Video Games Remain an Easy Out For Politicians, But Change Will Come With Time

When will politicians and thought-leaders understand video games?

The inauguration of Donald J. Trump at the United States Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Credit: Doug Mills/Getty Images

This week, some mix of representatives for the U.S. video game industry will bundle up their studies on violence, charts showing off economic impact and global reach, explainers for ratings systems and maybe even a game or two to meet with President Donald Trump.

The meeting is ostensibly about what the game industry can do to help with the prevalent issue of gun violence in America and the seemingly constant threat of school shootings – despite any correlation between the two.

But really this meeting – the second with White House leadership about video games and violence in about half a decade – is about once more explaining to the powerful, but vastly uninformed what a video game is.

No, they're not just for kids. Yes, they've moved beyond the playful bits and nonsense of Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Mario Bros. No, they don't cause violence. Yes, they can be for good, both in shaping opinion and expressing powerful ideas.

The game industry meeting with President Trump is a reminder that despite the booming economy of making and selling games, despite the near-ubiquity of playing games and despite the view – earned through both great works and a Supreme Court decision – that games are art, video games are somehow still considered pop-culture adjacent by many of those in power, bits of child's play wrapped in big numbers and fancy graphics.

When Good Morning America's first discussion of games in recent memory – if ever – is about a fascination with the time spent playing them and what bad they can do; when savvy NRA-approved politicians can still subvert a potentially historic, national conversation about the circle of death and guns that threaten to drown America by pointing to video games; when a medium backed by more than $100 billion in revenue and enjoyed by 2.6 billion people worldwide struggles to find mainstream coverage in mainstream publications, it's clear that an aging or disconnected few are doing the most important form of expression for a generation a great disservice.

How is it – as we near the seventieth anniversary of video games – that they're still not fully understood or appreciated by so many in power?

To some degree, you can blame the same company that saved video games for perhaps ever dooming them as a form of child's play. Nintendo started life as a card company and then evolved into a toy company and to this day, I think it still views and presents its creations through that lens. Formed in 1889, Nintendo Koppai produced and sold Hanafuda cards. By 1972, Nintendo was tinkering with electronic games. Then, in 1985, the company found a window of opportunity with the video game recession that sidelined Atari and most of the North American video game market. Nintendo brought the Nintendo Entertainment System to the U.S., but it didn't arrive as a video game console, rather it was branded as a toy. The company, dealing with retailers wary of being burned again by video game consoles, marketed their game console in the U.S. with a plastic robot called ROB and sold retailers on the idea that what they were stocking store shelves with was more of an electronic toy than a video game console.

While Nintendo dropped the ruse once the NES proved a mammoth success, the notion of the NES as a toy and Nintendo as the synonym for video games had been cemented by widespread media coverage. In the years since, Nintendo hasn't overtly called any of their systems toys. But the notion is always lurking in the background, for better or worse. The company has a long history of creating toy-like interactions with its systems, notably with the Wii and it’s motion-controls. Most recently, the Nintendo Labo turns the company's vastly popular Nintendo Switch into the heart of a series of cardboard toys.

Enter a generation of now-leaders who either were parents or disinterested children during Nintendo’s introduction of the NES. For them, when they hear video games they think Nintendo. When they see video games, though, they are more likely to see Call of Duty or Fortnite or Battlefield. The disconnect between those 1980s toy-like creations and today's realism-approaching, gun-centric mainstays lead to an uncanny view of what they believe a video game should be and what a big, popular video game often is.

There is a culture war being waged in America that fights against the notion that video games are nuanced, interactive pieces of expression...

The result is often the perhaps unintentional lessening of games: An idea that games should be toys designed to be played by children and that in some way they are sacrosanct, that because they are child's play, they should be kept free of any entanglements with difficult, sometimes violent realities. And then these hazy views of what a game should be are confronted by the reality of what the big money makers are: often titles that deal with death and death-dealing.

All of this isn't to make an excuse for the out of touch who have somehow managed to boil down a vast, complex, artistic unbounded industry into the single-decade creations of one company. Rather, it’s to try and elucidate why it is that the video game industry seems to keep finding itself standing in front of powerful people explaining the same things over and over again. 

There is a culture war being waged in America that fights against the notion that video games are nuanced, interactive pieces of expression that can be and should be anything a creator wants to make them. Does that include toys? Sure. But also an unsettling creation for pigs meant for slaughter. Or a means of escape and communication in a tightly-held communist country. Or an over-the-top first-person shooter. Or a valuable tool for treating phantom limb syndrome. Or a hack-and-slash role-playing game. Or FDA-approved video game prescriptions.

Three years ago, former game developer and scientific visionary Gilman Louie warned that video games were losing this culture war in America. He noted that while the Entertainment Software Association has done a great job of winning over many on the hill, the battle for the hearts and minds of the public continues almost unabated.

This week's post-Parkland, Florida school shooting meeting with Trump highlights that little has changed since those post-Sandy Hook shooting comments by Louie. But it also serves as a chance to highlight a hopeful reminder that many important changes are inevitable, and that it's only a matter of time. It's a generational truism best summed up by something outspoken Douglas High student David Hogg said to critics unhappy with the much more important change around gun laws that survivors of the shooting are trying to spark in America: "You might as well stop now because we're going to outlive you."