Video games and violence are linked – but not the way Trump thinks

Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, responsible for the loss of 17 lives, Donald Trump held a meeting at the White House. Seemingly intended to disabuse the nation of the imminent threat of semi-automatic weapons, the president shifted attention to other possible culprits: violent video games. He said: “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on [sic] video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”

Considering he couldn’t maintain focus on violent games for a full speech, let alone a news cycle, it’s a challenge to muster concern about what Trump’s bluster means for the future of the medium. Nor is the fate of the video game industry as pressing as the fate of the nation’s populace, whose lives will remain in real peril, so long as Trump and his supporters continue to turn the conversation away from dramatic change in the commercial gun industry.

Yet video games do bear a real and corrosive relationship with violence – just not in the way that Trump suggests. From threats and harassment of developers and critics, to online game lobbies filled with verbal abuse, to the exponential growth in the number and severity of violent attacks against the video game streaming community, to the relationships between video game publishers and weapons manufacturers, to, yes, the presumptive and extreme violence in many games themselves, video games and violence are uncomfortably intertwined.

Few politicians should be as aware of what ails the video games community as Trump, whose previous chief strategist Steve Bannon has benefited so greatly from the toxicity infecting the extremes of “gamer” culture. Bannon served as executive chairman of Breitbart during the fulmination of GamerGate in 2014, a hate campaign that targeted women, people of colour and the LGBTQ community within the video game space with online harassment, death threats and face-to-face intimidation at conferences and university lectures. Some targets were forced to leave their homes.

With the support of ex-Breitbart tech reporter Milo Yiannopoulos, Bannon’s publication leveraged the GamerGate movement, sowing conspiracy theories about the games media, targeting progressive critics, and all the while establishing a larger, younger readership for Breitbart and “alt-right” publications like it. Bannon and his company also found in GamerGate a political model. In the years leading to Trump’s presidential run, GamerGate and Breitbart would help to seed the “alt-right” movement online with a band of disgruntled men who found their bigotry could extend beyond the world of games. And their methods – synchronising online harassment, delegitimising the press – would be repurposed by forums such as /r/The_Donald to stymie Trump’s critics.

While GamerGate has fizzled as an organised movement, its intent has metastasised in scary and, sadly, foreseeable fashions. The video game streaming community, where hosts play video games live for audiences of thousands, has become a new target of toxic gaming culture. Streamers are often targeted by their rivals, or by their own entitled and embittered fans. In January, a swatting incident – a “prank” in which the police are sent to a person’s home under the false assumption of a criminal threat, typically meant to be captured live on a video game stream – led to the death of a Kansas man. Earlier this month, 23-year-old Christopher Eric Giles drove for 10 hours to Austin, Texas, and invaded the home shared by two YouTube stars, one known for her online video game streams. When Giles left the home, he fired at the police and was shot and killed.

It is unlikely that this US administration will do much to heal this corner of the games community. After all, its behaviour is a reflection of Trump’s worst traits: bullying, entitlement, and when feeling cornered and undermined, explicit threats.

Addressing toxicity and violence in gaming culture will not be easy, but following some turbulent years, the various corners of the games industry and the media that covers it have begun the difficult work of self-improvement. It is slow and it is imperfect, but it is happening. Publications such as Zeal, Feminist Frequency and Spawn on Me are expanding the audience of game criticism with an emphasis on inclusivity. Smaller developers have served as the tip of the spear for creative progress, building games that capture under-represented (or unrepresented) experiences, but the big video game publishers have begun to play their role, too, providing more opportunities to play as women and people of colour. And non-profits such as Take This work to destigmatise mental health in the community, working online and at events to help those seeking support.

There is another serious conversation about the medium’s comfort with violence. Games have the power to reflect the entirety of the human experience, yet they often still default to conflict and gore. Game publishers seem to be gradually recognising the opportunity to stretch beyond gratuitous power fantasies targeted at young adult males – a big, but ultimately limited audience. Last week, the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, took the stage at the annual DICE summit in Las Vegas to focus on Microsoft’s renewed focus on inclusivity. “With all these new tools empowering new creators,” Spencer said, “and with the increasing reach to new gamers around the globe, I think we – as an industry – are at our own crossroads. Has gaming reached its full potential and power to reflect and shape the world for all of us?”

There is a growing sense, among players and gamer makers, that change isn’t merely a chore, but a reward in itself. More growth means more games. If video games continue to expand, meeting their potential, becoming the medium of a generation, it will not be because of increasingly extravagant graphics or realistic simulation, but because they are made and enjoyed by a greater diversity of people – people who are not excluded either by the violence of a toxic gaming community, or the violence in games themselves.

What’s most unsettling about Trump’s instinct to target video games in the wake of gun violence is how it neglects any of this depth, and how tidily it aligns with the talking points of the National Rifle Association. Trump’s statement eerily echoes the words of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, who, following the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting that claimed 28 lives, used video games as an alternative scapegoat, calling out a “callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people”.

These words serve better as a concise description of the gun trade. They do not describe an industry in a state of reflection and repair, filled with educational games such as Minecraft, welcoming communities like Awesome Games Done Quick and eSports programmes that offer scholarships to higher education. The games industry has already been forced to confront the relationship between its products and toxic, violent behaviour. School shootings are just not a part of that picture.