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Toxic gaming culture can’t fully explain the Jacksonville Madden shooting

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Treating gamer toxicity as the disease rather than a symptom overlooks a deeper sickness in American culture

Three Fatalities Reported At Mass Shooting At Jacksonville Gaming Tournament Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for the Jacksonville mass shooting to yield to wearying, familiar discourses. On Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum, the host tried to tie games to a welter of mass shootings. “[The gunmen] spend 12, 15 hours a day [gaming], like Nikolas Cruz was one of them, Adam Lanza, and now this young man, gaming,” MacCallum said, adding that playing for hours on end is a danger on par with cigarette smoking. That’s par for the course for Fox, but even the BBC got in on the act, with a headline promising an article that explores the “Florida video game gunman’s dark obsession with [games].” Meanwhile, Florida’s Trump-enthusiast attorney general, Pam Bondi, bafflingly blamed video game location services for the attack.

The gunman, David Katz, murdered two of his fellow competitors, Elijah Clayton and Taylor Robertson, at a Madden 19 tournament on Sunday before turning the gun on himself. Along with the victims, the game’s publisher, EA, which sanctions the tournaments, received an outpouring of support on social media from all quarters. According to a source with knowledge of EA’s internal communications, three EA employees were at the Jacksonville tourney but escaped unharmed.

However, there was a disturbing number of people who couldn’t ignore the fact that EA is generally quite loathed among gamers, and they took the opportunity to flood their social media with jokes. “Let’s call EA tech support in India and see if they can help us,” wrote one person on Twitter. Another tweeted, “Good response but I still won’t be buying transgenderfield V,” referencing the outrage expressed by reactionary gamers about the introduction of a female protagonist in Battlefield V. On EA’s Facebook condolence post, a commenter wrote, “Will you be adding a thoughts and prayers dlc to Madden?” (The latter became something of a micro-meme, with people tweeting things like “Jacksonville DLC 35$” or “D*EA*TH Pay $100 to proceed.”)

More worryingly, one person tweeted at EA’s global community lead, “some day all the shit that Ea [sic] has loaded in everyone of us will shock in your face, in your bodies. Stop it! Make your game great, not a fraud!” It all goes on and on.

The temptation to look at this behavior and see a proximate cause for the shooting in Jacksonville is real. Certainly, the culture that produces these comments is a diseased one. EA employees who are innocent of the sins committed by their firm’s C-suite are pilloried for them nevertheless. The callousness required of these self-identified gamers to target employees verges on the perverse. Gallows humor belongs only to the condemned, not to those jeering from the crowd.

But to draw the conclusion that this toxicity is a direct cause of such shootings would be as wrong as blaming the games themselves. The gaming community has, in the main, grieved; in addition to shaming the trolls, they’ve also come together to honor the fallen, EA included. This is the first such tragedy at a gaming event, and the game being played at the Jacksonville tourney was a sports game, not a first-person shooter.

The larger problems at work here aren’t unique to gaming or its culture, toxic though it may be. The behavior of the people who harassed EA’s staff speak to two larger issues: desensitization to these shootings and the dissociative effects of online life where we are uniquely insulated from both empathy and the consequences of our words. But for now, it seems unlikely that these are causes of the shooting.

The real issue is what it has always been: easy access to firearms.

We can, and should, scrutinize the sociological realities of online culture, its gaming subcultures included. But it’s important to remember that those cultures are global; their local variations in Canada, Sweden, Australia, and Japan do not produce the same unending plague of mass shootings that wracks the US. It’s not easy for an ordinary person to become a killer, but for those few who fall into that terrible mindset, the essential ingredient for mass murder is always the gun.

Statistically speaking, the only reliable predictor of increased gun violence is the availability of those guns. Americans constitute 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but we own almost half of the world’s civilian-owned firearms; the results are chilling in their inevitability.

That doesn’t take any discussion of “culture” off the table, but we should move away from splashy proclamations that the causal factors are cultural. The chief cause of American mass shootings — again, the ease with which anyone can obtain a firearm — is known. But there are still ways we can critique aspects of the gaming industry while also acknowledging the scientific consensus that games don’t cause violence.

First, we should note that critiques of “gamer culture” often place the blame primarily on rank-and-file players. This is misguided. In truth, the larger blame rests with the powerful: executives who market to base impulses and bestow crowns on would-be consumer kings. EA has actively fed a toxic siege mentality among gamers in the past; once, it stoked anxiety over “censorship” by astroturfing “Christian” protests against their own games. Other companies have given in to braying, bigoted mobs at the drop of a hat, even at the expense of their own employees.

Second, we should recall that the AAA sector of the gaming industry has profited mightily from cozy agreements with arms manufacturers. In 2013, Barrett Firearms’ Ralph Vaughn, who negotiates brand licensing deals with video game studios, told Eurogamer’s Simon Parkin, “We must be paid a royalty fee — either a one-time payment or a percentage of sales, all negotiable. Typically, a licensee pays between 5 percent to 10 percent retail price for the agreement.” He bragged to Parkin that “video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners.”

This alone does not cause mass shootings. But the arrangements become a moral issue of gut-wrenching severity when one considers that these manufacturers fund the National Rifle Association to agitate against even the slimmest of legal reforms that might help prevent them. Invariably, some of that lobbying money must have come from the gaming industry’s ever-expanding coffers. One longs for the days when games like GoldenEye 007 could make great hay with knock-off guns (like the infamous Klobb, named for producer Ken Lobb). Now, the industry chooses to effectively donate to the enablers of America’s gun crisis.

Then there is the larger issue of ennobling violence, particularly the constant portrayal of bloody retribution as the pinnacle of masculine autonomy. Manliness means violent domination, a point not lost on gun manufacturers. Bushmaster, the maker of the AR-15 rifle — which has been at the center of many mass shootings — advertised the gun with a “Consider Your Man Card Reissued” tagline.

That brings us rather neatly back to the troll who used the Jacksonville shooting to complain to EA about women in Battlefield V, and to the bigger picture, of which gaming culture is simply a convenient microcosm.

The men who commit mass murder (and they are nearly all men) are motivated by a variety of factors. But there is a common thread among so many: hatred of and a demonstrated history of violence toward women — be it their girlfriends, wives, or mothers, or just random women and girls who said “no.” Indeed, the Jacksonville shooter got violent with his mother, according to the aforementioned BBC report, which buried the lede by choosing to focus on his gaming habits.

Games, no matter how violent, will not make a mass murderer by themselves. Yet, like all media, they — especially the corporate-approved fandoms, and communities around them — can be used to shift general political views more subtly. Games join with a range of other cultural forces — religion, parental socialization, other forms of mass media — that sustain subtle but durable forms of prejudice, particularly resentment against women and minorities. That can lead some to extremist echo chambers and fascist militias, about which there is nothing subtle, which is making matters even worse.

It all adds to the bone-dry tinder of intimately personal and publicly political influences that may act on an angry young man. But what will ignite it all?

The gun he can get so easily.