In gun debate, game industry defends itself

Eric Lichtblau / New York Times News Service /

WASHINGTON — With the Newtown, Conn., massacre spurring concern over violent video games, makers of popular games like “Call of Duty” and “Mortal Kombat” are rallying congressional support to try to fend off their biggest regulatory threat in two decades.

The $60 billion industry is facing intense political pressure from an unlikely alliance of critics who say violent imagery in video games has contributed to a culture of violence. Vice President Joe Biden met with industry executives Friday to discuss the concerns, highlighting the issue’s prominence.

No clear link has emerged between the Connecticut rampage and the gunman Adam Lanza’s interest in video games. Even so, the industry’s detractors want to see a federal study on the impact of violent gaming, as well as cigarette-style warning labels and other measures to curb the games’ graphic imagery.

“Connecticut has changed things,” Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a frequent critic of what he terms the shocking violence of games, said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do something.”

Gun laws have been the Obama administration’s central focus in considering responses to the shootings. But a violent media culture is being scrutinized too, alongside mental health laws and policies.

“The stool has three legs, and this is one of them,” Wolf said of violent video games.

Studies on the impact of gaming violence offer conflicting evidence. Some researchers have found that games bring out real-life aggression, making players less empathetic. But other studies say the linkage is exaggerated and that game-playing does not predict bullying or delinquency.

The authorities have linked some past attacks, directly or indirectly, to the gunman’s fascination with violent games. The authorities in Connecticut have not established a direct link between the attack and the shooter’s interest in games.

Science aside, public rhetoric has clearly shifted since the shootings, with politicians and even the National Rifle Association — normally a fan of shooting games — quick to blame video games and movies for inuring children to violence.

“I don’t let games like ‘Call of Duty’ in my house,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said last week on MSNBC. “You cannot tell me that a kid sitting in a basement for hours ... and killing people over and over and over again does not desensitize that child to the real-life effects of violence.”

Residents in Southington, Conn., 30 miles from Newtown, went so far as to organize a rally to destroy violent games. (The event was canceled.) Biden, meeting with some of the industry’s biggest manufacturers and retailers, withheld judgment on whether graphic games fuel violence. But he added: “You all know the judgment other people have made.”

The industry is steeling for battle, and they have strong support from Congress as well as from the courts. Industry representatives have spoken with more than a dozen lawmakers since the shootings, urging them to resist threatened regulations. They say games are a harmless, legally protected diversion well regulated by the industry itself through ratings that restrict some games to “mature” audiences.

With game makers on the defensive, they have begun pulling together scientific research, legal opinions and marketing studies to make their case to federal officials.

“This has been litigated all the way to the Supreme Court,” Michael Gallagher, CEO of the industry’s main lobbying arm, said in an interview, referring to a 2011 ruling that rejected a California ban on selling violent games to minors on First Amendment grounds.

A history of violent video games —

Twenty years ago, with graphic video games still a nascent technology, manufacturers faced similar threats of a crackdown over violent games. Even Captain Kangaroo lobbied for stricter oversight. The industry, heading off government action, responded at that time by creating the ratings labels, similar to movie ratings, that are ubiquitous on store shelves today. This time, with a more formidable presence in Washington, the industry is not so willing to discuss voluntary concessions. Game makers have spent more than $20 million since 2008 on federal lobbying, and millions more on campaign donations.

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