Trump Holds White House Session on Effects of Violent Video Games

By Mark Walsh — March 08, 2018 4 min read
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[UPDATED: Monday 10:55 p.m.]

President Donald J. Trump on Thursday convened a White House meeting of video-game industry executives and parent and children’s advocates to renew a debate over the effects of violence in video games and other media.

The meeting scheduled for the Roosevelt Room was closed to journalists and was prompted by last month’s shootings that killed 17 people and injured others at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

There have been reports that accused killer Nikolas Cruz, a former student at Stoneman Douglas, sometimes spent hours playing violent video games.

Trump has recently expressed concern about the levels of violence in games and other media played or viewed by his 11-year-old son Barron.

“The video games, the movies, the Internet stuff is so violent,” Trump said at a Feb. 28 meeting at the White House with members of Congress. “I have a young—very young son, who—I look at some of the things he’s watching, and I say, how is that possible? And this is what kids are watching.”

The president added: “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. But these things are really violent.”

Participants in the meeting reportedly said that Trump opened the hourlong meeting by showing a montage of violent clips from videogames.

Melissa Henson, the program director for the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that has criticized violent games and TV shows, told The Washington Post that the session was “respectful but contentious.”

In a statement released by the council, Henson said, “What I heard in today’s meeting is that the entertainment industry is still fighting to maintain the status quo and is not ready or willing to confront the impact that media violence has on our children. But time is up for the entertainment industry to put a stop to marketing graphic, explicit, and age-inappropriate content to our children.”

Dan Hewitt, a spokesman for the Electronic Software Association told Politico that the industry group’s representatives “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.”

Several participants told various news outlets that the president listened intently to the roundtable discussion and asked questions but did not reveal what actions he favored taking.

Thursday’s White House discussion included representatives of the ESA and the Entertainment Software Rating Board. They included two CEOs of video game publishers: Strauss Zelnick of Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., whose units publish games such as “Grand Theft Auto” and “Red Dead Redemption"; and Robert Altman of ZeniMax Media, whose units publish “DOOM” and other games.

Also attending were Henson of the Parents Television Council and conservative activist Brent Bozell, the founder of the council and the author of a book linking mass killings to violent video games.

Besides Bozell, another critic of video-game violence invited to the meeting was Dave Grossman, who has also written a book claiming the ill effects of such games.

Three Republican members of Congress attended: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, and Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama.

The debate over violent video games has been going on for decades. In 2015, a task force of the American Psychological Association did a meta-analysis of research in the field and concluded that “the research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive affect and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy, and sensitivity to aggression.”

The industry points to other evidence to suggest there is no proven link.

“Numerous authorities have examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between media content and real-life violence,” the ESA says in a fact sheet on its website.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in a 2011 decision, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, that video games, including the most violent, were protected by the First Amendment. The court struck down a California law that restricted the sale or rental of video games rated as violent under the industry’s ratings system.

The long-running research debate over the effects of violent games was not the central focus of the case, but it received attention from both the majority and at least one dissenting justice.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for five justices, said that California’s evidence that there was a causal link between violent video games and harm to minors was “not compelling.”

Referring to the key research studies cited by the state, Scalia said “these studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively. ... They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in a dissent for himself (Justice Clarence Thomas dissented on other grounds), said “there are many scientific studies that support California’s views” about a link between violent games and harm to minors.

“I, like most judges, lack the social science expertise to say definitively who is right,” Breyer wrote. “But associations of public health professionals who do possess that expertise have reviewed many of these studies and found a significant risk that violent video games, when compared with more passive media, are particularly likely to cause children harm.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.