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Inside Trump’s private meeting with the video-game industry — and its critics

President Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on March 8. (Michael Reynolds/Pool photo via Bloomberg)

Republican lawmakers and conservative media critics pressed President Trump on Thursday to explore new restrictions on the video-game industry, arguing that violent games might have contributed to mass shootings like the recent attack at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

In a private meeting at the White House, also attended by several video-game executives, some participants urged Trump to consider new regulations that would make it harder for young children to purchase those games. Others asked the president to expand his inquiry to focus on violent movies and TV shows too.

Trump himself opened the meeting by showing “a montage of clips of various violent video games,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican from Missouri. Then, Hartzler said the president would ask, “This is violent isn’t it?”

“They were violent clips where individuals were killing other human beings in various ways,” she said.

Trump’s roundtable on Thursday marked his latest listening session on gun violence in the aftermath of last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 people dead. In recent weeks, Trump has suggested a number of ideas to address gun deaths — even arming teachers at schools — while lawmakers have explored their own solutions.

In doing so, the president has expressed deep unease with violent video games, at one point contending last month that they are “shaping young people’s thoughts.” He also proposed that “we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it.”

Video-game executives who attended the meeting Thursday included Robert Altman, the CEO of ZeniMax, the parent company for games such as Fallout; Strauss Zelnick, the chief executive of Take Two Interactive, which is known for Grand Theft Auto, and Michael Gallagher, the leader of the Entertainment Software Association, a Washington-focused lobbying organization for the industry.

"We discussed the numerous scientific studies establishing that there is no connection between video games and violence, First Amendment protection of video games, and how our industry’s rating system effectively helps parents make informed entertainment choices," ESA said in a statement.

Those who did join Trump said he appeared open-minded, seeking solutions from everyone — including executives from the video-game industry. It was “respectful but contentious,” said Melissa Henson, program director for the Parents Television Council.

Henson said she and her peers emphasized that a “steady diet of media violence is having a corrosive effect on our culture,” while video-game executives were “every bit as firm in their conviction there is no relation.”

At times, calls for greater oversight, scrutiny and regulation came strong.

“I think he’s deeply disturbed by some of the things you see in these video games that are so darn violent, viciously violent, and clearly inappropriate for children, and I think he’s bothered by that,” said Brent Bozell, the president of the Media Research Council, who joined the meeting.

Bozell said he also communicated to Trump a need for “much tougher regulation” of the video-game industry, stressing that violent games “needed to be given the same kind of thought as tobacco and liquor.”

Hartzler, meanwhile, said she’s open to crafting legislation that would make it harder for youngsters to buy violent games.

“Even though I know there are studies that have said there is no causal link, as a mom and a former high school teacher, it just intuitively seems that prolonged viewing of violent nature would desensitize a young person,” she said.

The White House already has hinted at sustained, broader scrutiny still to come. A day before the meeting, a spokeswoman for Trump said the sit-down with video-game executives and their critics is “the first of many with industry leaders to discuss this important issue.” Privately, lobbyists for tech giants and movie studios quickly expressed unease that they might soon be dragged up to the White House, too.

On Thursday, though, the White House did not respond to questions about the meeting, which had been closed to reporters hours before it took place.

Along with Bozell and Hartzler, Trump also included lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.). After the meeting, Rubio acknowledged there is no evidence linking violent video games to the tragedy in Parkland. But he said he wanted to ensure “parents are aware of the resources available to them to monitor and control the entertainment their children are exposed to.”

One Democratic lawmaker who was not in attendance, however, derided Trump’s effort, saying it overshadowed the real issue in their minds — seeking new restrictions on gun sales.

“Focusing entirely on video games distracts from the substantive debate we should be having about how to take guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement.

“I’m willing to look at anything and everything that may help address the gun violence epidemic that has swept our country — including addressing the culture of violence many see in America today,” he said. “But there is an urgent need now for meaningful action on extreme risk protection orders, expanded background checks, and banning assault weapons. Blaming video games or the entertainment media for the 90 American lives lost every single day to gun violence is an unacceptable excuse to avoid talking about serious policy proposals.”

In the past, some conservatives have slammed Democrats for seeking to limit the sale of guns after mass shootings rather than exploring perceived causes, like media violence. Bozell, in fact, raised the issue in 2013 following the attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

And on Thursday, he sharply disagreed with his critics.

“I would ask them respectfully for once to stop playing politics. If you care about this issue, you will look at Jonesboro, Ark.; Columbine; Newton, Conn.,” said Bozell. “In so many other places where you had mass shootings by children and every instance I just gave, that child who was the shooter was watching violent video games.”

Trump is hardly the first politician to call attention to violent video games. Years earlier, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) sought to restrict sales of mature-themed video games to minors. The issue drew the attention of President Barack Obama following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. At the time, he called on Congress to fund new federal research into the link between these games and aggression and violence in youngsters — a request that lawmakers never delivered.

At the moment, federal law still bans the Center for Disease Control and Prevention from studying issues like gun violence and video games. On Thursday, though, attendees at the White House acknowledged the issue didn’t really come up.