Guns or Media

The horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, have turned the nation’s attention to seeking ways to reduce acts of violence, especially with firearms. As with many huge issues like this, telecommunications and media policy play a role. This week, we look at the connections between media violence and real-world violence.

On December 19, 2012, President Barack Obama announced a task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden that would seek the best ideas from across the government and the public to reduce gun violence. The task force, comprised of members of Congress and Obama’s Cabinet, was asked to present President Obama with concrete proposals to send to Congress in January. After Newtown, the President signaled that Hollywood should be part of any solution, saying it was time to examine a culture “that all too often glorified guns and violence.”

On January 11, representatives from the top video game publishers, including Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard, participated in a meeting with Vice President Biden to discuss ways to curb gun violence in the United States. The video game industry has been criticized by lawmakers and the National Rifle Association for producing violent content. First-person shooter games, such as Activision Blizzard's "Call of Duty" and Electronic Arts' "Medal of Honor Gunfighter," have been singled out for fueling aggressive behavior in real life. VP Biden said the series of meetings showed the video game industry "was not singled out for help," noting that he met with entertainment trade association chiefs on Jan 10. He said he came to the meeting with "no judgment" about video game companies. Eager to avoid governmental regulation, companies are casting themselves as the scapegoat, not the instigator. The decision by industry representatives to even attend the meeting sent shockwaves through the gaming community. Members of the Entertainment Consumers Association asked the Vice President to “support the public’s constitutional right to access and buy games, and to not blame media, including video games, for the recent tragedy that has befallen the nation.” The International Game Developers Association, in a letter to Biden’s gun task force, instead pointed to research that indicates violent games “release stress and aggression.” No one seems to know for sure what video game violence does to children and adults. Studies sway between simple causation and direct correlation. Researchers at the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have pointed to numerous reports that show a causal connection between media violence and antagonistic behavior.

A study published in Developmental Psychology last year recognized increased aggression with children who play video games. But a 2008 study by Harvard professors found that most children who played M-rated video games did not exhibit hostile behavior. And the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 said it saw no direct link to violence when overturning a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to children. In addition to video games, many point to violence depicted on television or in movies. Debates about television violence have waxed and waned for more than 50 years, sometimes surrounding shows, like “The Rifleman” and “Kojak,” that now seem tame. The increasing appeal of cable series, however, has changed the stakes. The six highest-rated dramas on cable in the past year were “The Walking Dead,” “Hatfields & McCoys,” “True Blood,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “American Horror Story,” and “Game of Thrones.” All contain high levels of violence.

John Landgraf, the president of FX, which programs hit dramas based on some level of violence like “America Horror Story” and “Justified,” stressed a distinction between what he called “third-person entertainment” and “first-person entertainment.” The former describes the passive viewing of scripted dramas; the latter describes participatory entertainment, like video games, where shooting and mayhem are personally inflicted on characters. He explicitly tied the prevalence of violence in the United States to the availability of guns, noting that television viewers in Britain watch the same shows as Americans and play the same video games, but that the country has drastically lower murder rates. He did not apologize, however, for the emphasis on life-or-death drama in FX’s shows. “We’re mammals,” he said. “Our greatest fear is death, and if you want to rivet people, you’re going to tend to hover around questions of life and death because that’s the thing that rivets our attention most naturally.” "I'm not a psychologist, so I'm not sure you can make the leap (that) a show about serial killers has caused the sort of problems with violence in our country," said Robert Greenblatt, who put "Dexter" on the air when he ran Showtime and is now overseeing development of a series on the notorious creep Hannibal Lecter for NBC. "There are many, many other factors, from mental illness to guns." The Parents Television Council raised the issue of violence on TV this week highlighting a "graphic and disturbing" torture scene on the political drama "Scandal." "On the very same night that Vice President Joe Biden met with entertainment industry leaders to discuss the issue of media violence and its impact on children, ABC — the television network owned by a company named for Walt Disney — aired an intense, explicit and bloodied torture scene during its show 'Scandal,'" the Parents Television Council wrote in a statement"For nearly three minutes, viewers were subjected to graphic and disturbing scenes of a man struggling to breathe while being waterboarded, his nose being broken and his face beaten into a bloody mess, blood spattering on the walls, and being kicked and beaten into submission," the statement added.

