President Donald Trump opened a White House meeting with video game executives Thursday by screening a series of clips of extreme game violence, but offered little sign of what he wants to do about such graphic content, which he's suggested could be a factor in mass shootings.
Trump gathered the video game industry and some of its most ardent critics amid the roiling national debate over gun violence. He's emphasized mental health concerns following the Parkland, Fla. high school shooting last month, including the notion that violent video games affect children. Some Democrats, though, say the issue is a distraction from the need for immediate gun control measures.
Multiple participants at the White House meeting said that after the screening of violent clips (editor's note: graphic imagery), the president gave everyone around the table an opportunity to speak but gave no indication of what steps he might take. He concluded the roughly hourlong gathering by inviting the group for a photo in the Oval Office.
"The president was asking questions and the president was not showing his hand, other than to say he's very concerned about the violence in some sectors of American society," said Brent Bozell, the founder of the Media Research Center, which takes issue with violent and sexual content in media.
“I would say he is probably a very good poker player because I couldn't read him at all," said Melissa Henson, program director of the Parents Television Council.
Critics of violence in media like Bozell and Henson asked Trump to consider regulation of the video game industry and said the industry's current voluntary rating system does not go far enough to keep violent games out of the hands of children. They were joined by retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of "Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing.”
"The fact of the matter is that children should be kept 10 miles away from this kind of ultra violence," Bozell said. "Why not have penalties, just as you do with tobacco, for a merchant who sells it to underage children?"
Those making the industry's case included Michael Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association, and Pat Vance, head of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. They were joined by two prominent executives: Strauss Zelnick, CEO and chairman of Take-Two Interactive, and Robert Altman, CEO of ZeniMax Media. (Trump’s brother, Robert Trump, sits on the ZeniMax board.)
The Electronic Software Association “discussed the numerous scientific studies establishing that there is no connection between video games and violence, First Amendment protection of video games, and how our industry’s rating system effectively helps parents make informed entertainment choices," according to spokesman Dan Hewitt.
The video game industry has long lobbied against federal oversight of its products, establishing its own regulatory body, the ESRB, in 1994 to label new releases with their appropriate audience from "everyone" to "adults only." It has also maintained that scientific studies have yet to link video games with violent behavior in the real world.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Reps. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) and Martha Roby (R-Ala.) also joined the White House meeting. Hartzler's office said the congresswoman focused on her bill, passed in the House late last year, that would allow off-duty and retired law enforcement to carry guns in schools.
"The President acknowledged some studies have indicated there is a correlation between video game violence and real violence," the White House said in a statement. "This meeting is part of ongoing discussions with local leaders and Congress on issues concerning school and public safety and protecting America’s youth."
Some Democrats called Trump's focus on video games misguided and sought to steer the conversation back to gun control.
"Focusing entirely on video games distracts from the substantive debate we should be having about how to take guns out of the hands of dangerous people," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement. "Blaming video games or the entertainment media for the 90 American lives lost every single day to gun violence is an unacceptable excuse to avoid talking about serious policy proposals.”
“Obviously, video games are a problem, but let’s not lose sight of the forest for a tree," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said. "The bottom line is that we need to get these assault rifles off our streets and require universal background checks on the purchase of every firearm.”
The president's anti-video game rhetoric pulls from a political playbook that dates back decades. Since the early 1990s, lawmakers have raised alarms about violent video games warping the minds of young people. Since then, games have only become more immersive and realistic, but Washington's attempts to regulate them have led nowhere.
In 2011, the Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to consumers below the age of 18, saying they qualify for First Amendment protections.
Still, the debate tends to flare up in the wake of national gun tragedies, such as the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and last month's killings in Florida. A former neighbor told the Miami Herald that alleged Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz played video games for up to 15 hours per day.
"It was kill, kill, kill, blow up something, and kill some more, all day," the neighbor said.
John Hendel and Ashley Gold contributed to this report.