The list of invitees to US president Donald Trump's White House video games meeting today has been released. And it's a sorry sight, including names from notorious right-wing censorship advocacy groups, and not a single qualified expert on the topic.
Following the tragic shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School three weeks ago, Trump made some off-the-cuff remarks about the effects of violent video games on young people's behaviour, causing many to wonder if they'd somehow been sent back in time twenty years. Despite multiple reputable published studies over decades showing no link between gaming and real-world violence, and despite no school shooting ever being credibly linked to violent video games (despite many untrue claims by the world's press), the once-thought tired concept has been given new life.
Trump later announced that he was meeting with members of the video games industry to discuss the matter, but splendid work by Kotaku quickly revealed that no company involved with the ESA (representing nearly all major US publishers) had been asked. Following what must have been some frantic scrambling, the White House has pulled together a list of attendees to a formal meeting to discuss the matter, and it makes for grim reading. And includes President Trump's brother's boss.
The full list features three Republican members of Congress, Senator Marco Rubio, Representative Vicky Hartzler, and Representative Martha Roby.
Then come the industry representatives: Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick, ZeniMax CEO Robert Altman, ESRB president Patricia Vance, and ESA CEO Mike Gallagher. Not a shabby list by any means, although it's interesting to note the added complication that Robert Altman is senior to one Robert S. Trump, on the board of directors of ZeniMax.
The real issue comes when you look at the rest of the attendees, who you end up having to assume represent "the other side", considering their outlandish histories. Let's go through them one by one.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (Ret.), author of "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society" and "Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing".
Grossman (no, not the one from LucasArts) is best known for the first book mentioned above, required reading for FBI training, and from his unqualified position looks at the innate reluctance in people to be willing to kill, especially focusing on war. His second book, however, is a more spurious venture called "Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence, written in 1999, that makes claims that FPS gaming (and light gun gaming) use similar methods to train people to kill as are used in the army, and harden children to the act of murder. These are claims that all credible science has so far proven to be untrue, and claims he repeats in his most recent book, the second mentioned above.
The reason we know these claims are so spurious is that violent video games are played all around the world, but the problem of high school shootings is restricted pretty much to just the one country. And indeed that, even though the US's high school shootings are so troublingly frequent, they still represent the actions of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of all the young people playing violent games, suggesting that either violent games don't cause a person to commit violent acts, or if they are involved, there must be many other significant factors involved too that aren't being acknowledged.
Grossman's core goal is to reduce violence in society, and that's laudable, but by scapegoating gaming with no basis of evidence, he is more likely to distract from identifying the real causes and ultimately scupper his own good intentions.
Mr Brent Bozell, Media Research Center
Here's where things start to become more concerning. The Media Research Center is the innocuous-sounding name for a very not-neutral organisation, whose mission is to "prove - through sound scientific research - that liberal bias in the media does exist and undermines traditional American values." As you might imagine from such a conspiratorial and nonsensical goal, this politically conservative group, funded by various other politically conservative groups, is motivated by their desire to see what they perceive to be Christian, American values replace those they consider liberal. Brent Bozell is the founder of the organisation, which seeks to influence programming they dislike through advertising boycotts and pressure on networks. And indeed he is a man who went on Fox News to describe President Obama as a "skinny ghetto crackhead".
He also might be too busy to write all the articles on which his names appear. And of course leapt to the defence of Greg Gianfort, the Republican candidate for Montana's congressional seat, when he grabbed a reporter by the throat and threw him to the ground. One more? Sure. In 2016 he spoke at the National Religious Broadcasters' "Proclaim 16" Convention, on a panel called with no irony "Christian Genocide" - sharing a convention with anti-LGBT groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, labelled "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with famous anti-gay speakers like Pastor Rafael Cruz and Steve Deace, and anti Muslim groups like the Center for Secure Policy. Good times.
Melissa Henson, Mother from Parents Television Council
Finally is Melissa Henson, just some mother, from a group called the Parents Television Council. Oh, and also the director of its Advertiser Accountability Campaign, and its Director of Programs, and former Research Director, producing some "groundbreaking PTC studies" such as "The Blue Tube" and "TV Bloodbath". And a regular guest on Fox News, and various right-wing talk radio stations. And a spokeswoman for the organisation. But listed here as "Mother".
But who are the Parents Television Council? Why, they're a censorship advocacy group founded by, er, one Brent Bozell. Yup, beyond all credibility, the Whitehouse has invited people from two organisations founded by the same man in its attempts to seek an understanding of the role violent video games play in real-world violence. Wholly non-credible, unscientific groups with a clear agenda to promote their conservatism. Henson previously worked for the Media Research Center too, because of course.
And that's it.
What's so problematic here is what this selection represents. That there will be ultra-right-wing Fox News talking heads is not so much the issue, as much as it's depressing and demoralising. It's that in an attempt to learn of any possible connections between gaming and real-world violence, not a single credible expert on the topic will play a role. Sure, the ESRB, ESA, ZeniMax and Take-Two will advocate for gaming, but of course they will! It's in their financial interests to do so, and will be of no more credibility to the discussion than the goofball loony righties will be against them. I wouldn't trust Take-Two to tell me whether games are dangerous for me to play - their entire business model relies on people's willingness to buy violent games!
But it gets even worse when the one "side" is fully staffed by representatives of those invested in the sale of violent games, because it gives the impression that the other "side" are the more impartial experts. Brent Bozell may well make all his money by objecting to the media, but theoretically has no financial stake in keeping violent games off the shelves. (If anything, his business model would be threatened by a lack of things to object to.)
By not asking anyone from any of the dozens upon dozens of impartial research groups who have put in rigorous study into this subject, in order to give expert testimony to the meeting, nothing useful or productive can come of it. What we have here is three Republicans meeting with three more Republicans to affirm their disagreement with the people who profit from the violent video games. There are so few ways this ends well.
Top image courtesy of Alex Proimos.