On the 28th February 2018, two weeks after the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, Donald Trump attempted to reignite the argument that common multimedia platforms are in-part responsible for causing violent behaviour. During the inevitable discussions on gun control, he claimed that “the video games, the movies, the internet stuff is so violent”. Thereby he attempted to shift the focus of discussion through a straw man argument of ‘media violence’. What can this attempt to straw man the issue of gun control tell us about the President’s intentions?
In order to make sense of what the President has attempted, we need to look at two academic theories on media, the concepts of: “Moral Panic” and Active/Passive audience theory. Mass media are the means in which the public derives its body of knowledge from. In its modern guise, “Moral Panic” is the media-influenced fear amongst the masses towards someone or something considered to be a threat to the well-being of society. Using the five stages of a moral panic we can see how video games have been defined as the threat, popular franchises such as “Grand Theft Auto” or “Call of Duty” are depicted as simple and recognisable symbols, the negative, generalised portrayals of these games in the news or talk shows rouses public concerns, with the intention of soliciting a response from authorities and policy makers. The aim is to force authorities to “resolve” the issue through changes to society which does not allow for this threat to exist.
However, this portrayal of video games relies entirely on perceiving audiences as passive receptacles for violent mass media. These passive “magic bullet” or “hypodermic needle” models have been developed from the study of propaganda from World War I through the 1920s and studies into audience theory have continued to the present day. Examples of this research includes Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments in 1961 and 1963 which focused on the receptiveness of toddlers to images of violence. More recent studies conclude that audiences are more active in their reception of media. From Stuart Hall’s work in the 1980s to the present the subject has been researched. This includes a paper due to be published this year entitled “A longitudinal analysis of shooter games and their relationship with conduct disorder and cself-reported delinquency”. This paper concluded that: “the role of violent video games in the development of youth psychopathology or crime is very little if any.”
Comedian Trevor Noah commented that the discussion of video games’ influence is rarely discussed outside the subject of gun violence. He remarked that “Paperboy (Atari Games, 1985)”, which he played growing up, did not inspire many boys to go on delivery sprees. As a personal note to this: “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar North, 2002)” was released when I was 13 years old. And, while I enjoyed running people down in-game with various vehicles and performing doughnuts on their blood smeared corpses with bystanders screaming for the police (I still do), I have never had any inclination to do this in real life. In fact, this knowledge has an adverse effect on me, as I actually get anxious while operating a vehicle because I’m terrified of any potential accident my clumsiness may cause.
So, why would Donald Trump attempt to incite a moral panic over an already heavily studied topic? One theory could be that it is a distraction. That by directly influencing the media to focus on the discussion on to a frivolous topic such as this, it allows the current administration to deliberately distract the voting public from both its actions, inactions, and the repercussions of these. In this case, the attempt to straw man the issue of gun control and divert the discussion on to ‘media violence’ could be an attempt to distract the public from what will most likely be a lack of action regarding gun control laws and procedures despite the current public outcry.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grey Dynamics LTD.