President Obama’s proposal, in his gun control package, that Congress allocate $10 million to study “the relationship between video games, media images, and violence,” is hardly the most damaging policy suggestion to come out of our current debate about gun violence, but it ignores the fact that this is a question that’s been studied before, to no particularly conclusive result. Ralph Nader’s declaration that video games are “electronic child molesters” is vastly more hysterical. Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson’s proposed legislation to require identification for the sale of video games much in the same way as tobacco or alcohol would disrupt both the voluntary ratings system that the gaming industry already has in place, and impose new requirements on brick-and-mortar retailers and online outlets.
What all of these reactions have in common, however, is that they cater to the public’s anxieties about violent media rather than trying to handle them in a rational fashion. And in doing so, they’re conflating three debates that ought to be handled separately: parents’ ability to control the media their children consume, the public policy question of whether media has an impact in the real world, and the creative question of whether violence in media remains narratively and thematically rich. We have an interest in making sure parents can make the right decisions for our families, that we’re evaluating risk factors for gun violence in ways that will make for rigorous and effective policy, and preserving creative freedom for artists to do their best work. Conflating those interests, particularly if we’re doing so to make one seem more serious, runs the risk that we won’t find the solutions that will best serve any of these concerns.
A CBS-New York Times poll released last week found that that 42 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats said that violence in movies and video games contribute to gun violence a lot, and 41 percent of Republicans and 32 percent of Democrats said that media makes at least some contribution to gun violence. Those are strikingly high numbers for a belief that isn’t backed by conclusive evidence.
I can understand certain parental concerns about the ability to control what their children consume, something that ends when their children leave the house either temporarily or permanently. John Landgraf, the president of FX, spoke to some of those worries at the Television Critics Association press tour when he talked about his own approach with his children children, who have grown up without gaming consoles in the house and without access to first-person shooters. “If you ask my 15 year old, who has played a lot of it at other friends’ houses and stuff, he says, ‘Well, it’s kind of disturbing because you’re not hunting. You’re not hunting for food. You’re in a first person context, and you’re killing everything in sight,’” he explained. As someone who hasn’t yet raised children of my own, I can imagine how unsettling it would be to send them out into the world worried that they’d encounter media they haven’t been prepared for or that they might find upsetting.