On Video Games, Violence, and the Role of the Press

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The US Conference of Mayors held a meeting this weekend during which Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy had some things to say about violent video games. Actually, he had quite a few things to say on the topic, but one quote in particular stuck with me:

“the day that Newtown happened, there were games available that actually allowed people to go into a school in the game and shoot ’em up.”

Malloy is almost certainly referring to Kindergarten Killers, a flash game the NRA cited as evidence that the video game industry was having a negative impact on our society. The NRA failed to mention that Kindergarten Killers is a ten year old flash game created by one person, and it was never picked up by a publisher. Unfortunately, when reporting on Governor Malloy’s quotes, most outlets also failed to mention that fact.

Over the past couple of days I’ve seen a lot of outlets (both gaming outlets and non-gaming outlets) covering this story, but only a handful have provided any context for that quote.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of an uninformed parent reading that quote. This hypothetical reader might begin to form a negative opinion on video games – after all, this is a state governor making these statements, and that position carries a certain level of credibility in the eyes of most Americans.

By neglecting to provide any contextual information about a video game that “allowed people to go into a school in the game and shoot ‘em up.” the press has helped to shape the public’s opinion of video games through omission.

By choosing not to delve into the back story behind that quote, any outlet reporting on it is leaving the reader to formulate an opinion without the whole story. Someone not in touch with the gaming industry would likely assume that the game Governor Malloy is referring to could be sitting on store shelves next to the latest Call of Duty.

Kindergarten Killers is a vile example of what video games can be. It has no artistic merit, and the subject matter is straight up obscene. However, since it’s a ten year old flash game made by one person, citing  it as evidence that the video game industry is having negative effects on society is akin to citing a home movie found on Youtube as evidence that the film industry is having a negative impact on society.

This game should hold no bearing on the current discussion on violence in video games, but by allowing the misguided impression that the game is part of the video game industry to persist, the press is helping to shape a negative opinion on gaming held by a lot of people.

I’m not writing any of this to call out any specific members of the press. There are many reasons why a writer might not include information about Kindergarten Killers in a story about Malloy’s quotes. First and foremost, it is (strictly speaking) conjecture to assume that he was referring to Kindergarten Killers. I’m hard pressed to come up with another game he could have been referring to, but the fact remains that I can’t say FOR SURE that he was referring to Kindergarten Killers, and as such, mentioning it might be against editorial policy at some outlets.

On top of that, many writers covering video games write to their audience – that is to say, they write assuming the reader already has a certain level of knowledge on the gaming industry, which might keep them from delving too deep into info about Kindergarten Killers that they’re assuming the reader already knows.

Whatever the reason for various outlets neglecting to contextualize Governor Malloy’s quotes, their work is still helping to shape public opinion on this topic. Video games are going to be scrutinized in the coming months and years, and that makes it especially important to present the public with ALL of the information they need to make an informed decision on the topic.

So I’m putting out a call to all members of the press (both gaming press and non-gaming press) to report on this topic responsibly. If editorial policy at your outlet prevents you from getting sidetracked in an article about Governor Malloy’s quotes, at least link out to another article that explains Kindergarten Killers.

I’d also like to see the press handle this issue and issues like it better in general. If you’re reporting on something said or done by a small organization opposed to violent video games, make mention of the organization’s size. Your readers trust you, and if you’re reporting on it, they’ll assume it’s large enough to merit attention. Don’t betray that trust by omitting details that provide needed context for the situation.

If you’re reporting on something said by a government official, take the time to do some research on them and their core values. Do they take campaign contributions from the NRA? If so, that’s something the reader needs to know. That information provides the reader with valuable information on the process that government official is using to make their decisions and formulate their opinions.

If you can’t work any of that into the article you’re writing take the time to sit down and write a second article that contextualizes the first. If your editor won’t approve it, put that second article on your personal blog. Your readers trust you; don’t betray that trust.

 

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