After nearly every mass shooting since Columbine, policymakers have cited violent video games as a likely culprit. The evidence doesn’t support this claim. As Deborah Todd recently argued convincingly in Slate, the focus on games instead of actual gun control measures tends to be a misguided distraction at best. And yet, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, video game companies should look out for invitations from the White House for a meeting with the president this week to discuss the “ongoing debate over school safety.”
This puts game developers in a familiar and frustrating position, because talking to Trump seems unlikely to do much more than waste everyone’s time. But there are things the game industry can and should be doing to address gun culture—not as the origin of the problem, but as part of a wider movement to help fix it.
First, just as we’re now holding corporate sponsors of the NRA to account, it’s time for video game studios to take a hard look at their own financial ties to the gun industry. Real-world guns were largely absent from mainstream gaming until 1999, when two college students proved there was a market for them—their amateur modification of the existing game Half-Life, known as Counter-Strike, launched a multibillion-dollar franchise and a hunger for “realistic” shooters that has dominated the industry ever since.
This new obsession with authenticity paved the way for licensing agreements between game studios and gun manufacturers, which can take the form of a one-time royalty fee or a percentage of sales. Some gun manufacturers even make demands as to how their products are portrayed in-game: Ralph Vaughn, the man who brokers these deals for Barrett Firearms, told Eurogamer that he ensures the company’s rifles are used only by “the good guys.” He’s mindful of the fact that “[v]ideo games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners”; many come out of military games with fond memories and in-depth knowledge of the weapons that saw them through a difficult campaign. This connection is troubling to Robert Yang, a professor at the NYU Game Center, who told his students in a lecture on first-person shooters, “We are basically the marketing arm of the gun industry.” Severing these commercial ties, though perhaps daunting for studios that have been rewarded by the “authenticity” such brands confer, is a necessary step for the industry.
Mass shootings have spurred game designers to action before. Charlie Cleveland was in the early stages of developing the game that would become Subnautica when Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Cleveland resolved to create a game that could be “one vote toward a world with less guns.” They’re completely absent from the final product, which was released in January and dedicated to the families of Newtown. “I’ve never believed that video game violence creates more real-world violence,” he wrote. “But I couldn’t just sit by and ‘add more guns’ to the world either.”
Yang has also been reflecting on the place of games in our wider culture. “If you think of yourself as making something that’s culturally important to society, that millions of people do for hours a day, and you’re not wondering what you can do to change things or help, that’s really fucked up,” he said. He favors a more proactive approach to societal problems. “Instead of trying to be so defensive—like, ‘It’s not us, it’s not us’—you should be asking, ‘What can we do?’ ”
Game designer Brie Code is doing just that. After serving as lead programmer on the rated-M-for-intense-violence Assassin’s Creed franchise, she’s something of an expert on combat-centric gameplay. But her love for games goes well beyond combat. “I love video games because I love exploration, organization, and stories,” she said. Working on Assassin’s Creed allowed her to fulfill those passions, but in her largely unsuccessful quest to find titles that would resonate with friends, she realized that the industry’s overwhelming emphasis on win-or-die narratives might be alienating would-be gamers with other priorities.
So, in 2017, she founded TRU LUV, a studio devoted to games that follow a radically different framework built on care and connectivity. “We’re starting to question if conflict has to be the core of our forms of art and entertainment,” she said, adding that she’s excited about the games she’s seen in development, from AAA titles to mobile apps. Many seek to challenge the received wisdom that military realism is essential for commercial success and that conflict should be central to every game by design. It’s a necessary, exciting step for an industry that, while not to blame for gun violence, still has plenty it can do to downsize guns’ presence in our culture.