The Industry

Trump’s Video Game Summit Looks Like a Farce Before It’s Even Happened (Update: It Was a Farce)

Trump and video games.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

This article has been updated.*

President Trump will meet with “the video game industry” on Thursday to discuss violence in video games and … stopping it? Inviting it to tea? The meeting’s agenda hasn’t been revealed, probably because the gathering has been a slow-motion face-plant since the White House announced it. On Thursday morning—the day of!—we finally learned who is actually attending the meeting, and it should not give anyone hope that the Trump administration is thinking seriously about video games, gun violence, or any relationship between the two.

To recap: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced on March 1 that Trump would meet with video game executives to discuss violent video games in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 17. According to Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, this was news to the video game industry, and at least one of the attendees did not actually receive an invitation until Monday, four days after the summit had been announced.

The list of expected attendees, first reported by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Twitter, pretty much clinches how farcical the meeting will be.

Who, other than the three lawmakers, are these people?

Zelnick, the president and CEO of Take-Two Interactive, is likely on the list because his company, which has published a lot of games under its vast umbrella of developers, is behind the Grand Theft Auto series, which, though it depends on who you ask, has been repeatedly accused of encouraging violent behavior. Zelnick is also the chairman of the Entertainment Software Association’s board of directors. Because he is involved in the business of video games, he would seem to be a good start.

Next is L. Brent Bozell III, a pundit who founded the conservative Media Research Center and who can frequently be found on cable news applying an ’80s-style culture-warrior frame to whatever right-offending thing the film, television, or music industry has done. He’s frequently referred to violence in video games as a proven influence on real-life violence, which it is not; he also once said President Obama looks like “a skinny ghetto crackhead.” In 2013, Bozell called Grand Theft Auto V a cultural loser and referred to the series as “perennially amoral.”

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is a retired Army officer who’s been on the “video games create killers” bandwagon since the late ’90s and whose books include Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing. Reviewing that book, Slate book critic Laura Miller rebutted Grossman’s attempts to link acts of real-life violence to their pixelated counterparts. “Many young spectacle killers do play violent video games, but so does nearly every nonviolent kid, as well.” Miller wrote.

Patricia Vance will represent the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the video game industry’s self-regulatory body. The ESRB, which aims to “empower consumers, especially parents, with guidance that allows them to make informed decisions about the age-appropriateness and suitability of video games and apps,” has for years created ratings for video games based on their content (from Everyone to Adults Only)—a concept that President Donald Trump proposed as a possible solution to stem violence just a few weeks ago.

On down the list: The Entertainment Software Association, which lobbies on behalf of the video game industry at large, is sending President and CEO Michael Gallagher, who has been involved with the industry through the ESA since 2007 and “manages ESA’s outreach to federal and state government officials.” Robert Altman is the chairman and CEO of ZeniMax Media, which, like Take-Two, publishes a wide variety of games. That said, Trump’s people are probably interested in talking about the violence in the 2016 Doom reboot, developed by Id Software.

Finally, there is Melissa Henson of the Parents Television Council, a nonprofit (founded by Bozell) whose stated purpose is “to protect children and families from graphic sex, violence and profanity in the media, because of their proven long-term harmful effects.” Henson, who is a program director at the PTC, has been frequently quoted in articles about the violence found in media, including TV shows and video games. “What the games are doing is putting the child in the shoes of a horribly violent person,” she said in a 2014 story about video games and brainpower in the Indianapolis Star.

The PTC has also maintained a campaign against “Violent Video Games and Minors” since 2007:

In today’s video game world, children can “role-play” as murderers, cop-killers, gang members, auto thiefs or any number of human-like characters carrying out mind-altering tasks with realistic graphics. These games reward killing and encourage violent criminal conduct.

On one level, it doesn’t really matter who these people are. The meeting is a distraction, just like every other “conversation” about video games and violence. Video games haven’t been shown to cause violence, even if they do prop up gun culture, and attacking games for fomenting violence in minors (or adults who shouldn’t have had access to dangerous weapons but did) is a simple way to avoid talking about real guns.

And even if this fleeting news item wasn’t a distraction, this is hardly the guest list for a serious conversation: There is no one here who seriously researches video games’ potential links to violence. There are three people who oversee the creation of video games (Zelnick, Altman, Vance), none in a directly creative role; a pro-games lobbyist (Gallagher), who would likely resist any kind of government crackdown; and three people who have spent years spouting the same line about how bad video games are (Bozell, Grossman, Henson). Whatever that amounts to—and it’s not clear what the White House would want to accomplish on this topic, or what it should, just that it would rather talk about this than almost any policy issue involving real weapons—it’s probably not a productive or useful discussion.

*Update, March 8, 2018, 7:32 p.m. EST: So what happened? Glixel’s Brian Crecente wrote that Thursday’s meeting “kicked off with a video of violent video game clips that at least one in attendance described as so violent it shocked some in the group to silence.” The video game publishers in attendance reportedly defended the games in the clip as being intended for a mature audience. According to Crecente’s report, Trump asked the attendees for comments, but no concrete plan emerged from the gathering.

The video, which was posted as an unlisted entry to the White House’s YouTube account on Thursday, chronologically depicts scenes from the following games and series:

• Various acts of violent gameplay from what seem to be the single-player campaigns in multiple Call of Duty games, including Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2.

• Dead by Daylight, a survival horror multiplayer game in which four “survivor” players attempt to outlive one “killer” player. Unsurprisingly, the clips are shown from the killer’s angle.

• A special shoutout to the gratuitous mass shooting clip from the infamous “No Russian” level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, in which killing people is actually optional! Good job.

• Kills as seen in the Wolfenstein series, in which you play a guy who kills Nazis.

• Fallout 4, including a scene from what appears to be an optional path in the “Diamond City Blues” quest.

• Some admittedly gross (but probably anatomically correct) X-ray bullet kill-cam clips from Rebellion Developments’ Sniper Elite 4, released in February 2017.

• A really gross decapitation game-over clip from The Evil Within or its sequel.

To be honest, it looks like someone Googled “people getting killed in video games” and then spliced the clips together for a shock reel.

Conspicuously not on this list: anything from Grand Theft Auto!