Earlier this week, I commented on the narrative we keep hearing from some politicians every time there is a mass shooting: that video games, not guns, are to blame. My response was to reiterate what many researchers in science and academia have said—that blaming the video game industry is wrong. To video game companies, I said: Stand up for yourselves, and don’t let others steal your narrative. The facts, as discussed in publications like Vox, make the argument loud and clear.
As one of our TriplePundit writers reminded me in a recent email back-and-forth: “[Blaming video games] is a distraction from the real issue, which is guns. A radicalized person without access to guns can only do so much damage.”
Video games don't cause mass shootings, but do host mass chatter
Well, as with any argument, there is always a caveat—which is often forgotten in this politically polarized climate where everything is shouted as black and white with absolutely no shades of grey. Plus, no company wants to have politicians wag fingers at them, as finger wagging can eventually be followed by endless headlines and, naturally, policy changes—which is why there are reports that one retailer is cracking down on video game ads, yet will still sell guns.
To his credit, Kellen Klein, director at Future 500, pointed out something completely valid, and I’m glad he did. In an email exchange we had, he wrote:
“While it's true that there is no proven link between video games and violence, there is increasing evidence of a link between dialogue occurring on video game platforms and alt-right/nationalist/violent offline behavior.
“So while video game companies might justifiably argue that their actual games aren't encouraging mass shootings, I think some critics might not totally absolve them of responsibility.
“I can imagine a moment in the near future where stakeholders ramp up the pressure on video game companies to better monitor and control the dialogue that occurs on their platforms—similar to how they've gone after Facebook and other purveyors of online ‘connection.’
“The bottom line for me is that video game companies are increasingly looking like social media companies, and thus would be wise to learn from the mistakes of their big tech ‘peers.’”
Video game companies are an easy target, but . . .
Here’s one reason why I didn’t add that nuance to my article: The same talking heads and politicians who have made video games the straw man, including Fox News host John Scott, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, have conveniently left out the detail that there is more data indicating the links between gamers and heinous offline behavior. It could very well be that these same leaders are just ignorant (wouldn’t be the first time) of this trend—or they simply choose to ignore it because, in the end, it would undercut the argument they are trying to make to their political supporters. It’s pretty hard to say, “Video games are dangerous because some people, well, they may act out based on rhetoric we shout out in public.”
In hindsight, I should have brought up that point. I was wrong not to.
Klein’s point about video gaming companies coming close to following the same path as social media companies is well worth exploring. It’s true that part of the appeal of video games is the camaraderie that can develop while playing anything from Words With Friends (where you can chat with your friends' moms and dads) to Fortnite (where you can talk with your classmates or your pals in the office) to Assassin's Creed Odyssey (where you can engage with that weirdo who lurks in an undisclosed ZIP code).
Once upon a time, social media united the world
But remember that when the likes of Facebook and Twitter first emerged, they were first touted as tools to help unite and bring everyone in the world closer together. As we have seen, many feel the opposite has happened, as these services can tear us apart: If you have unfollowed people after they spouted opinions that made your skin crawl, just know that right now I can see you nodding your head in agreement.
There are countless reasons why social media platforms have found their reputations battered, including the fact that as they became trusted sources of news, they resisted any such regulations that apply to media companies, arguing that they were “technology” companies. The lobbying paid off and, well, we know how that played out.
In fact, it’s clear that social media companies have learned little, if anything at all, starting with Facebook’s tone-deaf decision to rebrand two of its assets as “WhatsApp From Facebook” and “Instagram From Facebook.” And while the response of many social media users is to migrate to different platforms to avoid any and all vitriol (or your parents' friends), the evidence suggests such moves may be in vain.
Instagram: Far more than selfies
Take Instagram, which for many users is seen as a safe haven from the annoying VagueBooking (you know, the people on Facebook who say “I’m having a bad day” as it’s your job to feed their attention-seeking and ask what’s wrong) to even worse, the public shaming, not to mention the conspiracy theories including Hillary Clinton’s nefarious luring of little kids with pizza.
So you think Instagram is safe, cause after all, it’s just food, memes, selfies, abs, duck lips and pets, right? Well, not so fast. There’s no shortage of evidence suggesting the photo-sharing site hosts its share of white nationalism, alt-right conspiracy theories and other hateful behavior. Facebook has said it is working to ban such content, but once again, describing these policies as reactive is an understatement at best.
The video game industry would be wise to learn from social media companies’ ongoing failings. This discussion is hardly new. In early 2018, the head of Xbox called for more inclusive gaming and urged the sector to monitor the tone of online spaces they had helped launch. And last fall, a contributor to The Hill suggested gaming companies put teeth into their terms of service as well as disclose any data related to hate speech occurring within their virtual worlds.
It’s ridiculous enough games like Fortnite have been linked to marriages breaking up; it should not take a senseless act of violence strongly linked to chatter on video game platforms to have gaming companies take stronger action. It’s better for companies to actually enforce what’s in the small print, rather than to have find their reputation in tatters after a tragedy.