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New York Times / News - Politics

Trump Draws ‘Lively’ Opinions on Video Game Violence but Shrouds His Own

The debate on video games versus guns has been a familiar back-and-forth in the wake of mass school shootings for decades.

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday began the next leg of a listening tour he promised after last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., eliciting heated opinions at the White House from critics of violent video games and from game makers who reject any connection to mass shootings, but offering no concrete views of his own.

In broaching the subject after a mass school shooting, Mr. Trump was traveling a path well worn by his predecessors going back for decades. But his approach was all his own.

As he has done with recent round-table discussions on gun restrictions and immigration, Mr. Trump on Thursday seemed most interested in drawing impassioned opinions out of the people around him, according to people who attended. But he stopped short of offering solutions.

Melissa Henson, the director of programs for the Parents Television Council, a censorship advocacy group, said the president tried to “draw people out” for a “lively” discussion.

“I don’t think he came to the meeting with his mind made up,” Ms. Henson said. “I think there’s more fact-finding to be done before anything is acted on.”

As with his thoughts on gun restrictions, it remains unclear exactly what Mr. Trump thinks can be done on this issue, or what he truly believes. But he has a parent’s insight on how young people encounter violent media. In a February round table he hosted with lawmakers on gun restrictions, the president said some content viewed by his 11-year-old son, Barron, had surprised him.

“The video games, the movies, the internet stuff is so violent. It’s so incredible. I see it,” Mr. Trump said. “I look at some of the things he’s watching, and I say, ‘How is that possible?’ And this is what kids are watching. And I think you maybe have to take a look at it.”

The administrations of President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama had tried to understand the issue with wide-ranging initiatives and recommendations after massacres at Columbine High School in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Mr. Clinton ordered an investigation into advertising practices used to sell violent entertainment. And in 2013, Mr. Obama asked Congress to provide $10 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the relationship between violence and video games. The funds were never allocated.

People involved in listening tours during past administrations doubted that Mr. Trump’s meeting would lead to productive policy. Mark DeLoura, who worked as a digital media adviser in the Obama White House, said that a similar meeting after Sandy Hook had been “well rounded,” and that the recommendations that came out of that wide-ranging listening tour were concrete.

“There are no researchers, no scientists,” Mr. DeLoura said of Mr. Trump’s meeting. “It doesn’t look like people reached out to the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the West Wing.”

(The meeting was hastily arranged by the White House communications staff, according to one person with direct knowledge of how it came together.)

On Thursday, White House officials kept the aims of the meeting vague, and declined to say why they had revoked journalists’ planned access to it.

“As we continue to work towards creating school safety programs that protect all children, the president will be meeting with video game industry leaders and members of Congress to discuss violent video-game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children,” Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This meeting will be the first of many with industry leaders to discuss this important issue.”

Conservatives have often turned to the idea of video game censorship after mass shootings to steer the discussion away from gun restrictions. In 2007, one month after an armed student killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, Mitt Romney, running for president, said that “pornography and violence” in music, movies, TV and video games were to blame.

And after Sandy Hook, Wayne LaPierre, who leads the National Rifle Association, put the blame on the entertainment media. He called the video game industry a “corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people” — naming games like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse.

The response by video game makers has been to return the volley, blaming guns rights activists for deflection. They also refer to a 2011 Supreme Court decision that ruled that even the most violent video games were protected under the First Amendment.

Those on opposing sides of the issue tend to rely on different data sets to understand the problem. Some point to a 2015 study by the American Psychological Association on violent video games and aggression that determined that “no single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently.” Others, including Dave Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a censorship advocate who attended the White House meeting, have cited research to back up the view that video games are essentially, as he wrote in 2013, “murder simulators.”

Bruce Reed, the former chief of staff for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and a former domestic policy adviser to Mr. Clinton, said a productive outcome for Mr. Trump’s meeting could include a discussion on funding more research into the problem.

“It’s a worthwhile public health question,” he said, “quite apart from mass shootings and gun violence. But I suspect today’s meeting will demonstrate once again that politicians like to point fingers at other possible causes to deflect the pressure to act on the most obvious one.”

Representative Vicky Hartzler of Missouri was one of three lawmakers, all Republican, who attended the meeting. In a statement, Ms. Hartzler said she admired the president’s approach of “leaving no stone unturned” but called for a broader examination of other industries, including film.

“I believe the solution to curtailing violence lies in an all-encompassing approach, focused on several different factors that may contribute to school shootings,” Ms. Hartzler said.

Other attendees included Brent Bozell, a longtime advocate for media censorship, and Strauss Zelnick, the chairman of Take-Two Interactive, the video game maker behind Grand Theft Auto. Robert A. Altman, the chairman of ZeniMax Media, also attended. The president’s younger brother, Robert, sits on the board of that company.

Mr. Trump, who met privately with N.R.A. leaders after appearing to side with Democrats on sweeping gun restrictions in February, has become known for shifting his stances in the hours after his frequent round-table sessions. On Thursday, meeting attendees were unable to divine how he felt.

“I think it would be fair to say that he feels strongly, clearly that the violence in the video games is excessive,” said Ms. Henson, the censorship advocate who attended the meeting. “But I don’t think he went into the meeting with the purpose of condemning an entire industry.”

Ms. Henson added that she had not heard any solutions proposed on Thursday that she had not heard before.