Of Fake Guns and Real Hope

This past Thursday, the President of the United States of America spoke to reporters in the wake of the latest national tragedy, the murder of 17 people, most of them children, at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. His comments focused not on gun control, on policy, or even on sympathy. His comments focused on video games.

Friends and neighbors have apparently noted that the accused gunman played a lot of video games, and this was, in the mind of the President, apparently enough of a potential reason for his alleged actions. This trope has been prevalent in American media for years, even our moral panics are regurgitated nostalgia. This could as easily be 1993 as 2018. It’s devastating to say we’ve had so many school shootings that there is a pattern to them, but we have and there is — blaming video games is a key component of the NRA strategy to shift debate away from gun legislation.

I could point out that the typically white, male, young perpetrators of these atrocities consume less violent video games, on average, than their peers. I could point out Adam Lanza played Dance Dance Revolution instead of games we typically think of as violent. I could point out that perhaps instead of video games it was the Florida gunman’s engagement with a community of hate, nativism, and racial prejudice that could have contributed to his action, which is probably something this White House will fail to mention. I could point out that none of us should be speaking as to what was in that young person’s mind, because we don’t know. That looking for cheap, easy answers isn’t realistic, and that these tragedies are uniquely American, and deeply complex.

The American Psychological Association’s Media Psychology and Technology division’s report analyzing over two dozen studies states that, “Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities.” The Washington Post notes that consumption of video games does not correlate with gun violence. And this view has been widely reported in USA Today, The New York Times, Forbes, The Guardian, Fortune, BBC, and The Washington Post. Simply put, games do not cause players to become murderers. It’s just not there. We export our media — movies, television, games, interactives — around the world, but the shootings only happen here.

Right now, the organization I serve as president, the Higher Education Video Games Alliance, is preparing a statement on this topic, condemning the President’s comments, as well as his colleagues in the Congress, in state government, in city government, and similar offices that have issued nearly-identical ideas. It will cite the facts, figures and studies pointing out the fallacy of this line of thinking. It will reference my friends and colleagues who served at OSTP when this issue was explored under the Obama administration, and nothing could be found. It will reference when this issue was before the Supreme Court, and was ruled to be inconsequential.

It will say the things that need to be said, again, for the millionth time, because we as a Nation still need to hear them in the face of the manipulative manner in which our politicians engage in public discourse. No doubt I will be painted as a spokesman for the games industry (despite the fact that I’m not) by those who want an easy way to blame something for this tragedy in ways that seek solutions other than gun control. So be it.

But I want to point out something different than that organizational statement, something much more personal, something much darker. And I say this only as me, not as HEVGA President, not as Professor at RIT, but only as a citizen of this country and resident of New York. I have been thinking about what drives someone to commit the atrocities we see on television, and as I’ve already stated, I don’t know. But I’m beginning to think it might have something to do with a loss of hope, a crisis of faith, a lack of future.

Over the past twenty years, I have worked with young people engaged in video games in a wide variety of contexts, from college and graduate school to junior high visits, girl scout troop visits, robotics programs, hackathons, etc. I’d like to tell you about their passion for their play, the way that games bring people together, create community, and engage children with each other and with any adult that will play with them. Because when I look at these killers on the news, they are alone. And that is heartbreaking.

I want to tell you about how games are used by my friends and colleagues as educational tools, as tools to build empathy, as tools to learn languages, communication styles, and engagement. I want to tell you about the young people I’ve worked with that have said plainly that playing games with people online was a reason they didn’t kill themselves in their teens. I want to have you look in the face of the children whose first and longest friends started as gamertags, because they had trouble fitting in, socializing, and finding their way. I want to show you the work of my colleagues teaching things like religious tolerance through games, meditation and coping strategies for anxiety, veterans who use games as PTSD therapy. I want to show you how using games and media in the classroom can increase engagement with math, science, literature, and art, and how a child with passion for learning is an engaged engine for social good. I want to introduce you to one young man connected with our game design and development program, an amazing young man full of potential, who is a graduate of Stoneman High, who was devastated last week for obvious reasons, yet still passionate about engaging with friends and colleagues, and passionate about his profession and the medium of games. Because when I look at these killers, they are cold and empty.

And I want to note what kind of child will we breed when we remove trees and windows from our schools, adding fences and wire and bunkers and locks to ‘keep us safe’ — that growing up in a prison creates a prisoner, and we are moving ever onward down that path. I want to call out the NRA plan for ‘hardening’ schools in the face of this tragedy as one of the worst ideas for education I have ever heard.

And I want to speak to you of hope, and responsibility. I want to say that the American School Shooting Story is a narrative that only happens here. And that while I don’t know why it happens, the POTUS had the luxury of speaking his uninformed and unproven thoughts on why it happens. Here are mine: I think it happens because some of us are losing hope and faith in the world. It happens because our young people are ostracized in a culture of blame and a lack of opportunity, relentlessly tested in high-stakes pressure cookers so their districts can keep ahold of meager scraps of education funding. It happens because we don’t support our teachers and community organizations — driving good people out of these professions at an alarming rate through cut-rate policy and ill-informed practices. It happens because we are failing to fund effective mental (and physical) health care at every level. It happens because income inequality is creating a world in which the vast majority of our children will not be better off, and they know it. It happens because we are reinforcing a culture of hate, of racism, of nativism, and of anger that says that the reason opportunities are not available is someone else’s fault. It happens when we whitewash our history and pretend to live in the shadow of the mythical ‘good old days’, when we promote brutalism, might-makes-right, and the power of the gun as the values of America.

Mr. President, culture is a mirror. If you don’t like what you see in our movies and video games, then you do not like what you see in America. And there are ways to fix some of these things, but they are not easy, and they do not condense to a sound-byte. The way one fixes culture is through sustained and thoughtful leadership, by providing resources and opportunities, by emulating the desired behaviors, and that starts with you and our other elected officials. It means legislating solutions for the problems that are actually driving these trends and issues. It means engaging with the American people and listening, not yelling. It means providing a reason to hope and an ability to engage.

It means being honest about the fact that games don’t create murderers. Guns don’t create murderers either, but it’s a lot harder to murder someone without one. Take responsibility for the government, and the nation, listen to the citizenry, and lead. If you have any actual desire to ‘make America great again’, start there.

Respectfully submitted,

A. Phelps, 2018

(2/25 — minor edits)

PS: God bless the young people from Florida and across the nation standing up and taking responsibility for themselves in this mess, challenging us to change. If there is anything truly American in the wake of this awfulness, it is them. They are the reason to hope for this country, they are the beacon of freedom in this darkness. God bless them, we should do well to follow in their example.