Thursday's meeting between President Donald Trump and the video game industry includes just four industry members and a number of outspoken critics of the medium.
The list, released to the press today and posted by CNN's Jake Tapper, doesn't have a single scientist or researcher in the field of video games and violence, but does include retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression and the Psychology of Killing. It also includes the founder of Media Research Center Brent Bozell and Melissa Henson, a spokesperson for the Parents Television Council. All are outspoken critics of violence and video games.
The video game industry members attending are the heads of the ESA and ESRB as well as Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive, and Robert Altman, chairman of ZeniMax Media. Members of Congress in attendance will include Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl), Representative Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) and Representative Martha Roby (R-Al)
The meeting will be to "discuss violent video-game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children," according to the White House description of the 2 p.m. ET meeting. This meeting will be the first of many with industry leaders to discuss this important issue, according to the White House.
Both the ESA's Michael Gallagher and the ESRB's Patricia Vance have a long history of debating and defending the First Amendment rights of video games and the efficacy of the game industry's rating system. Zelnick and Take-Two, which owns Rockstar Games, also is familiar with the debate, after being shoved into the center of both issues while publishing Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt titles as well as Bully. While Altman hasn't been particularly outspoken in defense of video games publicly, he was among those in attendance during 2013's meeting with then vice president Joe Biden to discuss essentially the same topic. ZeniMax also happens to have Trump's brother, Robert Trump, on the board of directors.
Those attending the meeting who are not a part of the video game industry each have a long history of opposition to violence in video games and how the current ESRB ratings system works.
In his book Assassination Generation, Grossman argues that video games that "depict antisocial, misanthropic, casually savage behavior can warp the mind - with potentially deadly results." Grossman, who describes himself as an expert in "killology," is a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army. After retiring he formed the Killology Research Group to educate law enforcement and soldiers about how to improve outcomes in lethal encounters.
His arguments – which lean heavily on the idea that video games are a chief element of why children kill – have been called simplistic and negligent in reviews, which point out the mountain of scientific research that seems to refute his theories and some basic common sense arguments which point to the fact that, while the same video games are widely available around the world, it is the United States that has the issue of school shootings.
Bozell, who currently serves on the board for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, founded the Media Research Center in 1987 to "prove through sound scientific research that liberal bias in the media does exist and undermines traditional American values." Bozell is a vocal critic of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which he thinks fails to fully inform parents about the content of games – a medium that he says is "increasingly raunchy and bloody."
Henson directs the Parents Television Council's Advertiser Accountability Campaign, which encourages companies to sponsor family-friendly entertainment. She previously led research and program content analysis operations creating a number of studies for the group that document what it calls the "levels of graphic sex, violence and profanity on television." Those reports include: The Ratings Sham I & II, Dying to Entertain, Faith in a Box, The Sour Family Hour, The Blue Tube, and TV Bloodbath.
In a column published Wednesday by the Parents Television Council, the group urged the entertainment industry to stop marketing violence to children.
"As the White House and other leaders work to confront societal gun violence, we hope that they will demand meaningful change from the entertainment industry, which presents dress rehearsals for gun violence on TV, in the movies, and in violent video games," PTC President Tim Winter is quoted as saying in the article. "It's unacceptable for an industry that profits so heavily from gun violence to wring their hands of any responsibility for its products."
"Given the thousands of research reports, spanning several decades, demonstrating the potential harm to children from violent media, we are calling on all television networks to rate graphic violence – particularly gun violence – with TV-MA [mature audiences only]. That seems like a great, and fair, first step to help protect children from harmful content. Additionally, we are calling on the networks to give serious thought and consideration towards reducing the nightly portrayals of gun violence so as to not provide a dress rehearsal for real-life tragedy. And corporate advertisers must be held to account for the media dollars underwriting today’s toxic media environment."
In a paper released this month, the Parents Television Council placed blame for school shootings directly on the entertainment industry: "Hollywood, and particularly the television industry, is offering America's children a nightly blueprint, or dress rehearsal, for the violence that is committed in the nation’s school halls with troubling frequency. Hollywood stands at the very nadir of hypocrisy: so many voices in Hollywood, from actors to writers to producers, loudly condemn gun violence; but are unwilling to condemn their own industry for promoting a culture of violence."
None of the anti-gaming critics invited to meet with Trump address the decades of research that seems to disprove any correlation between playing video games and acting out violence in the real world.
Patrick M. Markey, a professor of psychology at Villanova University, and Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor at Stetson University, both authors of Moral Combat: Why the War on Video Games Is Wrong, recently wrote an opinion piece for Glixel detailing the numerous studies which show that video games and school shootings or violence in society aren't linked. Neither were invited to attend the Trump meetings.
"At present we know that the majority of scholars who study video games are skeptical of links with violence in society," they wrote. "Only about 10 to 15 percent of scholars believe in such links, indicating this is clearly the minority opinion. What is more interesting is that age is a strong predictor of attitudes among scholars. Older scholars and those who don’t like kids are more likely to believe violent games are bad. In 2013 a group of over 230 scholars wrote to the American Psychological Association expressing concern that the APA should no longer release statements implying links between violent games and societal aggression. And in 2017 the APA’s own Media Psychology division released a policy statement requesting that politicians ... refrain from making these kinds of claims."
Markey also notes that studies have show that the typical school shooter is actually three times less likely to play violent video games than the average high school student.
The game industry has long operated a voluntary ratings system through the Entertainment Software Rating Board. In 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that video games are protected by the First Amendment.
The meetings come at a time when Trump and the NRA have faced an increasing demand to limit access to certain types of weapons in the United States. Last month, Trump broke with the gun lobby when he mentioned support for an assault-weapons ban and for raising the age for buying an assault rifle from 18 to 21. At the time he derided lawmakers for being "petrified of the NRA." After the meeting, though, Trump seemed to back away from that stance and later suggested that perhaps video games might be to blame for violence in and around schools.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders surprised the video game industry last week by announcing that Trump was planning to meet with them this week. The Entertainment Software Association seemingly found out about the meeting this week. Details were thrown together last minute, according to those who spoke with Glixel, and the nature of the meeting along with the make-up of who was seemingly didn't come into focus until the past day or two.
Some have suggested that this might be the lead up to Trump shifting blame from gun accessibility to video games for the Valentine's Day school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead.
Glixel reached out to the White House, ESA, ESRB and others attending for further comment. We will update the story if they respond.