Guns, Violence, Video Games, Irrationalism and the NRA’s Tedious New iOS App

While the popular narrative is going to be that the violent-video-game-hating NRA just licensed a self-promotional video game (and isn't that hypocritical), the actual story is that it's simply released an incredibly dull one.

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Matt Peckham

You could see the aftermath of Sandy Hook coming a mile away: The National Rifle Association with its public relations engine spooling up like a pair of fighter jet turbines, its CEO Wayne La Pierre on the drama-infused defensive blaming everything but guns; the White House convening a “task force” to address the issue while reportedly prepping a slew of nearly 20 executive orders; video game pundits circling the wagons and penning the usual anti-anti-video-game screeds; millions of Americans turning to the media for explanations only to be greeted by misguided speculation, fact-starved “expert” commentary and at best, superficial analyses of the relationship (or lack thereof) between violence-in-media and why, among other things, the U.S. has the highest gun-related homicide rates of any developed country in the world.

It’s all been pretty disconcerting to watch, and I don’t just mean the fanatical pro-gun proselytizing. I play video games for a living, and I’ve been writing and thinking about them for over a decade, studying the violence-in-media question and interviewing aggression researchers around the world. And while the research is clear that violent video games don’t incite people to pick up guns, strap on bulletproof vests and go on mass killing sprees, it’s wrong to assume we shouldn’t be asking and studying how changing media/mediums might affect us. So I cringe a little when I read stories where one side melodramatically absolves itself of any responsibility, while another pens acid rebuttals that amount to one-tenths evidence and nine-tenths snark.

Chris Mooney’s “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” is probably the single best piece I’ve read about why that may be. As Mooney notes, we’re inherently emotional creatures — so emotional that how we feel about something preempts conscious thought about it.

We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

After considering various case studies, Mooney concludes: “Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.”

Such a piece on the guns, video games and violence debate (if in fact it’s even fair to qualify it as a debate) was published in The Atlantic late last week, titled “How the Video-Game Industry Already Lost Out in the Gun-Control Debate,” written by video games researcher Ian Bogost. In it, Bogost patiently and lucidly argues that serious conversation ends when video games are co-opted as abstract bludgeons of war.

Don’t mistake Bogost’s argument for a dodge or an endorsement to disengage (as he notes some in the industry seem to be). Bogost isn’t saying video games shouldn’t be part of a conversation about, well, anything really (in fact he’s saying the exact opposite — video games ought to not only be part of the conversation, but one of the mediums through which we have the conversation). When someone like Joe Biden forms a special task force, by contrast, he’s creating the illusion that something’s being done, when in fact all that’s happened is that the phrase “violent video games” has been used once more as a tool to leverage an outcome, research be damned.

It’s pretty clear at this point what the research says about links between violent video games and real-world violence. As associate professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M’s Christopher Ferguson wrote for TIME in December 2011, aggression research “just hasn’t panned out,” and “much of the early research on VVG [violent video games] linking them to increased aggression was problematic.” Why? Because it involved metrics that “had nothing to do with real-life aggression and failed to control carefully for other important variables,” notes Ferguson. Variables like: family violence, mental health issues and gender.

According to Ferguson:

More recent research has not found that children who play VVG are more violent than other kids, nor harmed in any other identifiable fashion. A recent longitudinal study of my own, following 165 10- to 14-year-old boys and girls over a three-year period, now in press with Journal of Psychiatric Research, finds no long-term link between VVG and youth aggression or dating violence. Another recent longitudinal study with young German children published in Media Psychology by Maria von Salisch and colleagues similarly found no links between VVG and aggression.

The NRA’s back in the headlines today because of a just-released freebie app for iOS called NRA: Practice Range. The NRA apparently outsourced the design to developer-for-hire MEDL Mobile, Inc., the outfit behind stuff like My Wild Night with Ted – Ted the MovieCheech & Chong’s The Fatty and Marlee Signs – Learn American Sign Language With Marlee Matlin.

The question: Should we be offended that an organization whose CEO just indicted violent video games as one of several media-related culprits responsible for shootings like Sandy Hook, is now itself in the business of licensing video games?

That depends what you think of the NRA, I suppose, but I don’t see the game itself as hypocritical, since whatever else La Pierre bungled in his speech, he specified “vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse.” All NRA: Practice Range offers, by contrast, is a glorified skeet and practice range shooter. Think Duck Hunt, only with nonliving targets. You aim by tilting your iPhone or iPad and fire by tapping the screen to shoot pop-up bullseyes or clay disks in various venues. So no, if you want to get technical about it, NRA: Practice Range is only a violent video game in the sense that swinging a golf club and whacking a golf ball hundreds of yards is a violent act. (Whether it is or isn’t “violent” in the sense behavioral specialists mean when they conduct aggression research is a separate issue — I’m just trying to assess whether the NRA’s being internally consistent with its own statements, flawed or no.)

That said, NRA: Practice Range is also a tedious mess of a video game that feels more like shovelware than something you’d expect from an “Official NRA Licensed Product.” I fiddled with it this morning and, when it wasn’t crashing outright on my iPhone 5, struggled to make sense of its raison d’être. Clearly that includes a smattering of NRA propaganda: At the outset of each level, you’ll read little “facts” and “safety tips” like “Over the last 50 years, the NRA has trained more than 50,000 law enforcement firearm instructors and currently have [sic] over 11,000 instructors” or “NRA programs train over 750,000 gun owners each year.”

But load up the app and start shooting and you’ll find it’s little more than a generic screen-tapper that’s pretty much the opposite of the “most authentic experience possible” promised in the description. You can buy additional guns as in-game purchases for $0.99, but each time I tried, just to see if it added to the gameplay somehow, the game locked up.

Why not include more sophisticated ballistics? More than just hit/miss feedback? An elaborate dossier on the types of guns available? Information on local gun laws based on location services? More detailed gun safety information, beyond the handful of random factoids? I can’t imagine a serious gun enthusiast, much less a casual one, finding anything of interest here.

So no, while the popular narrative is going to be that the violent-video-game-hating NRA just licensed a self-promotional video game (and isn’t that hypocritical), the actual story’s that the organization has simply released an incredibly dull one.