Last week, I ran an editorial about the game industry's meeting with Joe Biden, kicking over a bit of a hornet's nest, but at the same time prompting some honest, open discussion about our involvement in these gun policy talks in the wake of Sandy Hook.
Contributing to that discussion was IGN's editor-in-chief, Casey Lynch, who said I was dead wrong. Meanwhile, Ian Bogost wrote in The Atlantic, "The games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap."
Casey told me recently he was reaching out to bunch of people (his giant article is out now), gauging their opinions following last Friday's meeting in Washington. He sent me three questions, and my answers ended up being pretty long, so I thought I'd post them here on my Gamasutra blog in full, for the sake of transparency and continued discussion (Note: These answers were given prior to the President's proposals Wednesday morning):
What did you think of the tenor, the topics of discussion, and the outcome of meeting?
From the reports that I've seen, this was a cordial, respectful meeting quite devoid of any real substance. Perhaps some of the proposals from the game industry had real-world practicality, but the meeting itself was a political formality wrapped in a photo opp, meant to ensure the American public and mainstream media that anyone who could be possibly held accountable for mass shootings is being held accountable. And of course, it was also meant to build consensus on new gun legislation. The Vice President appeared neutral about the game industry, neither damning it nor patting it on the back. The game industry was just kind of "there."
The real, productive and impassioned discussion -- the discussion that isn't couched in scapegoatism and carefully prepared comments -- is happening right now, in articles like this one that you're putting together, on social media, on forums, and it will continue. It's exceedingly important that it continues.
People accused me of advocating "hiding" from the issue, keeping quiet or "muzzling" creatives, when in practice that's exactly the opposite of what I was advocating. My article and [Lynch's] response were featured in some pretty big mainstream news publications. Before, this supposed "national conversation around violence in video games" (as you put it) consisted of quietly submitting proposals, a meeting with the VP behind closed doors and off the record conversations with journalists such as myself. Now it seems much more about open, honest discussion.
It's, at best, optimistic (at worst, naive) to expect that this meeting was any more than a political formality. News reports suggest President Obama, prior to these meetings, has all but decided on the shape of his executive action, and these meetings are about building a consensus around new legislation. Paraphrasing a line from Ian Bogost, the game industry was, once again, a cog in the machine of political discourse.
So yes, this meeting wasn't about video games at all, rather about the larger issue of gun policy in relation to mass murder. In the rebuttals to my editorial, I don't think I ever saw anyone adequately address the true endgame -- introducing new gun legislation. Sorry folks, but Biden isn't all that interested in the emotional impact of Journey, or entertaining a professor's pitch for an anti-violence ARG, or to deeply examine the potential of the art. The game industry was there in order for the administration to get to the ultimate goal, which is introducing new legislation in the wake of the mass murder of children.
Do you maintain your original position?
Yes: By the game industry being there, it implicated itself as part of the problem, that problem being the scourge of gun violence that has plagued our country, this time in the context of one of the most horrific deeds this country has ever seen. But I know as well as anyone that an industry can't really turn down an invitation like this from the VP without facing serious political repercussions down the line. We were stuck, and had to do it, though I sincerely wish that wasn't the case. The public sees video games as a medium deeply invested in gun violence -- that's just the reality. Perhaps my views on the matter have evolved to "We were screwed well-before we got that invitation." So now the industry has to focus on getting "un-screwed" (see the answer to the next question).
My editorial was intended to wake people up and expose the real reason why we were offered what some saw as a "privilege," and to remind them of the context of this meeting. Intelligent, well-meaning folks in the game industry were complacently -- even enthusiastically -- going with the flow, without actually thinking of or openly talking about the obvious implications of their participation. The misguided "Hurray, we're at the grown-up table" mentality was alarming to me. There was this blind enthusiasm of being included in the discussion in this context, with few really standing up, asking questions and saying, "Wait, hold on a minute here."
The primary argument against my editorial was that we needed to be there to "defend" the industry in some way. I think the immediate results of the meeting prove that argument was an empty one. Of course, there was nothing that needed to be defended. The VP graciously made it clear he wasn't on a witch hunt. That only highlighted how the reason for the meeting really had nothing to do with video games. So why was the game industry there, implicating itself? It was there as a cardboard set-piece in a larger play called "gun legislation."
Following my editorial, I've been really pleased with the response, from both people who supported my views, and those who didn't. While it does seem like a polarizing issue, the discussion, for the most part, has been civil. I think that's because in the end, everyone who cares about video games wants the same thing -- for this art and business to garner the respect it deserves. And of course, we all want to curb real-world gun violence.
Where do we go from here?
As it's part of The ESA's job to maintain a certain image of the game industry and the members of the group, maybe it needs to give game companies more incentive to create high-profile, mainstream games that aren't all about shooting and killing. Maybe events like ESA's E3 should do more to highlight the diversity of video game subject matter. The core issue here is that video games are still seen as a medium that celebrates and profits immensely from the depiction of excessive gun violence. Of course, it is a craft that is much, much more diverse than that. But more meaningful action needs to be initiated in order to make this diversity more obvious to the world.
Perhaps the better, broader answer is this: Keep making video games. The typical politician does not enjoy the hard-earned luxury of being able to make a statement using interactive entertainment. Maybe we'll see a video game someday that makes a strong statement about what happened over these past few months. That's the kind of thing that really matters to this craft, and I think everyone who loves video games can agree on that.
Out of all of these questions, the most important one is the last one. Keep the discussion going in the comments!