Concerns also include mobile apps. Fast Company reported this week that the National Rifle Association has launched NRA: Practice Range, an app for Apple mobile devices the organization calls its new "mobile nerve center." The app features a 3-D target practice shooting game and provides resources for news and legislation updates around gun control and educational materials about gunholders' rights. The NRA appears to be emphasizing safety and responsible ownership with this new app, which has an Apple App Store rating of 4+ ("no objectionable material"). The NRA says its built-in shooting game strikes "the right balance of gaming and safety education, allowing you to enjoy the most authentic experience possible." That authenticity also extends to the 9 real-life firearm models available within the app--including an M9 pistol, an M16 rifle, and a Dragunov SVD semi-automatic rifle -- as well as the AK47 and the AWM sniper rifle, which are offered as $0.99 in-app purchases. Later in the week, Apple changed its App Store age rating from a benign "4+" to "12+" for "Frequent/Intense Realistic Violence." The updated rating may seem more appropriate than the original rating, but some critics feel the game itself should be banned from the App Store altogether.

Of course, just as regulating the manufacturing, sale, and possession of guns raises second amendment issues, regulating content in media raises huge first amendment concerns. “The government doesn’t have any power directly to address violent program content and the best thing they can do is jawbone, bringing relevant people into the White House and talking to them,” said Andrew Schwartzman, a communications attorney.

Administration Proposal

On Jan 16, President Obama and Vice President Biden announced their broad gun control plan. Part of the plan is a push to fund research into the impact of violent video games. The President called for the Centers for Disease Control to "research the causes and prevention of gun violence." "I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it -- and Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds," said President Obama during a speech detailing the plan. "We don't benefit from ignorance. We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence." The president is asking Congress for $10 million to fund the research.

The White House asserts that Congress has for years been blocking the use of funds for research on the causes of gun violence as money to "advocate or promote gun control," which is prohibited. The President says its own legal analysis finds that language does not prevent such research. In a statement released after Obama's speech, industry trade group The Entertainment Software Association welcomed the discussion. "We will embrace a constructive role in the important national dialogue around gun violence in the United States, and continue to collaborate with the Administration and Congress as they examine the facts that inform meaningful solutions." While he called out violent videogames, the President did not make any specific mention of violence in the movies or on TV in his remarks. Hollywood executives and Motion Picture Association of American Chairman Chris Dodd have said they will hit back on any efforts to restrict violence in movies. The White House plan did mention media, but suggested that any effort would be related to ratings systems or technology: "The entertainment and video game industries have a responsibility to give parents tools and choices about the movies and programs their children watch and the games their children play."

Speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Vice President Joe Biden, outlining the White House's gun violence initiatives, made a pitch for studies "on the impacts of young minds on witnessing repetitive violent acts in movies, on television and video games," but also indicated the industry was intent on helping and encouraged them to better advertise the parental control tools they have. Conducting and funding such research was one of the initiatives Vice President Biden vowed to put all of his office's muscle behind. VP Biden said that did not make him popular with the entertainment industry, but that neither was that an indictment of the industry, but instead was recognition there were no extensive modern studies.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) accused President Barack Obama of giving Hollywood a "free pass" by failing to recommend any steps to curb gun violence in movies or television shows. "He gave his coziest Hollywood contributors a free pass," Rep Brady told KTRH radio in Houston. "And if there's one industry I think that makes the most money off of glorifying violence, it's that industry." Rep Brady said that in his experience, it is easier for him and his wife to patrol violence in video games, but that violence on television is much more difficult to monitor. "TV, movies, I mean, the violence is everywhere, and we can't get to the remote fast enough in some of these cases," he said. Rep Brady also charged that Obama's decision to exempt Hollywood from the issue shows that the President is continuing to treat his supporters differently than those who oppose him.

Proposed Legislation

We're likely to see a number of legislative proposals to address media violence in the coming weeks. Here's a few examples we've seen already. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced a bill after the Sandy Hook shooting that would require the National Academy of Sciences to study the effects violent video games and video programming have on children. When he released the bill, Sen Rockefeller blasted the video game industry for marketing violent content to kids. “Major corporations, including the video game industry, make billions on marketing and selling violent content to children,” Sen Rockefeller said. “They have a responsibility to protect our children. If they do not, you can count on the Congress to take a more aggressive role.”

