Column: The Player: Yes, Trump is wrong to blame video games for mass shootings, but it’s complicated

President Trump
President Donald Trump speaks about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019.
(Evan Vucci / AP )

Hours after the dual mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, President Trump and other Republicans trotted out an old political nemesis: video games. Trump blasted the medium as “gruesome and grisly,” citing games as leading to a “glorification of violence.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy took a similar stance on Fox News.

It’s unlikely that Trump and other political leaders who are targeting interactive entertainment have spent significant time as gamers, but they certainly understand one common video game tactic: distraction.

In any number of major games, a player can bypass enemies by creating a diversion. If one, say, is facing an army of villains, throw something — anything, even a coin will do — and watch them all go scurrying toward the meaningless object. The player then can bypass the conflict and carry on.

Politicians may not understand video games but they display a mastery of game-design theory, having become experts in the art of deflection when forced to confront uncomfortable realities. So while the concept of violent games leading to real-life violence has been disproven time and again — recently with a study from the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute, which found no link between gameplay and aggressive behavior — we continue to play in an arena with those who insist the opposite.


That’s not to say that the world of gaming, specifically certain communities within the gaming sector, are as pure as Princess Peach. The gaming industry deserves the right to defend itself against out-of-touch politicians trotting out obvious falsehoods, but some inner reflection is also long overdue.

A toxic and vocal segment of gaming fandom helped the online forum and often hate-driven community 8chan flourish, which is linked not only with the accused El Paso shooter but with the deadly shootings at two New Zealand mosques and a synagogue in Poway, near San Diego. Language used by some in the gaming sector, namely the idea that so-called “social justice warriors,” feminists and those with political agendas are ruining games, is similar to the talking points of the alt-right, which added fire to the Breitbart News-endorsed, 2014 movement known as Gamergate.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: How Gamergate trolls helped set Trump’s political attack playbook

Gamergate advocates, who first found a home in the online community 4chan before migrating to 8chan, argued that gaming journalists were corrupt — “fake news,” more or less — and were colluding to bring a politically correct makeover to the medium. Their crass jokes and ironic, at best, view of race, politics and culture reeked of a sickening good ol’ boys club, a community fostered on lazy, ignorant jokes and fear, the bulk of what unites many 8chan users today.

But the gaming industry shouldn’t consider itself without blame for this development. Gamergaters, after all, were often parodying the content sold to them. Who can forget this nugget of “Grand Theft Auto V” satire: “I don’t care if you’re 12, I’ll still rape you,” one character shouts early in the game while playing a fictional game-within-a-game titled “Molested.”

No wonder Stephen K. Bannon, who once oversaw Breitbart News and served as Trump’s campaign chief executive, took a liking to Gamergate. Here, he saw a group overwhelmingly made up of men who believed their worldview was threatened not just by the media but by anyone bored with the lack of diversity, extreme violence or juvenile jokes in many games. We were, more or less, coming for their guns, even if they were digital.

“You can activate that army,” Bannon told journalist Joshua Green, author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency.” “They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned on to politics and Trump.”


While game content and game players are today more diverse than ever — with the medium just this summer home to terrific works such as the Shakespeare-inspired “Elsinore” or the interactive essay on loneliness and alienation that is “198X” — the dark corners of the internet often amplify long-outdated clichés, namely that the game community is a place for angry white men who love their digital guns and overtly sexist imagery.

But if the game publishers don’t court such an audience, they certainly don’t make much of an effort to denounce it. There was little widespread condemnation of Gamergate, despite the fact that numerous female developers were long subject to online harassment. But actions speak louder than words and violent, gun-focused games still dominate. A number of major developers continue to kowtow to entitled players by insisting there’s no message (read: artistic point of view) in their content.

In June, Ubisoft stated on its company site that while its games (“Assassin’s Creed” or the upcoming Tom Clancy title “Ghost Recon Breakpoint”) may touch on topical subjects, there is no political message. The company’s argument is that “games should offer a 360-degree view of life, should let people interact with all points of view.” But with echoes of Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” line after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly, this plays into a broken and dangerous idea that every viewpoint deserves equal footing and airtime.

Such rhetoric reinforces the idea and the public’s misperception that games are not a mature medium. Earlier this year, a game creator with Irvine’s Microsoft-owned Obsidian Entertainment went out of his way to stress to game publication VGC that the upcoming “The Outer Worlds,” considered one of the most anticipated games of the year, would only nod to political issues: “I don’t want people to think this is a really hard, politically charged game: It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be humorous.”

It may very well be a fun game, but that sort of statement is pandering, cowering to a fear of internet backlash that “SJWs” are injecting politics into their games. It’s one way to avoid a potential controversy.

Outside the moments of national reflection that usually follow mass shootings, games are ignored by much of the mainstream media. Non-game- and tech-focused outlets often cover them as a business rather than a cultural force. Thus, any unwanted attention can be viewed as a public relations disaster. A new “Call of Duty,” for instance, isn’t met with the wide-scale analysis and Twitter debates of, say, a film such as “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” though it absolutely warrants it, especially when the franchise aims to more accurately reflect modern conflict.

At this summer’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, I asked several game executives what game biz story they thought was being overlooked, and many had a variation of the same answer: I don’t know, but much of what is out there about our medium is too negative.

Such a response can justify an eye roll. What entertainment executive wouldn’t want all their company’s products to be reviewed positively? And wouldn’t it be nice if media stopped looking into wages and worker conditions?

But they were also right in some respects.

Spend some time on the Internet and you’ll find a good deal of what’s said or written about games to be toxic, sexist and downright vitriolic. It often doesn’t matter the topic. An indie game studio that recently chose to release its charming game “Ooblets” exclusively via the Epic Games Store for a limited time has been met with a vicious online hate campaign, with some in the game community asking for the developer’s heads. All because some prefer a different store.

“It’s hard to see the effects or scope of what a massive mob of online harassment is doing to someone until you’re on the receiving end of it,” the developers posted on Medium, including multiple screenshots of the offensively racist remarks they’ve received simply for trying to create awareness around their game.

But hate first, questions later, is standard operating procedure for a segment of the gaming world.

When the bulk of the industry’s blockbuster products involve endless shooting and bucketloads of violence — and are released amid constant pledges from major studios that they contain no artistic statements and exist only for fun — why would its customers be expected to react with nuance?

It may not be the industry’s job to police its players but, just as social media platforms and service providers have had to reconsider their roles in the spread of hate speech, game studios need to recognize they are part of that conversation. Even without a correlation between games and real-life violence, game content and game communities are very much shaping our cultural narrative.