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As game developers and content studios prepare for the release of new experiences, the immersive entertainment industry finds itself in a familiar spotlight.

With the recent mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, supporters of gun control laws asked for a ban on weapons designed for military use and more background checks. Defenders of the Second Amendment, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), vehemently oppose most proposals resulting from the ongoing debates.

This time, however, the national debates has introduced both a new discussion that seems to be a throwback to less enlightened times. The first is the student activism movement that seems determined to make their voices heard to the politicians who send thoughts and prayers, the second is the age-old debate over violent video games and their effects on the people who play them.

Shaping The Debate On Immersive Entertainment

In the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day shooting in Florida, President Donald Trump announced that he would direct his administration to look into the correlation between mass shootings and violent video games. He also suggested that video games, and by extension virtual reality games, should have a stronger rating system, conveniently ignoring the fact that the Entertainment Software Rating Board already exists to provide guidance as to a game’s content.

“We have to do something about what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it, and also, video games,” said Trump, during a White House discussion on school safety, cited by Polygon. “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”

On March 8, the White House hosted a meeting of executives from the gaming industry, members of Congress and parents’ groups. The aim of this meeting was simple … to discuss violence in video games and immersive content, with the goal (presumably) of adding fuel to a debate that many of us thought had been debunked several times before by published research.

The meeting was closed to the press, but The Verge reported that the meeting itself was “unproductive and bizarre,” with little talk of government restrictions on video game content itself. Rather, the news source said, the conversation was more about robust age limits for all types of immersive entertainment, and how game developers could produce experiences that make society healthier.

Attendees were shown a two-minute compilation of hyper-violent gameplay—currently available on the White House’s official YouTube channel— but the meeting was essentially smoke and mirrors. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), for instance, was happy to be invited to Washington D.C., although it stated that its long-held position on actual video game content was unlikely to change.

“We welcomed the opportunity to meet with the President and other elected officials at the White House,” the ESA said in a statement, cited by The Verge. “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.”

Virtual Content Under The Spotlight

Irrespective of whether the President really needed to call a meeting at all, the question that needs asking is how does the rehashing of a decades-old debate impact both the immersive media & entertainment industry moving forward?

The simple answer at this moment in time is that nobody really knows. Granted, there is no evidence that the Trump Administration has any concrete plans to target immersive entertainment, but that doesn't mean that the POTUS won't decide to adopt a draconian attitude to virtual content.

The vast majority of VR Arcades, for example, feature content that requires a person to shoot at virtual enemies as part of the game, while free-roam VR systems such as those provided by Zero Latency offer experiences with—once again—a high proportion of shooting. The caveat is that the targets are usually either zombies or aliens, both of which don’t offer the level of photo-realism that could prompt a mass shooting in the real world.

Branded VR-centric IP such as Starbreeze’s John Wick Chronicles, for example, has a Mature Rating and a significant amount of gun-play. VRX Networks has produced a Jigsaw VR experience that puts the player in the position of avoiding a set of swinging blades. Both of these experiences have a Mature 17+ rating. And while this content is drawn from the DNA of the movies themselves, there is no doubt that these are stand-alone or ancillary products and not video games as such.

Secondly, Trump’s response to the Parkland shooting seemed to gloss over the fact that the immersive entertainment industry is well aware that the content available to the general public may not be suitable for all. The debate over a causal link between video games and real-world violence, for example, can be traced as far back as 1982, when the then U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop stated that teenagers were addicted to video games and that it was a form of entertainment that offered “nothing constructive.”

In fact, Trump has long believed that the video game industry revels in its notoriety, tweeting in 2012 that, “video game violence & glorification must be stopped – it is creating monsters.” For the record, this was a direct response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, and seemed to gloss over other high-profile mass shootings that not only occurred that year but also had no link to video games.

Adam Lanza—the person responsible for Sandy Hook—was a 20-year-old gamer who owned several titles (Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Doom, for example) that would fit into the category of violent or mature content. This revelation allowed the NRA to claim at the time that the video game industry “sow’s violence against its own people.”

Less than a year later, data recovered by investigators revealed that Lanza actually spent a vast amount of time playing Dance Dance Revolution and a slew of other non-violent games. To nobody’s surprise, the NRA decided not to comment on Lanza’s love of dance.

