WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump met with video game executives and watchdog groups on Thursday at the White House to talk about gun violence, one of a series of meetings planned by the White House in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shootings.
The meeting started with the showing of a series of particularly violent video clips, according to two participants who were there, Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center and Melissa Henson, program director of the Parents Television Council. Both are media watchdog groups.
“It was shocking, and then you have to put yourself in the eyes of a 12-year-old,” Bozell said.
“Taking a baseball bat and bashing in a brain is not a pretty sight,” he said, describing one of the clips shown.
The meeting lasted for about an hour, but participants said that Trump did not indicate what steps, if any, he planned to take next.
Those also attending included Strauss Zelnick of Take Two Interactive and the CEO of Rockstar Games; Pat Vance, president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board; Mike Gallagher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association; and Robert Altman, chairman and CEO of ZeniMax Media, which is the parent company of Bethesda.
ESA, which represents the video game industry, said in a statement, “We welcomed the opportunity today to meet with the President and other elected officials at the White House. We 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. We appreciate the President’s receptive and comprehensive approach to this discussion.”
Bozell and Henson said that Trump mainly listened to each of the participants describe their points of view, but the atmosphere was not contentious or combative, even with sharp disagreement over the role that video games play in real-life violence.
“This is not a simple thing,” Bozell told Variety. “This is not to say that the video game industry is the alpha and omega of the problem, but they have to be part of the discussion.”
He said that Trump “asked a lot of questions and listened to everyone attentively,” and that there was not “posturing” on his part.
“I think that every single person in the room is greatly troubled by these shootings and wants to find solutions,” he said.
Henson said that she doesn’t “believe anyone came in there with a policy outcome in mind,” and that the president “was not walking in there with his mind made up.” She left thinking that there would be future conversations, but not concrete steps were discussed.
The White House released a statement afterward. “The conversation centered on whether violent video games, including games that graphically simulate killing, desensitize our community to violence.” They also released the video that was shown.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), one of the lawmakers at the meeting, called for similar meetings with the film industry.
“I believe the solution to curtailing violence lies in an all-encompassing approach, focused on several different factors that may contribute to school shootings,” she said in a statement afterward. “Discussions should not be limited to just video games and guns. The President’s approach of leaving no stone unturned is prudent and similar meetings with the movie industry pertaining to gun violence on film should also be conducted.”
She added, “Today’s meeting was an opportunity to learn and hear from different sides about concerns and possible solutions to violence in schools. I believe significant progress was made today, and my hope is that we can build on this progress in the future.”
The meeting was not open to the press.
Dave Grossman, a retired lieutenant colonel and the author of “Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression and the Psychology of Killing” was also there, as were other lawmakers including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.).
In the lead-up to the meeting, video game fans, gun control groups, and even some students from the Parkland, Fla., shooting massacre expressed concern that the focus on on-screen violence would distract from taking measures to limit the access of firearms.
The ESA has long pushed back against claims that video game violence causes real-life aggression.
“Many games with violent content sold in the U.S. – and some with far more violence – are also sold in foreign markets,” ESA’s website reads. “However, the level of violent crime in these foreign markets is considerably lower than that in the U.S., suggesting that influences such as the background of the individual, the availability of guns and other factors are more relevant to understanding the cause of any particular crime.”
That was a sentiment expressed by others, including David Hogg, a student at the high school where the shooting massacre occurred on Feb. 14.
“I don’t think that is what we need to be focusing on in this situation,” he said on MSNBC on Wednesday.
Colby Zintl, vice president of external affairs at Common Sense Media, told Variety that the meeting was a “distraction” from a post-Parkland focus on gun measures. Common Sense Media is an advocacy organization, but its focus has been on media guidance for parents.
She said that although there have been studies showing a correlation between the minors watching of video games and real-life feelings of aggression, a causal link between the on-screen violence and school shootings has never been established.
But Henson and Tim Winter, the president of the Parents Television Council, disagreed. They see a scientific consensus on the impact of violent video games on children, and they pointed to recommendations from the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy Pediatrics.
Bozell said that one solution is to treat the violent video games like liquor and alcohol, in which retailers face fines for selling to minors. He called it a “common sensible solution” to keep violent titles out of the hands of children.
Video game companies “will say, ‘We already do, it is not happening. But it is happening.”