Editorial: Taking a seat at the table on gun violence

By Steve Watts, Jan 16, 2013 7:30am PST

Following the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, America was hungry for answers. Politicians began seeking ways to stem the violence in our country, and President Obama charged Vice President Biden to head up the effort. Biden promptly organized meetings with various industries and interest groups, including prominent figures from the video game industry.

Some corners of the gaming community, most notably Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft, felt it was a mistake to participate in such a discussion. A tacit admission of guilt. "Make a statement by refusing to meet," he suggested. He wasn't alone, as comments indicated agreement, or even taking offense at being asked to participate. And while some reservations were understandable, fear of misunderstanding cannot keep us from engaging in the discussion.

Such a meeting may seem redundant to us, because we're in the thick of it. We've played out these arguments in our minds dozens of times. We all know the answers the game industry should and probably would give: every study that has shown a connection between game violence and real life aggression has been correlative, not causal; we already have a system by which we rate games; the FCC, a government body, has praised that system as more effective and informative than comparable systems in other entertainment industries; the first amendment.

These aren't poor arguments. They're very good ones, actually. But the fact that they're so obvious to us doesn't mean we shouldn't make them. We can't let the fact that we're asked to the table become a personal affront and sit it out entirely. For years, we've wanted the game industry to be treated with the same respect given to other entertainment media. We've gotten it, and part of that means being responsible stewards and taking part in the national conversation.

Granted, the NRA pointing the finger was poor form. But Biden's invitation didn't indicate any particular blame towards the industry, especially given that it was just one of many such meetings. Instead, it allowed both the politicians and game publishers to come out looking better for having talked. In terms of political strategy, neither group can now be accused of abdicating their due diligence.

There does exist a contingent of people who believe violent games have an adverse impact on your nation's young people, and that consequently those games need to be restricted. Laws like the one in California thrived on that idea before being subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court. But the mindset is already out of the ether and part of the dialogue, and that means we need to respond to it. It's not going to suddenly propagate further simply because our industry acted responsible, and it wouldn't go away simply because we refused to. If anything, being the adults in the room might force some to reconsider.

The fact is that some games are extremely violent, and that violence might even desensitize us to fictional depictions of violence. But even if we are desensitized to fantasy, we are not desensitized to tragedy. Everyone I know, gamer or not, was horrified and saddened by the events of December 14. Sheer human empathy should require that we be open to talking about all avenues, leaving no stone unturned, even if it means the national dialogue briefly turns toward our own past-time. We can take it.

Biden's opening comments in the meeting were heartening. Further comments from the Vice President have indicated that he's unconvinced by any causal connection between game violence and real-life violence. It appears this wasn't a witch hunt, or seeking a scapegoat. Shame on us for ever believing it was, and letting that fear tempt us toward abandoning the conversation altogether.

Last week, the game industry was given an opportunity to traverse the minefield of modern politics. Based on his discussions, Biden has turned in his proposals to the president, and we're likely to hear more about this in the coming days. Whatever suggestions are put on the table, we can say that our industry helped shape the conversation. The industry was offered a seat at the table, and taking it was not a mistake or admission of guilt. It was the smart thing to do, and more importantly, the right thing to do.

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