Games Are The Face Of Immersive Entertainment

According to Brian Baglow, founder and director of the Scottish Games Network, less than 10 percent of all games are aimed at the so-called mature market or feature adult content.

Games like Call of Duty may have a devoted following and sell millions of units, but then so do FIFA, Madden, NBA, Zelda and Super Mario. In addition, Baglow said that (to date) there has been no clear evidence from numerous research projects that a link between video games and mass shootings exists.

“Games are somewhat popular,” said Baglow, in an email to immersed. “The Grand Theft Auto franchise has sold hundreds of millions of copies. The number of crimes associated with these games are vanishingly small—and those which are probably linked were aided by having access to the family arsenal. Statistically, GTA is safer than making coffee or jumping on your bed.”

On a global level, the number of people worldwide who either own a console or play videogames on a regular basis are in the hundreds of millions. By the end of 2017, for instance, Sony’s PlayStation 4 had shifted over 70 million units, while Nintendo expects to sell around 14 million switch consoles in its first year. And

In the USA alone, there are 150 million people who play video games on a regular basis, according to the ESA, and 65 percent of American households are home to at least one person who plays a minimum of three hours of video games every week. By contrast, there are reportedly five million members of the NRA.

Logic dictates that a significant amount of people who are gamers will have played a title that could be either considered violent or has a mature rating. In addition, there are probably NRA members who have either played or own games. The latter is more likely when you take into account that the NRA has given its branded blessing to several video games over the years … all of which allow an individual to hone their shooting and hunting skills in a digitally-created setting.

Somewhat interestingly, an ESA survey found that 71 percent of US parents said that video games are a positive part of their child’s lives, although 94 percent said that they paid attention to what gaming content was being played. In addition, 85 percent of parents were familiar with the ESRB game rating system and 96 percent were confident that it accurately described the content within the game.

Violent Games Bring Violent Delights

So does the VR industry need to keep an eye on not only what is being played in an out-of-home venue, but who is taking part in the experience? And will the lack of a definitive link between violence and immersive entertainment prevent the powers-that-be from dredging up ancient arguments?

According to Baglow, the answer is a definitive no on both counts. The bottom line is that not only have games been rated for years but also everyone else in the world can play adult games, “without running amok and killing people with assault rifles.”

“The most popular games are played worldwide.” Baglow said. “With gamers in multiple countries not only playing, but competing and playing against each other. There is only one country in which mass shootings occur on a tragically frequent basis and feature high powered assault weapons.”

The world is well aware that a regular cadence of mass shootings is a uniquely American problem. Guns are part of the culture in the Land of the Free, and will likely remain so for many years to come.

The vast majority of U.S. gun owners are law-abiding citizens who own a weapon for hunting or protection. Around three percent of the population owns 50 percent of civilian-specific guns, and it seems that finding a link between gun ownership/availability and video-game-inspired violence when a mass shooting occurs is clutching at straws.

Popular Culture Has Become Virtual

Top selling franchises such as Call of Duty, Halo, Grand Theft Auto and Overwatch are popular because they not only combine exciting gameplay with high quality graphics but also allow the player to use weapons on a regular basis to achieve the game’s goals. Call of Duty, for instance, has sold millions of units worldwide and spawned highly competitive eSports tournaments where players prove just how good they at virtual killing.

The key word here is virtual. The suggestion that a person planning a mass shooting hones his or her craft by practicing on video games is patently absurd.

And yet, the debate has reignited once again. The only difference from 1982 is that immersive experiences have become a multi-billion-dollar industry that is firmly entrenched in all aspects of popular culture.

On the flip side, the video game industry has been made a scapegoat for mass shootings or violent behavior for so long that it is tempting to think that game studios and content developers heard the President’s words, sighed and went about the daily business of creating more immersive entertainment experiences.

The New Yorker reported that the Obama Administration’s video-game czar Constance Steinkuehler told Vice-President Joe Biden in 2013 after Sandy Hook that, “If you go into that room arguing that video games cause gun violence, you will be on the wrong side of facts. Video games are not a gun-violence problem. But video games do have a P.R. problem.”

Five years later and it appears that the current President was either not given the same advice or chose to ignore the facts. Instead, he decided to respawn an argument that has been proven time and time again to have no basis in reality. And that is the least surprising element of this entire discussion.