Joe Lieberman Famously Blamed Video Games for Violence. Now Guns and the Internet Worry Him Even More
Following two mass shootings last weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald Trump said the video game industry is partially to blame for glorifying violence and desensitizing would-be mass killers. He also made similar remarks after the Parkland, Fla. school shooting, going so far as to release a White House video recounting bloody and gruesome scenes from various game franchises.
Trump won't be the last politician to offer the "video games cause violence" rationale, and he's hardly the first. Former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman led the initial charge in the 1990s, as Mortal Kombat and other video games began captivating a new audience of young gamers.
Lieberman successfully lobbied the video game industry to adopt a ratings system in 1994. In an interview with Fortune, the now senior counsel with New York City law firm Kasowitz, Benson & Torres, says that Trump is right to call out the video game industry, but he also says it's not entirely to blame.
“Violent video games do play a role in stimulating some young men who are vulnerable to act out with violent acts," Lieberman tells Fortune. "Now, this entertainment culture, in some ways, has been replaced as a major cause of the problem by extremist, hate-filled websites on the dark Internet, which people are also—as we see here with the shooters—are almost hypnotically involved in."
'Mortal Kombat' and the rise of video game ratings
Mortal Kombat, a video game franchise that is still kicking today, was first released in 1992. It wasn't the first game to raise objections over violence, but it was the first that brought about political action.
Not long after the game's release, Lieberman rallied around the idea that the game, which depicts characters fighting each other, had a negative effect on children. Similar to current administration's violent game montage, Lieberman played VHS tapes at a 1993 Senate Committee hearing on video game violence that showed the most gore-heavy footage of both Mortal Kombat and another game Night Trap.
"I spent a lot of time during those years trying to get familiar with the social science research on the impact of violence in media on young people, or anybody, but particularly children and including teenagers," Lieberman says. "To me, the studies were clear—there was an impact. Those who play violent video games were mesmerized by violence… but it was across a range, because people are different. With some children, it had no effect on their behavior, but with others, it did."
Outside of Lieberman's work and the committee hearing, the controversy led to a massive change in the marketing and distribution of video games that still exists today. The Entertainment Software Rating Board was created in the wake of the uproar in 1994, and the organization continues to issue ratings on video games sold in North America today.
"This was really up to the parents, and they had to use the ratings," Lieberman says.
'Grand Theft Auto' and calls for regulation on sales
The Grand Theft Auto franchise kicked off another wave of concern, prompting former California Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) to introduce the Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act in 2003. Focussing on regulating the sale of games with mature content, the bill ultimately never made it out of the House.
But in 2004, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was held up as another example for why some lawmakers wanted to regulate the video game industry. A secret 'Hot Coffee' mini-game—hidden inside San Andreas—showed two characters having sex, sparking outrage among lawmakers who worried that children were accessing to sexual content without their parents awareness.
In 2005, Lieberman and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton teamed up on a new bill to regulate the sale of video games. The Family Entertainment Protection Act would have imposed fines on anyone sold inappropriate games to minors based on the ESRB's ratings. That bill also failed to garner enough support to pass.
In addition, similar state laws have been struck down as unconstitutional. For instance, the Supreme Court struck down a California law in 2011 that was similar to Lieberman and Clinton's bill, after determining the evidence linking violent video games and aggression was flawed.
'Doom' and other first-person shooters get targeted
Doom served as the introduction of the first-person shooter genre for many gamers, and it was the first video game tied to a mass shooting, after 1999's Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colo.
The two teenagers who killed their classmates—in what was then the deadliest school shooting of all time—were reportedly fans of the gore-filled space alien shooting game. Rumors swirled that they had created levels based on the layout of the high school. While other levels designed by pair were uncovered, replicas of the school have never surfaced.
In 2007, video games were once again criticized for contributing to a culture of violence in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting that left 33 dead, including the shooter.
"These are real lives. These are real people that are in the ground now because of this game. I have no doubt about it," activist Jack Thompson told Fox News at the time. Thompson, now disbarred by the state of Florida, made a name for himself as a crusader against pornography and video games, and frequently railed against titles including the Grand Theft Auto series. In the wake of Virginia Tech, he blamed Counter-Strike, another first-person shooter, though there was little proof that the Virginia Tech shooter actually played the game.
Following the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre that killed 28 people in Newtown, Conn., the argument of video games causing violence once again resurfaced. A report by Connecticut's state attorney found that the perpetrator of that slaughter had played a number of first-person shooters including School Shooter, a modification to the sci-fi title Half Life 2 that was made to simulate the Columbine School shooting. However, the shooter also appeared to be an avid fan of other non-violent games, like Super Mario Bros. and Dance Dance Revolution.
Now in the wake of the Dayton and El Paso shootings, the argument about video games causing violence has rebooted, again, only with different titles and new players in Washington. Walmart, which was the site of the Texas crime scene, has decided to pull its violent video game displays in its stores, but it is not changing its gun sales policies. Stocks in video game companies took a hit after Trump threatened regulations on the industry last week. But with adult-rated titles scoring with gamers, gaming companies see little financial incentive to change their game plan.
Meanwhile, in retirement from politics, Lieberman continues to say video games can desensitize some people to violence. He says they are a "concern," but also that they're not the root cause of the violence perpetrated by people he calls "domestic white supremacists" and "hate-filled extremists."
"If it it were up to me in Congress right now, I would hope they would seize the moment and find some common ground on gun control." Lieberman says.
"When a guy can walk into a nightclub and restaurant and—in 30 seconds—kill so many people because he had an automatic weapon, it is time to make automatic weapons illegal."
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