For someone who enjoys saying he's not just another politician, President Donald Trump sure sounds like one when he talks about violence in movies and video games. He cites it as a contributing factor to gun violence, dating back to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.
"We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” Trump said in the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace."
To be fair, Trump doesn't place all of society's ills on his go-to scapegoat: immigrants. He also blames violent movies. After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, the president said, “The fact is that you’re having movies come out that are so violent, with the killing and everything else, that maybe that’s another thing that we’re gonna have to discuss, and a lot of people are saying it.”
Violence in media has long been a favored scapegoat for many of society's failures. Time and time again, study after study have shown that video games and movies alone cannot cause a person to become violent.
Nevertheless, regardless of what political party was in power, violence in society has been blamed on the two forms of media by the powers that probably shouldn’t be.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick jumped on the bandwagon with Trump in the wake of El Paso and Dayton, just as David Turner, Odessa’s mayor, did after the most recent mass shooting in his city and Midland. The shooting left seven dead and 22 injured.
“I think it’s a problem of the heart, to be honest with you,” Turner said on MSNBC. “We have some of the most violent video games that you can see.”
While politicians and policymakers try to shift the focus toward the two mediums and say they've become too violent, some North Texas filmmakers and gamers say there is plenty of blame to go around.
John Hardie, who likely knows video games more than all of today’s politicians combined, says he does not believe they are the cause of mass shootings. If Hardie believed that, he probably wouldn't have helped open the National Videogame Museum in Frisco, with his friends Sean Kelly and Joe Santulli in 2016.
Hardie also rejects the idea that video games have gotten more violent. Instead, he says, the visual depiction of violence in games has just become more graphic.
“In the old days, when you got killed in a video game, that was it,” Hardie says. “What we’ve done today is make it more realistic.”
There have been many shifts in the world of video games. Doom launched the first-person shooter genre into the industry with a force. The technology has gotten smaller, faster and stronger. But, another shift, Hardie notes, happened in the homes of gamers growing up.
“Games used to be a family event,” he says. “It was something you played with your family.”
Now, for the most part, it’s not that way, he says. Today, children and teenagers play their games in the confines of their room, communicating with each other primarily through online play. This has taken the parents out of the picture, he says.
“The parents would kind of be the overseers because they were involved too,” he says. “You now have it where the parents are kind of clueless.”
But it’s not exactly the parents’ fault. Older players have been pushed out of the more advanced circles of the virtual world, toward simpler video games. Hardie uses himself as an example.
“I’ve tried to play Fortnite. I can’t handle more than one, maybe two joysticks. So, here I’m playing with a controller that has 12 buttons, or however many it has, and just as I’m trying to learn what each button does, I learn there’s a build mode that reassigns those 12 buttons to do something else. Forget it. I’m 53 years old, that’s not happening. My brain doesn’t work that way anymore. I need something pretty simplistic.”
If there was more family involvement in gaming, Hardie says maybe things wouldn’t have progressed to where they are today, but there are a lot of factors. Blaming movies and video games solely for the mass shootings, which seem to happen every other week, ignores all the other factors.
“To say that violence in movies causes violence is a far too simple and almost ludicrous a statement to breathe,” says Amanda Presmyk, vice president of production for Dallas-based production company Cinestate. “It just ignores the complexity of the situation.”
But, if anyone should be offended by, or inclined to think violence in media causes violence, it would be Dallas Sonnier, the founder of Cinestate.
“I lost both of my parents to domestic gun violence in separate situations,” Sonnier says. “If anyone should be offended by extreme violence or extreme violence in movies, it should be me.”
Instead, Sonnier’s experiences have pushed him in the other direction. It takes more than an average experience to move him, he says. This comes through in his films and has fueled Cinestate’s no-bullshit, no-holds-barred filmmaking, which often features extreme violence.
He says he thinks violence in movies does have a role to play in real-world violence, but so does everything else.
“Everything has a role to play, but I don't think specifically violence in movies is the root or cause,” Sonnier says. “I don't think mental health is, I don't think video games are. I think it's more to do with the isolation, that is, the isolation that comes from the growth of the internet and the way that we as a society are distancing ourselves from personal relationships and human connection.”
One major production company has perceptibly given in to the notion that violence in media causes real-life violence.
In the wake of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, Universal Studios pulled advertisements for its satirical horror film The Hunt, starring Hilary Swank.
On Aug. 9, ahead of the film’s September release, Trump tweeted: “The movie coming is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!”
The next day, Universal canceled the film’s release.
In a statement to The Hill, representatives of the studio said, “We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller. But we understand that now is not the right time to release this film.”
It’s a moment of great corporate weakness, Sonnier says.
“They created the movie after a mass shooting happened, mass shootings happened during the production of the movie, mass shootings happened during the marketing of the movie, and mass shootings happened when they decided to put the movie on ice,” Sonnier says.
What happened to The Hunt would never happen to a Cinestate film, not just because the company is independent, but because part of the company's philosophy, Sonnier says, is to be a flamethrower to censorship and political correctness.
“Any time a filmmaker or studio allows the public at large or the perceived public at large to dictate what they can and will say, it's a slippery slope," Presmyk, says. “It's heading into full-blown 1984 territory.”
John Hardie says people have always looked for a scapegoat when it comes to tragedies like mass shootings. Sometimes the scapegoat is video games, sometimes it’s movies and sometimes it’s music.
In the '80s, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were taken to court because parents thought the artists' music made their kids commit suicide. In the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting, Marilyn Manson's music was blamed for the tragic act carried out by gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
In Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine, Manson was asked what he would say to the children at Columbine and others in a community affected by the shooting.
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"I wouldn't say a single word to them," Manson said in the film. "I would listen to what they had to say, and that's what no one did."
This rhetoric touted by politicians and others after these mass tragedies is a direct path toward censorship. But, it shows no signs of going away. This is part of art's history and will likely forever be a part of art's future.
“The first thing you learn about in film school is that someone’s always trying to shut it down, and that’s just the story of art,” Presmyk, says. “There’s always a group of people that are afraid. It’s a tale as old as time.”