How Games Can Solve Biden’s Quest to Reduce Gun Violence

Over the holidays I received a curious email from the Office of the Vice President requesting concrete proposals to reduce gun violence. In the middle of my heated response I stopped typing. Most of what I was saying had been said before. “There has to be a better way,” I thought as I set down my iPhone to go for a second helping of my sister’s amazing pear tart. Knowing Biden would receive hundreds of emails similar to my own, I thought perhaps asking my network to come up with creative ways games can help. I believe that games can deliver public services.  Instead of being seen as part of the problem, why not ask game makers how games can be part of the solution? 

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Over the holidays I received a curious email from the Office of the Vice President requesting concrete proposals to reduce gun violence. In the middle of my heated response I stopped typing. Most of what I was saying had been said before. “There has to be a better way,” I thought as I set down my iPhone to go for a second helping of my sister’s amazing pear tart. Knowing Biden would receive hundreds of emails similar to my own, I thought perhaps asking my network to come up with creative ways games can help. I believe that games can deliver public services.  Instead of being seen as part of the problem, why not ask game makers how games can be part of the solution?

I was thrilled to receive in a matter of days over 100 ideas on reducing gun violence. I was impressed at the heartfelt passion from multiple sides of many issues including gun regulation, mental health care, the question of whether the violence in video games is just used as a political tool, and the content and regulation of game themes. None could point to a definitive study linking real world gun violence to video games; however, many thought games could provide a wider variety of experiences for players. In short, there are a variety of opinions and no one game industry voice on this issue.

While gun control is a wicked problem, the good news is that there are a number of simple things we can do to start reducing violence. I have ten suggestions up on my blog. There are also a number of games we might design to reduce gun violence.

Vice President Biden can sponsor one or more of the following kinds of games.

  • A social game or an ARG to encourage community dialogs on improving mental health and reducing gun violence (suggested by Ian Schreiber)
  • A game to create empathy in kids. (That’s on the top of our agenda here at XEOPlay)
  • A community based game to encourage the voluntary turn in of guns and ammo. (suggested by Asi Burak)
  • A game to raise a player’s emotional awareness and intelligence. (also important to us here at XEOPlay)
  • A game to increase social bonding between players
  • A game that reinvents the game of High School using MMO guild dynamics (suggested by Dr. Edward Castronova)
  • A contest like the “X Prize” to playsource ideas for reducing gun violence.
  • A contest or grant program to fund non-violent games. (suggested by Robin Hunicke)

Beyond exploring these kinds of games game developers could make more non-violent games such as Journey, Braid, and World of Goo.?They can also make more playsourcing games that change the player and their world for the better such as planting real trees with XEOPlay’s Tilt World. Finally, there are three steps that we need to take as a nation to untangle ourselves and address the gun violence problem.

Stop the blame game and start solving. The old conversation is at a stalemate. The NRA blames violent video games, and many in the games industry blame the NRA. When that gets boring they blame the mental health system. I reached out to game developers and others I know in high tech (many whom are gun owners) to come up with creative solutions and information to expand the conversation. They did not let me down. Reducing gun violence requires access to research; reflection on our own choices as gun owners, non-gun owners, game makers, game players; and as a last resort regulation by the government. Here are some of their thoughts. More on my blog and in the comments.

  •  “The debate in its current form is not only counter-productive, but is part of the problem. Marketers, Game Developers understand motivations drive behavior, more than anything else period. Game developers understand, in a deeply philosophical as well as eminently practical way, that most of creation share goals…. Rather than blaming a technology, a media, as a cause of a problem. Use the technology, the industry, like any other tool, to solve a problem.” George Dolbier? CTO: Social & Interactive Media, IBM ?”The opinions expressed are solely my own and in no way represent the opinions of IBM”
  • “Blaming video games for gun violence today is as silly as it was for politicians and pundits of the ’60s to blame television for all of our woes… or critics of the ’50s to blame juvenile delinquency on pinball parlors and comic books… or cultural critics of the ’20s and ’30s to blame movies for a variety of social ills.” Warren Spector, Veteran Game Designer
  • “If the White House is really interested in games, they could start using them as sophisticated communication tools about complex systems instead of using them as rhetorical levers when the need arises (cf. ? )” Ian Bogost, Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia TechHow the Video-Game Industry Already Lost Out in the Gun-Control Debate

