Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Over the last few weeks, a familiar cycle has played out in Washington and the media. Conservatives, grasping to blame something other than guns for mass shootings, have again asked themselves, “What scary thing are the kids into?” Predictably, many have settled on video games. The supposed inherent evil of these games is clear: They sell impressionable children blood-soaked power fantasies, teaching them that violence is the only solution to their problems. The soundbites write themselves. Surely these splatters of cartoon gore motivate people to walk into a school and open fire. At least, that seems to be the logic behind President Trump’s meeting with video game executives, critics of violent media and Republican lawmakers.
An astute observer might note that the National Rifle Association, which Trump has met with multiple times since the Parkland shooting, sells the same sort of violent hero fantasy. They paint their members as Wild West-style gunslingers standing against chaos, evil and the liberals. NRATV, the NRA’s lifestyle channel, even ran a promo featuring a host smashing a TV playing a John Oliver clip while wearing a “Socialist Tears” T-shirt. More pointedly, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre infamously declared in 2012, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the implication being that you can be that good guy with a gun. You can be Halo’s Master Chief cutting down the aliens. You can be Uncharted’s Nathan Drake on a gunpowder-fueled adventure.
A video posted to the White House’s YouTube channel highlights the absurdity of Trump’s position. The video, apparently meant to showcase the height of brutality in video games, features various clips of virtual violence. But the procession of red, gooey polygons only emphasizes the artificiality of that violence. In one especially amusing clip, a character appears to be shot in the head four times without seeming to particularly mind. After the fifth shot, his head, naturally, explodes in a goofy shower of red pixels. Needless to say, I was not horrified. As ridiculous as the video is, Trump is correct that much of video game messaging is unhealthy. He’s just politically incapable of engaging in criticism any more substantive than pointing at silly clips of computer-generated gore.
It’s no secret, for instance, that video games and the games industry are hotbeds of sexism. And while the violence in games is often cartoonish, it still promotes a particularly aggressive world view. Games are often able to dodge criticism by hiding behind studies finding no link between games and increases in criminal violence or by marketing themselves as harmless entertainment. These are reductive, dishonest arguments against a more empathetic gaming landscape. However, Trump can’t possibly engage in criticism that nuanced because he’s too busy selling the image of a lone gunman standing against the forces of evil. The violence-glorifying messages that make much of video game culture toxic are integral to Trump’s brand.
Addressing toxic messages in video games and other media requires critics to consider the culture that messaging exists in. It’s impossible to meaningfully critique the violence, sexism and bigotry in video games without admitting those values also contaminate American culture more broadly — especially the Republican Party. Video games inarguably have a problem with violence, sexism and general bigotry. So do their critics. The charge to reform gamer culture cannot be lead by a man who’s built his political career on toxicity.
Nate Rogers is a freshman physics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.