President Donald Trump’s White House meeting Thursday about the interplay between video games and real-world violence will revisit territory already well-trodden by politicians over the decades — including his old foe Hillary Clinton.
Trump is turning the spotlight to video games as part of his attempt to focus attention on mental health after last month’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. But more than a decade ago, it was former New York Sen. Clinton waging the crusade against what she called the corrosive effect that violent games could be having on children’s mental states.
“I think we should do everything we can to make sure that parents have a defense against violent and graphic video games and other content that goes against the values they’re trying to instill in their children," Clinton said in 2005, shortly before introducing a bill to tighten restrictions on selling games to minors.
Lawmakers first raised concerns in the 1990s that violent — and increasingly realistic — video games not only glorify gore but desensitize players to its consequences. The debate tends to flare up in the wake of national gun tragedies, such as the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado and last month's killings in Florida. A former neighbor told the Miami Herald that Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz played video games for upward of 15 hours per day. "It was kill, kill, kill, blow up something, and kill some more, all day," the neighbor said.
But the video game industry says violent crime has dropped since the late 1990s, even as video game sales hit record highs. And though video games are played worldwide, mass shootings are an acutely American problem, the industry's largest trade group has noted.
Industry representatives will trek to the White House on Thursday so Trump can take his turn at the issue.
Trump "will be meeting with video game industry leaders and members of Congress to discuss violent video-game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children," deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters told POLITICO in a statement Wednesday. "This meeting will be the first of many with industry leaders to discuss this important issue."
The Entertainment Software Association spends millions of dollars lobbying Washington each year on a broad swath of issues, including fighting back against efforts to regulate video game content.
"The truth is, there is no scientific research that validates a link between computer and video games and violence, despite lots of overheated rhetoric from the industry’s detractors," ESA maintains in an online fact sheet.
Yet after almost every mass shooting, at least some politicians raise the question: Aren't these violent video games corrupting young people?
"The video games, the movies, the internet stuff is so violent," Trump told lawmakers on Feb. 28. "It's hard to believe that, at least for a percentage — and maybe it's a small percentage — of children, this doesn't have a negative impact on their thought process."
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was long the face of the anti-video game crusade in Washington. In December 1993, the lawmaker called a now-infamous hearing about violence and sexual abuse in gaming following the release of the fight-to-the-death thriller Mortal Kombat.
"I would like to be able to pass a law saying you can't produce this stuff anymore," Lieberman said then. "We don't do that because we value our freedoms, but with those rights the producers of video games in this case have also come responsibilities." Lieberman called on the video game industry to make a change.
The following year, ESA established a self-regulatory body called the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which to this day scores new releases on a scale from “everyone” to “adults only.”
But it's unclear whether the rating system has kept violent games out of kids' hands. More than a decade after Lieberman's hearing, Clinton took up the issue after a "Grand Theft Auto" game included a hidden feature in which characters simulated sex. In 2005, she introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would have made it illegal to sell or rent "mature" or "adults only" video games to youth under 17.
Clinton's bill failed to advance, but politicians have kept the debate alive as mass shootings have continued unabated and video-game technology has advanced. The two-dimensional bloodbaths of Mortal Kombat seem quaint compared to the graphic nature of some games today. High-definition graphics and immersive technologies like virtual reality allow players to feel more embedded in the action than ever before.
The issue resurfaced in Washington as recently as the 2012 shooting that left 26 students and staff dead at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. The National Rifle Association deflected blame to video games for instigating gun violence and industry leaders found themselves, as they do now, called in for a White House meeting. Then, it was former Vice President Joe Biden who wanted to chat.
“We know that there is no silver bullet" to thwart mass shootings, Biden said as the meeting began.