Critical Intel

Changing Tactics in the Violence Debate


It’s no use denying that games have an image problem. Since the heartbreaking bloodshed at Sandy Hook, games have been under the strongest sustained criticism for their violent content since the Senate hearings of the early 1990s. And, let’s face it, though research has failed to find a link between virtual and real-world violence, a recent Harris poll found that 58% of Americans still believe videogames contribute to violent behavior in teenagers. Clearly we as gamers, industry, and press, have a long road ahead of us if we hope to turn those numbers around. But to do that, we can no longer sit in the lobby, silently spectating as others play CTF with our future. Putting up a strong defense and hoping it blows over isn’t going to work anymore. If we want to protect our medium from censorship, we need to go on the offensive – we need to outsmart, out-lobby and out-argue our opponents until they either rage quit or switch teams. Here are some ideas for doing that – it’s not a plan of action and it’s not comprehensive, but it’s a way to start the conversation.

Sell the Medium and Break Stereotypes

Back in 2011 I argued that cinematic trailers have evolved to the point where they now sell the game’s story or mood rather than its gameplay. There are some negative aspects to this trend, but on the upside, it reinforces the industry’s claim that videogames aren’t toys but rather a form of storytelling, deserving of the same considerations and protections as movies, novels and plays. Cinematic trailers are also how most non-gamers experience videogames, and with game ads airing during prime time and sports broadcasts, marketers aren’t just selling a game to consumers, they’re selling the medium to non-gamers. While Gears of War‘s “Mad World” trailer or Halo‘s live action short films like “Believe” and “Deliver Hope” don’t have much to do with the actual games they’re selling, they evangelize the medium and spread the message that even violent games have more going on under the hood than mindless butchery. Though accidental up to this point, it might profit us to consider how trailers represent us in the public eye and whether we can craft that image going forward. Industry PR needs to think hard about running ads like the Dead Space 2 “Your Mom Will Hate It” campaign and consider whether the industry as a whole is well-represented by their ads.

Another tactic, already well underway, is to create characters in other media that break the traditional stereotypes about gamers and their lifestyle. Consider Frank Underwood of Netflix’s House of Cards. Frank is a successful man, a Washington powerbroker who holds the reigns of government from behind the scenes, making and breaking other politicians at will. When he’s had a stressful day at the office he does one of three things: either he eats Carolina BBQ, smokes cigarettes while staring out a window or plays FPSs on his PS3. (Aggressive product placement, along with impeccable writing and acting, is the holy trinity of House of Cards.) I’m not sure whose idea it was to put Sony devices in the show, but it was brilliant. Kevin Spacey gets an excuse to play against type and we get a show where the protagonist is a gamer without also being a stereotyped nerd or an underdeveloped man-child. Though sometimes it comes off a little awkward – time seems to slow down as Spacey’s southern accent negotiates around the phrase Is thaht a Pee-Ess Vee-tah? – the way Underwood dips into a game for an hour after a day at the office is actually pretty close to the lifestyle of most gamers in their 20s and 30s.

I’d love to see more characters like this. The less we’re stereotyped in media, the more people will realize that gaming is a perfectly normal activity that doesn’t make you a malcontent, lazy or any of the other charges pundits heap on us.

Get Game Journalists On CNN

Part of the problem is we don’t have the best advocates to defend against the talking heads. When someone appears on behalf of games on CNN or the morning shows, they’re either industry people who come off as biased financially or someone who stammers through their explanation with a wide-eyed expression that says, “Holy shit I’m on live TV.” Usually they blow their talking points because of the short time limit or pressure from the host or other commentators. And that’s assuming the person “defending” games has actually played them at all – I’ve seen plenty of shows where no one was speaking on behalf of gamers and the industry. I’ve seen others where the “expert” seemed like someone they yanked out of the IT department two minutes beforehand.

