As video gamers, developers, executives and stowaways who'd scored a buddy's badge gathered in L.A. for the Electronic Entertainment Expo — last week's 70,000-person-plus, industry-only trade show — substantive talk of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, was scarce.
On Monday, actress and Ubisoft press conference host Aisha Tyler paused for condolences after a stage full of costumed dancers did their thing to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
“I want to take a moment to do something that’s gonna feel a little incongruous and potentially a little uncomfortable to some of you,” Tyler said. “There’s no smooth or easy way to do this. … Before we start, everyone here at Ubisoft want to offer our deepest sympathies to the people affected by this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando. Our hearts … are with you.”
And then the show went on, with the announcement of several new releases in the category of first-person shooter – or games that make you feel that you are in the game, usually with most of the character out of frame and only his weapon visible.
Just hours before Ubisoft’s press conference, Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox at Microsoft, also offered his thoughts and solidarity to those connected to the nightclub shooting.
“To everyone affected by the recent tragedy in Orlando, our hearts are with you, and you should know you are not alone,” Spencer said. “The gaming community mourns with you.”
Later, Ubisoft unveiled the latest title in its Ghost Recon series for industry insiders and the press to sample on the convention floor. It’s a military first-person shooter that offers players an assortment of realistic weapons — many of which are named for the actual guns they were modeled after — and an opportunity to kill the enemy with that arsenal.
Ubisoft declined to comment, but I did speak with several people in line to play the game and asked what they thought about the Orlando shooting and about gun control in the United States.
“I don’t think rifles should be banned,” said David Halverson from Illinois. “I think there should be heavier testing to get those … but hunting rifles are basically the exact same thing and I don’t think it’s right [to ban rifles].”
Jacob Livovich from Arizona owns several guns himself — an AR-15, a shotgun and a 9mm pistol. But the Army veteran said he believes in some regulation.
“You want to do some general background checks and whatnot,” he said. “Where it’s at now, I feel, is pretty healthy. Ultimately, no matter what happens a bad guy’s going to get his hands on it [a gun] somehow. … Regulation-wise, there are loopholes in the system that most people are aware of, you know, it’s kind of culturally known. I think those need to be closed off, especially the gun shows, but ultimately I think it should be a right to — not easily — but it should be reasonable to get a rifle on your own.”
The “gun-show loophole” refers to the ability to purchase a firearm at a gun show without having to pass a background check. Though most gun sellers must be federally licensed if they sell more than a certain number of guns per year, private sellers who operate on the secondary market and complete few transactions per year aren’t required to perform background checks because they aren’t beholden to that federal license as are legitimate dealers or gun shops.
For attendee Matthew Kowalski, last Sunday's events hit a little closer to home. He has friends in Orlando and they relayed their news of the shooting to him. He acknowledged that video games can "show you what to do, how to shoot" and "desensitize you a little," but says he doesn't think video games are to blame for mass shootings. He also doesn’t think semi-automatic rifles like the one used by the Orlando shooter — a Sig Sauer MCX, not an AR-15 as initial reports claimed — should be banned.
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Others see a more clear connection between video games and gun violence. On the day of the shootings, pop-culture writer Jonathan McIntosh tweeted that the video game industry "fetishizes" and "glorifies" gun culture. And a New York Times article about E3 explored the possible link between video games and a dangerous lack of empathy.
In covering the gun-rights community for almost two years as political editor for Guns.com, I’ve learned the subject is an embattled one for the video game industry, with its violent portrayal of gun violence. The potential connection between violent video games and violent acts is frequently revisited, especially after a tragedy.
So how can you talk about one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, then brag about how many kills you racked up in (enter the latest first-person shooter here) at an electronics expo? Hint: It’s easier when the two aren’t in the same breath.
Rumor has it that Rockstar Games, maker of the infamous Grand Theft Auto series – which was caught up in a storm of bad press in recent years over its in-game gun violence and mistreatment of women – pulled its newest game out of E3 because of the Orlando shooting. A big reveal of the shoot-'em-up Western Red Dead Redemption was canceled because of a cut scene in the game where the game's protagonist walks into a saloon and begins shooting people, which perhaps sounded a little too much like what happened at Pulse.