On Jan 16, Sen Rockefeller said, “I think everyone can agree that the impact of violent content on our kids’ wellbeing is an important issue, and I’m glad [the President’s] plan will take a close look at it. I am working hard in the Senate to make sure this type of research – which I have strongly backed throughout my career – is available to inform our work on gun violence. Next week, I plan to reintroduce my bill to have the National Academy of Sciences study the link between violent content and children’s behavior.” Under this legislation:

  • The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) would be directed to conduct a comprehensive study and investigation of the connection between violent video games and violent video programming and harmful effects on children.
  • Specifically, NAS would examine whether violent video games/programming cause kids to act aggressively or otherwise hurt their wellbeing, and whether that effect is distinguishable from other types of media. It also would look at the direct and long-lasting impact of violent content on a child’s well-being.
  • With respect to violent video games, NAS must look at whether current or emerging aspects of games, like their interactive nature and the personal and vivid way violence is portrayed, have a unique impact on kids.
  • NAS must submit a report on its investigation to Congress as well as to the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) introduced a bill that would ban the sale of violent video games to minors. The Supreme Court struck down a similar California law in 2011, ruling that the restriction violated the constitutional right to free speech. Matheson's Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act, H.R. 287, would make it illegal for anyone to ship, distribute, sell or rent a video game that does not bear a label from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) on the age-appropriateness of the game. It is currently up to retailers to decide whether to sell violent or sexually explicit games to minors. Matheson's bill would make it illegal to sell or rent video games with a rating of "adults only" to anyone under 18, or video games rated "mature" to anyone under 17. The measure would also require retailers to display information from the Federal Trade Commission about the ESRB's content-rating system in a "clear and conspicuous location." In Missouri, State Representative Diane Franklin (R- Camdenton) introduced a bill that would add a one percent excise tax on the sale of games rated T or above by the ESRB. Money raised by the proposed tax would go toward "the treatment of mental health conditions associated with exposure to violent video games."

Response from Creative Community

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Jan 18, playwright, screenwriter and director Charles Evered said, “The makers of popular culture may very well believe that their products are ultimately harmless. Studies exist saying as much. Studies exist saying the opposite. As a filmmaker, I'd like to see a study that reaches a third conclusion: The mushrooming of mayhem is a sign not only of where the culture may be headed, it's also a symptom of the weakening of creative imagination.” He continues:

It used to take skill, even finesse, to create horror. It used to take serious consideration of how to present an act of terror, where it might lie structurally in the story, how much or how little to show, to what extent the event should be visited—or revisited. There were silences, pauses, teases and innuendos. Alfred Hitchcock was a master, but even less talented directors labored to get it right. Now there is not only little left to the imagination, there is nothing left to the imagination. Show the guts, the veins—show the bullet traveling through a victim's eyeball, show it all. Then, simply claim you're depicting life as it really is. I don't pretend to have any answers in the political debate about violence, but I hope the discussion will prod some consciences in Hollywood and elsewhere in the entertainment industry. As filmmakers, we should ask ourselves: Are we doing the best work we can, or are we simply using the increasingly permissive marketplace as a cover to do work that isn't even close to our best? These are questions that one can weigh without the risk of losing friends, being passed over for gigs or, worst of all, not being invited to the best dinner parties.

In Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Robert Redford admitted he himself questions the industry's emphasis on violence. "I think it's absolutely not only appropriate, but overdue, to have a dialogue" about violence on screen, he said. "When I was driving along the street the other day in L.A., I saw two billboards where guns were featured prominently ... with a pleasant, happy-looking young couple.... My thought was: 'Does my industry think guns will help sell tickets?'" However, Keri Putnam, the festival's executive director, said last year's shootings did not prompt organizers to rethink this year's Sundance slate. "We did not go back and look at the program with an eye toward violence," she acknowledged during a roundtable after the news conference. "...[We didn't] say, 'Is there anything that will play differently because of that shooting?'

By Kevin Taglang.