In the wake of this weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald Trump and U.S. lawmakers turned yet again to a familiar scapegoat: violent video games.
On Sunday, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News, “The idea of these video games that dehumanize individuals to have a game of shooting individuals and others — I’ve always felt that is a problem for future generations and others.” (There is no evidence this is true.)
“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” Trump said Monday morning. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden weighed in as well. “It is not healthy having these games teaching kids this dispassionate notion you can… blow their brains out,” he said on CNN Monday evening.
Online, teen gamers protested. They’re sick of being targeted by politicians and pundits who are scrambling to avoid confronting the misogyny, white supremacy and lax weapon regulations at the heart of our country’s mass-shooting crisis. So they’re responding the best way they know how: by roasting the olds with memes.
I spoke with a few of the teens behind these viral responses. They know they’re smack in the middle of some bullshit political crosshairs, and they can see exactly what’s going on. “Since it’s mostly conservatives saying video games cause mass shootings, it would be hard for them to concede to liberals and talk about gun control or talk about Trump’s rhetoric and how it indirectly can cause people to go after immigrants or people of color,” says Jack, a 15-year-old gamer from New York City. He points out that the El Paso shooter, a 21-year-old white man, reportedly wrote in his manifesto, “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
“I was angry that Boomers and media are saying that video games are the cause of these shootings,” says Victor, a teen gamer from Romania, on why he created a few memes. “But it’s just that people can buy guns to easily.”
Video games don’t “mind-control you as the media makes it seem,” says Gil, a 13-year-old of Mexican descent who was born in Texas and now lives in Puerto Rico. Gil grew up playing violent video games, often alongside his father. He’s been a fan of God of War and Mortal Kombat since he was 8 years old. They’re simply his favorite form of entertainment, he says. “Imagine if a generation prior to theirs had said violent books cause violence,” Gil points out. “They would have defended reading much like we’re defending games today.”
Some of these politically vocal teen gamers live outside the U.S., but they stay connected with American teens through games like Minecraft and Call of Duty, chatting with their gaming networks on Reddit and Discord. Some are also from similarly politically divided countries, struggling to manage violence, racism and high death rates. “They blame games on making us bad, when in reality it’s them,” says a teenage gamer who lives in South Africa, which has a similar rate of gun deaths to the U.S. “Games are our only escape.”
Indeed, multi-user, interactive-universe games like Fortnite can actually be a positive resource for teens who struggle with issues like anxiety and depression. An anonymous Fortnite player told MEL this year, “All I can say at this point is that when I feel lonely and depressed, I turn on my PS4 and play online, [and] the pain stops.”
The idea that video games are connected to mass shootings has been around since even before the Columbine attacks in 1999. In 2012, following the death of 36 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre blamed entertainment media. He called Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto and the video game industry a “corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.”
Evidence tells a different story about the Newtown shooting. The killer, Adam Lanza, was influenced by ad campaigns in gun magazines, including NRA’s American Rifleman. Advertisements for Bushmaster Firearms AR-15 style rifles, used in the Newton and 2018 Nashville Waffle House shootings, featured taglines like “Consider Your Man Card Reissued” and “Forces of Opposition Bow Down.”
So let’s put this to bed once and for all: As CNN reported Monday afternoon, U.S. video game sales are officially not linked to the firearm homicide rate. Or, as Gil says in response to the report, “That’s basically what we’ve known all along.”