at the White House. “I like people with two different points of view. I like watching it, I like seeing it. And I think it’s the best way to go.”

Drama is certainly good for ratings. The former TV reality-show star knows that. But those shows have editors and producers who keep a narrative consistent, as NPR’s Tamara Keith noted Thursday.

Trump was always something of a wild card on The Apprentice, producer Bill Pruitt noted.

“We needed a consistent story,” he told Keith. “We needed a surprise at the end. But not the kind of surprise that would involve somebody unrelated to the task, unrelated to the failure getting fired.”

But Trump didn’t always follow the script, Pruitt noted. “And I can imagine that just like the producers whose individual episodes were playing out in that board room,” he said, “there’s some policy advisor sitting off in the wings way off camera who’s been prompting and prepping Mr. Trump to have a certain line of questioning, a certain line of dialogue go down in a certain way and it just goes off the rails.”

It’s not the first time Trump has tried a boardroom-style, made-for-TV meeting. Remember, he did it on immigration and guns, and — without a producer or editor — viewers, a.k.a. lawmakers and regular Americans, were left confused.

No meaningful progress came of either session.

For all the talk of optics, these issues matter to real people and have the potential to affect their lives. On violent media, for example, the debate is wrapped up in guns and it’s highly controversial.

After the Parkland shooting, Trump said, in part, “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”

He also more pointedly boasted on Twitter in 2012 that video games are “creating monsters.”

So the president is setting up a fight, and it’s clear which side he’s on. But the scientific community has not come down definitively on whether violent video games cause criminal violence.

On the one hand, the American Psychological Association found a link between the games and real-life aggression.

“The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression,” a report by the APA Task Force on Violent Media concluded in 2013.

But that’s hardly the end of the story.

“Scientists have investigated the use of violent video games for more than two decades,” wrote Mark Appelbaum, the task force’s chairman, “but to date, there is very limited research addressing whether violent video games cause people to commit acts of criminal violence.”

The industry argues that millions of children play these games, and obviously not all of them commit criminal acts of violence.

In fact, the APA report notes:

“No single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently. Rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior. The research reviewed here demonstrates that violent video game use is one such risk factor.”

Since then, a study released just this past January from researchers at the University of York “found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.”

Science Daily noted:

“In a series of experiments, with more than 3,000 participants, the team demonstrated that video game concepts do not ‘prime’ players to behave in certain ways and that increasing the realism of violent video games does not necessarily increase aggression in game players.”

But scientists agreed that more study was needed.

After Newtown, President Obama also proposed increasing funding for research into violent video games and their potential influence. But the difference is Obama was also pushing for stricter gun measures, like a ban on high-capacity magazines.

After seeming open to lots of ideas on guns in his last televised meeting — and still appearing to be in favor of certain limitations, like banning bump stocks and raising the age to purchase all guns to 21 — Trump has not pushed for anything of substance yet.

Republican congressional leaders, smarting from what they saw as the president siding more with Democrats, have pushed off gun legislation indefinitely — until they get more clarity.

Originally published by NPR, reprinted with permission for non-commercial purposes.