Step 1 Research

The most surprising thing I learned from this input is that the CDC and NIH are banned from researching gun violence, and the ATF is banned from telling us what kinds of guns are killing us. It’s the daily shootings that kill more people (30,000 a year vs. 28 from highly televised mass shootings). We lack a strong organization to challenge the NRA’s all or nothing stance in the way that MADD stood up to the alcohol industry some years ago. Mental health issues and stress play a role. Clearly we need more research data to create effective policy.

  • “The sudden enthusiasm on the part of gun rights proponents for better mental health care is nothing but a smokescreen. Tragedies such as Sandy Hook, horrific as they are, are really beside the point because they are comparatively rare. Gun violence in America is far higher than that of other First World nations with similar numbers of guns per capita. The problem is the ease with which guns may be obtained by people who cannot be trusted with them. I have a number of concrete proposals that do not violate the Second Amendment.” Ernest Adams, High Technology Consultant
  • “Stress fuels anxiety, depression, substance abuse, violent, impulsive behavior, and suicidal tendencies. Forbes magazine recently termed stress as the “black plague of the 21st century” because conventional medical treatments for prevention and cure fail to address what is now a widespread epidemic.’ Bob Roth, Director of the David Lynch Foundation
  • “I believe that those of us who use media to communicate with the public should put a stop to the demonization of the mentally ill. Sandy Hook can happen to anyone and it can happen anywhere… The year after I graduated High School, a man went on a shooting rampage in my hometown. He killed a girl who had volunteered as a receptionist in the Psych ward as part of a program at my High School, and then shot up a Lyons restaurant that I used to frequent with my friends. This happened in the quaint little mining town of Grass Valley. No one is immune, and this man, although he committed some horrible acts, was not in his right mind. He needed help.” Glenn Hernandez, Game Artist XEOPlay

Step 2 Reflection

As I expected, opinions on the relationship between violent video games and real world violence varied. Many enjoy the violence in video games and felt it was a reflection of current culture. Others thought that the violence had gone too far. Several shared stories of how gun violence had personally affected them. Many felt that the game industry could do a better job at promoting high quality non-violent games such as Journey, Braid, and World of Goo. There was a call to action to inspire more of this kind of content to be made in order to achieve higher artistic goals for the medium of games.

  • “Play with violent themes, from Chess to Dungeons & Dragons to first-person shooter videogames, is psychologically important and culturally positive. Such games are part of a noble tradition in art and culture, from Shakespeare to Goya to Hip-Hop. Even games with bona fide violence, such as Football, can be beautiful.” Eric Zimmerman, Independent game designer & founding faculty, NYU Game Center

We all make choices about what games we make and what games we play. In play we invent our future selves. As a consultant hired to improve the fun factor of games, my company works on all kinds of games from major TV franchises to Facebook to war games on XBOX. As a maker of games we chose to make an iOS game called Tilt World that plants trees.

  • “Just like XEOPlay’s Tilt World, create a game, a fun game to teach kids just everything about not using violence to resolve issues/angers and all that. … Gamify the education of anti-violence, anti-gun. And that’s what you, Nicole Lazzaro is a master of!” Shirley Lin, Managing Director at 800 Birds
  • “Make a game that gives boys power without using violence.” Isabel Draves
  • “We can do all these talks but the best thing we can do is to make games and get them into people’s hands. That way they can how fun non-violent games can be.” Jennova Chen, President and Creative Director of thatgamecompany
  • “We’re not totally clean – media has impact: and now let’s focus on video games.  Yes, we keep hearing that no direct correlation has been proven between violent video games and acts of violence.  However, as Co-President of Games for Change it’s hard for me to argue that games have no impact or ability to train, teach, and even change behavior.  If this power can be utilized for positive outcomes, it must also have negative consequences.” Asi Burak Co-President – Games for Change, Faculty at the School of Visual Arts in NY (MFA)
  • “You can cite all the studies in the world.  Play Call of Duty on an XBox for a day or watch a kid do it, and you can’t deny something is wrong.?Now that I have a little son, this is a real issue for me.  When we watch TV, I have to pause or change the channel when a game commercial goes on because of the violence (more an issue than movies).  And there is no way I will let him grow up and play these violent games in the same way I wouldn’t give him a gun or teach him to drive before the age of 16.” Joel Brodie, Founder of Gamezebo

The President could do many things to encourage this self-reflection.

