Trump linked video games and gun violence – but don't expect him or Congress to do anything about it

Key Points
  • President Trump met with video game industry leaders and critics at the White House for a discussion on school safety.
  • Following the high school massacre last month in Parkland, Florida, Trump has suggested that a link exists between violent video games and violent behavior.
  • Game industry analysts aren't convinced that lawmakers will create new restrictions.
Image Source: Rockstar Games

If President Donald Trump wants to crack down on gratuitous video game violence, he had better prepare for a fight.

Trump on Thursday hosted a White House roundtable with video game company CEOs and representatives, who defended their industry in an ongoing debate about the alleged links between violent games and real-life violence. The advocates were matched by a number of critics, including Republican lawmakers, who have suggested a causal relationship between violent media and behavior.

The meeting, according to the White House, was an opportunity "to discuss violent video game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children" in the wake of the shooting massacre of 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.

The timing and purpose of the meeting, coupled with Trump's own recent comments on the link between violence and media, provided the clearest opening in years for would-be regulators to push for new restrictions on video games.

But the industry has weathered pressure like this before, and analysts aren't convinced that things will change dramatically this time, either.

Trump and video games

Shortly after the Parkland, Florida, rampage, Trump said he is "hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people's thoughts."

One the most prominent Washington voices on the subject is Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., a longtime critic of violent games and one of three Republican lawmakers who attended Trump's discussion. She said after the meeting that video games are just one of many factors that contribute to mass shootings.

"Discussions should not be limited to just video games and guns," Hartzler said in a statement. "Similar meetings with the movie industry pertaining to gun violence on film should also be conducted."

The Entertainment Software Association, a gaming industry lobbying group, had a very different takeaway from the event.

"We 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. We appreciate the President's receptive and comprehensive approach to this discussion," the group said.

But while a widely accepted link between on-screen violence and violent behavior has yet to be established, Hartzler told The Washington Post that common sense suggests otherwise.

"Even though I know there are studies that have said there is no causal link, as a mom and a former high school teacher, it just intuitively seems that prolonged viewing of violent nature would desensitize a young person," she told the Post.

Other attendees included Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has been a prominent voice in the gun debate following the shooting in his state; CEO Strauss Zelnick of Take-Two Interactive, the publisher of the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise; retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of "Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing"; and Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center, which has criticized violent games in the past.

Also in attendance was ZeniMax, the parent company of developer Bethesda, which makes the "Fallout" and "Elder Scrolls" franchises. ZeniMax has Trump's younger brother, Robert S. Trump, among its board of directors.

The Post also reported that Trump opened the meeting by showing video clips of various violent games to the group, before opening up the meeting to a discussion that included proposals for new restrictions on video game sales to young people.

The survival game

The multibillion-dollar video game industry has been through this kind of political scrutiny before. In 1994, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat at the time, waged a campaign to regulate video games after learning about "Mortal Kombat," one of the bloodiest games of its time, replete with violent images such as characters ripping the hearts out of opponents.

Lieberman's efforts influenced the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which ultimate led to a "Mature" rating for the fighting game.

Five years later, Republicans and Democrats alike forged a link between video games and school shootings. After it was revealed that the two teenagers who killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado were fans of first-person shooting games, President Bill Clinton slammed violent games as tools that "make our children more active participants in simulated violence."

In response to the April 1999 shootings, Republican Newt Gingrich, who had recently resigned as speaker of the House, blamed Hollywood movies and video games for "undermining the core values of civility."

"Let us say to the Nintendos and the other games: If you are going to be sick, we are going to find a way to protect this country from you," Gingrich said at the time.

Hillary Clinton, at the time a U.S. senator from New York, campaigned against Rockstar Games' perennially controversial "Grand Theft Auto" games, which follow a character's bullet-ridden odyssey through the criminal underworld.

Clinton joined Lieberman's efforts in 2005 after it was revealed that a hidden mini-game in a version of "Grand Theft Auto" allowed players to engage in a virtual sex act. The lawmakers pushed legislation prohibiting sales of mature games to minors, although the bill never became law.

CNBC attempted to reach Lieberman multiple times but did not get a response.

A Supreme Court ruling in 2011 made it even more difficult to legislate against video games. In a 7-2 decision, the high court struck down a state law in California banning the sale of violent games to minors, ruling that video games are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment.

Guns and bluffs

Yet the court's judgment did not put to rest the debate about the relationship between video game violence and real-world behavior.

The National Rifle Association, in particular, has blamed video games as a major factor in mass shootings. After the December 2012 massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre said: "Guns don't kill people. Video games, the media and Obama's budget kill people."

Video game industry analysts strongly dispute the connection.

"If there was actually a correlation between gun violence and video games then everywhere where violent video games are released you would find a similar level of gun violence, or at least a correlation," said Lewis Ward, research director of gaming at International Data Corporation.

Industry analysts say the NRA has used video games as a scapegoat to deflect scrutiny away from the availability of guns in the U.S.

"The NRA has historically always blamed video games and pop culture and movies for gun violence," said Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research covering video games for Wedbush Securities. LaPierre "blamed 'Mortal Kombat,' which doesn't even have guns in it, for Sandy Hook," Pachter said.

Trump himself has previously linked video game violence to real-world atrocities. Three days after the Sandy Hook shootings, Trump tweeted that video game violence is "creating monsters."

Trump: Video game violence & glorification must be stopped—it is creating monsters!

Still, even with a longtime critic of violent video games now occupying the Oval Office, industry experts still aren't especially worried about possible new restrictions.

"Congress doesn't have the will to try and regulate games," Pachter said, arguing that the First Amendment provides more absolute protections against regulation than the Second Amendment.

"I just don't think anything comes of it," he said.