The best commentaries on videogame violence have all been from game journalists, and these days it’s easier than ever to get a writer on one of the point-counterpoint shows -Penny Arcade Report has a relationship with NBC, Kotaku reviews run in the New York Times and Ars Technica journalists are practically a lending library for NPR. These people are articulate and can communicate the nuances of the violence debate, both by laying out the evidence and also talking about the backlash against mindless violence within the game community. After all, if FOX News runs a segment on game violence, wouldn’t you want someone representing you who tan talk about the more thoughtful treatments of game violence like Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 3? Or remind the host that games have protection under the First Amendment? How about pointing out StarCraft and Dynasty Warriors aren’t exactly games that would inspire a mass shooting?

Hell, I would.

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Talk To Your Family About Gaming’s Big Ideas

A lot of these suggestions are about what the industry can do, or what people can do collectively, but there’s one thing you can personally do to help this situation: Have a reasoned discussion with your family about what games mean to you. Talk about the power of the medium and what you gain from it in a way they can understand. Let them know a little about your favorite games, but instead of telling them what those games let you do, tell them how they make you feel. Open up discussions about the big ideas behind BioShock, or the argument between centralized and distributed power in Assassin’s Creed, maybe even talk about the historical events you learned about through Call of Duty or Rome: Total War. These are unifying ideas that anyone can understand, and avoid the physical act of gameplay serving as a divider between player and non-player. In my private life, I found that a deeper discussion of games can turn skeptics into converts even if they never pick up a controller. My parents, my fiancée and my co-workers may not be populating servers, but they’ve all come to understand that games can carry emotional and intellectual heft. People who see games in a more complex light are less likely to head for the torches and pitchforks when a pundit cries wolf.

We Need to Start Acting Like a Special Interest Group

“Special interest group” has taken on a dirty connotation recently, but at its heart the term means nothing more than a group of people who encourage or oppose public policy. That’s what we are – we’re a group that’s opposed to censoring games or blaming them for violence without scientific evidence proving causation. We need to run with that and not be afraid of it. While videogames do have their lobby groups in Washington, including the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and Entertainment Consumer Association (ECA), those groups have limited influence in comparison to better-funded groups like the NRA. And it should be noted that sometimes these groups find themselves in opposition to average gamers while advocating industry policies – the ESA, for instance, spent over a million dollars supporting PIPA.

However, putting past differences behind us, a united front between industry and consumers could put a lot of targeted pressure on individual legislators. Picture a one-two punch of lobbyists arguing for a billion-dollar industry and a grassroots campaign organized via the internet. Calls to anti-game legislators from voters in their district. Questions at town hall meetings. Recasting games not only as entertainment and art but as an economic force that creates jobs in the tech sector. After all, do you think Nancy Pelosi defends games because she plays SimCity? She represents San Francisco and her voters work in technology industries, meaning she’s accountable to her constituents — just like your elected leaders are accountable to you. However, our greatest power would be to deploy as a voting bloc. Gamers are overwhelmingly young, and the youth vote is powerful but unpredictable swing demographic that helped decide the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012. Attempts to censor media and the internet tend to galvanize young voters – meaning if we got organized enough, we could wreck the poll numbers in congressional races and make legislators rethink using games as a scapegoat. Establishing such a voting bloc would be difficult, but there’s only one thing politicians fear as much as offending reliable groups like the elderly – and that’s turning off unpredictable swing voters through minor policies like game censorship.

Remember That This Is Temporary

Recently, the world got its first world leader who’s a confirmed gamer – Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea. He’s not the only political figure who games either. Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads the anti-coalition bloc in the Council of Representatives of Iraq, as well as heading the paramilitary Mahdi Army, played so many videogames in seminary he earned the nickname “Mullah Atari” and essentially dropped out after falling behind in his studies. What these two have in common is that they grew up with games and are in political organizations – one a dictatorship, the other an insurgency – that allow relatively young men to take leadership positions. In a decade, it’s likely that democratic governments in countries around the world (whose politicians tend to be older and more experienced) will have a number of legislators who are gamers, much like Colorado Representative Jared Polis, an active League of Legends player who helped rally opposition to SOPA and PIPA on League forums. As today’s thirty-something gamers become tomorrow’s highly electable forty-something candidates, we’ll hear less and less about videogame violence as it’s stored into the closet of faded and abandoned boogeymen – alongside gangsta rap, slasher films and metal.

Then, maybe we can have a real conversation about the causes of violence.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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