  • “I think that the game industry should be encouraged to achieve the lofty levels of great art forms. The President could inspire the game creators to create great art that is also fun, rather than games that appeal to the lowest common denominator. He could encourage people to create non-violent games or those that educate.” Dean Takahashi, Game Journalist
  • “Several words come to mind, especially with reference to the undoubtedly horrific high school experiences most of these guys must have had. One is TEAM. Another is GUILD. Can we redesign the game of high school society so that everyone – everyone – becomes part of a supportive group? Can we make everyone feel like they have something to contribute? … And once you get that done, redesign human relationships so that every child grows up with at least one loving and emotionally stable attachment figure. Problem solved!!!!”? Edward Castronova, Games, Technology, and Society, Professor of Telecommunications, Professor of Cognitive Science Indiana University
Step 3 Regulation

There was strong support for increased regulation of gun purchases as well as limiting the types of guns and ammunition that are sold to the general public. However this should be done with the participation of gun owners.

  • “My proposal is simple: $500 tax per bullet.” Daniel Terdiman, Technology Journalist
  • “I believe that the way to reduce gun violence is to enact strict gun laws, take out of circulation most of the existing guns, focus on ready access to mental health care and focus on education that promotes the concept of common good. The last point can probably be done through games too.” Giordano Bruno Contestabile, Executive Producer – Bejeweled Franchise at Electronic Arts
  • “The correlation between video gaming and gun violence is low. However, the correlation between access to uncontrolled weapons and mass gun-related murder is 100%. I am a mother and a video game maker and have been personally affected by gun violence. I also strongly support the 2nd amendment. I believe every right carries responsibility. Our current laws and policies create safe space around the right to bear arms, but completely abdicate the accompanying responsibilities for safe, educated use of weaponry and protection of innocent human lives. Newtown was of course horrific, but sadly it is only the most obvious example of the imbalance of rights versus responsibility.” Shannon Loftis GM for Interactive Television for Microsoft Studios, mom, video game maker, and gamer.
  • “Support and expand games education: A better educated, more diverse audience is the best way to change the content and aesthetics of games. Until consumers start rebelling against hyper-­?real, hyper-­?violent content, there’s no incentive to deliver any other kind of content. Developers and publishers follow the market; they don’t drive it. And even if you don’t believe that games CAUSE specific behaviors or even general types of behaviors – and I steadfastly refuse to believe that – there’s no question in my mind that we’ve reached a point where a lot of games are just going too far in terms of violent content. It’s just in bad taste and culturally corrosive… ” Warren Spector, Veteran Game Designer

The End Game

The political process is long and it is messy. As the founder of a tiny mobile game company I felt that answering the VP’s call for creative solutions was my civic duty. Collecting ideas and starting conversations would do more good than simply repeating what I thought last year. I’m very grateful for everyone who took the time to respond and am delighted to see the conversation continuing beyond the censorship of guns or games.

These conversations about ideas mean more citizens spent a few hours thinking and talking about how to reduce gun violence. This is the most important outcome for me because in this issue complacency kills.

How do you think Vice President Biden should reduce gun violence? It’s your move!

Nicole Lazzaro is a world-renowned game researcher, designer, and speaker who makes games more fun. She discovered the Four Keys to Fun in 2004, a model used by hundreds of thousands of game developers worldwide. She used this model to design the iPhone’s first accelerometer game in 2007, now called Tilt World which aims to plant 1 million trees in Madagascar. For 20 years she has helped clients such as Sony, EA, and Disney increase engagement. She is one of the 100 most influential women in high tech, top 20 women working in video games and gamification. She has advised the White House and the US State Department on the use of games to unlock human potential to improve our world.

Twitter: @NicoleLazzaro
Twitter: @TiltWorld

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