Editorial: Guns and Gaming After the Parkland Shooting

Should the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School impact the industry moving forward?

By Robert Marrujo:: 17 dead is considered a solid killstreak in Call of Duty. In real life it's a monstrous atrocity. Yet, the stark difference between the fantasy violence people enjoy in a video game compared to the real violence we're all continually being exposed to in everyday life is something that is on the minds of many people within and a part of the video game industry in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. 17 people were killed on Valentine's Day a week ago. All 17 of those lives were taken by gunfire.

It's hard not to look at video games and be aware of the fact that some of the most popular and regularly played titles that fans enjoy involve shooting a gun. Whether it's blasting away scores of aliens with laser beams or firing off volleys of bullets into the bodies of nameless soldiers, video game fans have made it loud and clear that shooting things is something they enjoy doing. In the wake of the multiple mass shootings that have occurred in the United States over the past few years, however, it's perhaps time to take a step back and ask what, if anything, this says about us as a people.

First and foremost, know that I don't believe violent video games make people any more dangerous than watching movies and TV shows do. Gaming as a medium for art and entertainment is, as far as I'm concerned, as untouchable as any other outlet for freedom of speech and expression in this country. What I do think needs some rumination, however, is the notion that our taste in games is without a doubt fixated on shooting things. Call of Duty, Overwatch, Battlefield, and countless other franchises revolve around taking a gun of some form in hand and killing an opponent.

It's disingenuous to suggest these sort of titles are "all" the video game industry has on offer, or that they're the "only" games people play, of course. From Ace Attorney to Minecraft, there's much more to gaming than Gears of War. Still, for every Monument Valley, there are a dozen shooter games out there vying for the attention of fans. PUBG is perhaps the most recent example, and it definitely won't be the last. Yet, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, I think it's important for Americans to take pause and ask what role, if any, gaming is having in terms of desensitizing us to violence and killing.

Think about it: when's the last time any of you reading this gave a second thought to delivering a headshot to an enemy? What about the last time you chainsawed a foe in half? The variety of kills that gamers regularly implement as part of their routine gaming sessions is myriad and, in many cases, outright disturbing. Brutality and gore are par for the course in so many titles that it takes something monumentally over the top for most of us to give any sort of pause and consideration to what we're looking at. To which I ask... is that okay? Is that something we should or shouldn't be concerned about?

One thing I keep thinking about as I type this is how so many gamers are people under the age of eighteen. There are a lot of kids logging onto their consoles of choice and playing titles like Resident Evil VII and Call of Duty: World War II who shouldn't be. The ESRB has been slapping ratings labels on video games ever since Mortal Kombat made waves with its (now quaint) bloody gameplay. Yet, for all the efforts made to keep this content out of the hands of children, there are far too many of them who are experiencing video games at an age that they shouldn't be.

One of the most disturbing things about the spate of mass shootings that have been happening on school campuses around the nation is the idea that kids are getting ahold of these guns. Not just grownups. Children. Children who are clearly of such shaky and disturbed mental states that they believe turning to murder is a legitimate option for the problems that they're having in their lives. That sort of mentality doesn't arise overnight. I can't help but wonder what role, big or small, the regularity with which kids are playing violent games that involve shooting plays in forming their world views.

A big part of gaming is problem solving. In the case of a shooter, the problem is the horde of oncoming bad guys and the solution is the gun you use to put them down. Someone who's older and more rational can differentiate between the video game they're playing and real life, but what about Timmy the five year old? Or Sally the fourth grader? Are they in a mental state to understand that what they do in a video game more often than not isn't going to correlate to real life? I'm inclined to think not, and so are the people at the ESRB who specifically tell parents via their ratings system "This game? With the 'M' on the front? It's not for your first grader."

The negligence on display by so many parents is doing a disservice to their children as well as the responsible video game players who are lumped together as a batch of babbling buffoons who sit around pulling the trigger all day on digital guns like trained monkeys at a circus. I don't want to distract from my main point of contention by focusing too much on the problem of kids playing games intended for grownups, but it's a topic that needs to be acknowledged because it's so closely tethered to the larger one were all debating. Just like we have to also acknowledge that perhaps the seemingly lackadaisical mindset that some Americans have towards gun control is a direct result of things like our choices in video games.

This is a video game and pop culture news website; I understand that people aren't here for the sort of national debates that go on over at places like CNN and Fox. Yet, with Parkland, there's no denying that the ante keeps going up on these shootings, and that gun violence stopped being confined to the "hood" with drive bys a very, very long time ago. It's easy to ignore this stuff when it isn't happening outside of someone's front door. But middle American high schools? That's another story altogether. Bloodshed in the ghetto is already awful, but now it's bleeding into other communities in the United States, becoming more and more frequent. We're all here to play video games and watch movies and have fun, but when a problem like this is practically in all of our front yards? Even the gamers amongst us have to start thinking of solutions. How many of you reading this are in school or know people who are? The Aurora shooting was in a movie theater. There's no set boundaries for where these shootings can happen. It's something that all of us have the potential of experiencing in one form or another.

Some people are calling for the 2nd Amendment to be abolished entirely. I don't find myself in that camp. I think it's an overly extreme response that won't make the problem of gun violence go away in the fashion that some folks think it will. We couldn't ban alcohol and struggle mightily with weed: I think a declaration to take Americans' guns away would be very, very dangerous. I do believe, however, that some sort of change needs to happen to make guns harder to get into people's hands, particularly people who are predisposed to or have a real potential for violence towards others.  I also believe that we owe it to each other to step back and ask, "what does the media we ingest say about ourselves? Our attitudes? What does it say about us when watching others die, fictionally or otherwise, is a regular part of the things that entertain us?"

Please don't think this means I'm saying anyone is a bad person because they have fun passing the time in Grand Theft Auto. Or that you're a bad person because your rank in Call of Duty is glorious and you worked your butt off on it. I'm just saying, to anyone willing to listen, please think about what we do and what it says and what impact it can have. Maybe some of the kids festering in bedrooms around the country don't think to take up a gun if they didn't spend so many years growing up fixating on them in their games and TV shows. Maybe if we make an effort to be more mindful of what we do, in the long run it can make having rational discussions when serious things happen go a little smoother. Because right now, Parkland has become an "us versus them" debate, when it really shouldn't be.

As gamers, and in particular as streamers, we have a voice to get our opinions out there. Maybe a little less time spent in Overwatch could instead be spent in Rocket League. Perhaps stepping back and looking at the endless bloodshed on our screens and saying, "you know what? I'm done with that for today. There are other games I can play and have fun with, other experiences I can push, that will be just as entertaining and maybe send a message to the people who make these games that there are other things I want to do besides shooting." We vote with our dollars, we make our opinions known with our words. Start talking, start letting others know how you feel, and in some small way it's possible that video gamers, as a community, can do their part to make sure Parkland never happens again.

At the very least, I implore all of you: please keep an eye on each other. If someone seems to be hurting, or is saying things or doing things to show that they're either not themselves or falling into a dark hole that they can't get out of, do what you can to help keep them safe. If nothing else, Parkland and the various heroes who defended so many students and faculty that day showed us just how big of an impact people can have when they care for each other.

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