Representatives of the video game industry and its critics met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday to rehash a long-standing argument about whether violence on the screen encourages gamers to be violent in the real world.
The meeting was closed to the press, but a University of Utah expert on video games said the guest list showed that the conversation was more about politics than hard science.
“I didn’t see any serious academic researchers,” said Jose Zagal, associate professor in the U.’s Department of Entertainment Arts and Engineering.
If there were researchers in attendance, Zagal said, they could have told Trump about the lack of evidence showing that people who watch violence in video games become violent enough to kill in the real world — an argument that Trump floated after the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“People have been trying to find a link for easily 20 years now, and no such link has been found,” Zagal said. “Whether people who are violent also play violent video games, that’s another question.”
A statement by the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group for the video game industry, said its representatives “discussed the numerous scientific studies establishing that there is no connection between video games and violence, First Amendment protection of video games, and how our industry’s rating system effectively helps parents make informed entertainment choices.”
Melissa Henson, program director of the Parents Television Council, a conservative media watchdog, was also in attendance. “What I heard in today’s meeting is that the entertainment industry is still fighting to maintain the status quo and is not ready or willing to confront the impact that media violence has on our children,” Henson said in a statement.
While both sides lined up their talking points, Zagal noted that some video game creators have been tackling issues of violence and its effects in their gameplay “in the same way you make an anti-war war movie.”
Zagal cited “Spec Ops: The Line,” a 2012 third-person-shooter game he said was inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and that movie’s source material, Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness.”
“It shows a soldier’s slow descent into madness,” Zagal said. Through the game play, he added, “the underlying message is the horrors of war and what it does to the psyche.”
Another game popular with teens is “Undertale,” a fantasy adventure in which players take the role of a human child who encounters strange, sometimes evil, creatures in a subterranean lair called the Underground.
The default setting in “Undertale” is a “neutral” run, in which the player tries to make it through with a minimum of killing. There are two other settings: a “pacifist run,” in which the player must complete the game without killing any characters; and a “genocide run,” in which the player kills everything in his or her path. After a “genocide run,” though, the game remembers, and the presence of an evil character lingers every time the game is played from then on.
“You can’t go back,” Zagal said. “It’s effective because it replaces real people with fantasy creatures. It becomes more palatable as media, but there’s still something to think about.”
At Spy Hop Productions, a Salt Lake City organization that teaches teens how to create their own media, students sometimes tackle issues of violence and its aftermath, said Executive Director Kasandra VerBrugghen.
Spy Hop’s classes in film, music and video games, VerBrugghen said, form around “this idea that we help young people become active producers of their own narrative, instead of passive consumers of someone else’s.”
In Spy Hop’s video game classes, there are some rules, she said, like, “there’s no misogyny allowed.” But “we don’t just say ‘no,’ we say, ‘let’s figure this out.’ What are you trying to do with this game? It makes them think more critically.”
Zagal said video games are the latest in a long line of media to take the rap for society’s ills. “In the past, it’s been comic books and rock ’n’ roll and rap music,” he said. “And for the ancient Greeks, it was theater.”