How the Gaming Industry Already Lost a Newtown Lobbyist Fight to the NRA

Alexander Abad-Santos
December 20, 2012
How the Gaming Industry Already Lost a Newtown Lobbyist Fight to the NRA

There was one piece of legislation introduced on the Senate floor yesterday in response to the Newtown shootings. It came ahead of any of the legislation from Sen. Dianne Feinstein or Vice President Biden's new commission. It was about video games. Why? Well, for starters, the video game lobby isn't exactly the National Rifle Association. 

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To be sure, Adam Lanza did not go into Sandy Hook Elementary and kill 20 first-graders with copies of Call of Duty. But there are reports that he played shooter-style/warfare games like CoD and that Lanza played Starcraft. These reports have not been confirmed by the ongoing investigation, but on Wednesday morning Senator Jay Rockefeller introduced a bill "to arrange for the National Academy of Sciences to study the impact of violent video games and violent programming on children." Also, to be sure, there is a lack of recent scientific research in the field beyond general correlations, but that's a pretty quick response. Even Feinstein's assault-weapons legislation and Sen. Frank Lautenberg's proposal on high-capacity clips will wait until the new term in January.

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If you're the NRA or a gun-rights advocate, the hurry-up on video games is no small deal. On Tuesday, an NRA source indicated to Fox News that the lobbying group might try to shift attention to the gaming industry: "If we're going to talk about the Second Amendment, then let's also talk about the First Amendment, and Hollywood, and the video games that teach young kids how to shoot heads," the source said.

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For its part the video game lobby — with the wimpy-sounding name of the Entertainment Software Association — has issued statements disavowing the connection between violent video games and violence: "According to FBI statistics, youth violence has declined in recent years as computer and video game popularity soared. We do not claim that the increased popularity of games caused the decline, but the evidence makes a mockery of the suggestion that video games cause violent behavior," ESA president Michael Gallagher is quoted as saying, according to The Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel.

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There's a lack of hard data connecting gun violence to video games, but there's also a strange hammering on the pastime — enough to make you wonder if lawmakers really want the research, or whether they're jumping to focus on the window-dressing. Earlier today we outlined the state of NRA spending and influence on Capitol Hill — about $2.5 million in official lobbying for 2011 — and the ESA pales in comparison, having spent about $120,000 on lobbying last year, according to Open Secrets.

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Senator Rockefeller's legislation prompted a response from the ESA, which issued the following statement late Wednesday night: 

The Entertainment Software Association, and the entire industry it represents, mourns the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our heartfelt prayers and condolences go out to the families who lost loved ones, and to the entire community of Newtown.

The search for meaningful solutions must consider the broad range of actual factors that may have contributed to this tragedy. Any such study needs to include the years of extensive research that has shown no connection between entertainment and real-life violence.

Of course, this is not the first time video game inquiries have been introduced into the Senate. Think Progress's Alyssa Rosenberg reports that a similar study was part of the 1999 Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Protection Act, which specifically looked at school violence—the bill was introduced in September of that year, after the Columbine shooting in April. The study, led by Katherine Newman at Johns Hopkins, found that the connection between video games and violence are nil. And that we might be better off spending our time focusing on that tiny percentage of users affected by violence, rather than these sweeping studies. Newman wrote:

Millions of young people play video games full of fistfights, blazing guns, and body slams. Bodies litter the floor in many of our most popular films. Yet only a minuscule fraction of the consumers become violent. Hence, if there is an effect, children are not all equally susceptible to it.

Big picture-wise, The Washington Post's Max Fisher looked at the world's ten largest video game markets and cross-examined them with gun-related killings. "Looking at the world's 10 largest video game markets yields no evident, statistical correlation between video game consumption and gun-related killings," wrote Fisher, whose data made the United States seem to be the outlier.