Flags are flying at half-staff this week at E3—the Electronic Entertainment Expo—in honor of the 49 people killed and 53 others wounded Sunday morning in Orlando, Florida, in the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history. As of Monday most of the industry’s leading gaming companies made a point to mourn the victims either onstage at the gaming confab in Los Angeles, California, or on social media, pledging support to those forever traumatized by the shocking act—and in a few cases, to the LGBT community rocked by the homophobic terrorist attack.
But no top gaming figures have yet publicly acknowledged the elephant in the convention hall: The unsettling parallels between horrific displays of real world violence like that in Orlando, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Isla Vista, Charleston, or San Bernardino and the fantasy violence that fuels their multi-billion dollar industry.
Xbox head Phil Spencer was the first to issue spoken condolences at the top of Microsoft’s Monday morning panel, which included a moment of silence for the Orlando victims killed by gunman Omar Mateen, who targeted the patrons of a gay nightclub over Pride weekend. “To everyone affected by the recent tragedy in Orlando: Our hearts are with you, and you should know you are not alone,” said Spencer. “The gaming community mourns with you.”
Archer star Aisha Tyler, emceeing the Ubisoft presentation later that day, took a somber pause after a brightly manic choreographed dance number set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” delivering a heartfelt gesture on behalf of the Paris-based company.
“Everyone here at Ubisoft wanted to offer our deepest sympathies to the people affected by this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando,” she said. “Our hearts, the hearts of everyone in Paris, in France, in the United States, and around the world are with you.
Every major gaming publisher has a lucrative, violent title in their slate, if not one or two first-person shooters—the games that encourage players to kill for points and place weapons right in your hands, enemies in the crosshairs of your first-person perspective. A 2014 study by the Entertainment Software Association found that action and shooter games together comprised over half of all game sales in the U.S., led by No. 1 seller Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
Like the rest of the country and the world, everyone at E3, from gaming execs to developers to journalists, had Orlando top of mind all weekend. “Thank god we don’t have any first-person shooters,” I overheard one attendee sigh ahead of his company’s panel. Reps for the companies that did have shooters to promote were even more on the hook to acknowledge the worst mass shooting in American history while promoting games dominated by brutal acts of violence.
For the video gaming industry, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Months of planning and enormous budget spends meant huge productions were already in place for the annual confab, where games publishers unveil their upcoming slates and tease products they’ll be launching in the coming year to a savvy audience of thousands of gaming pros and media onsite, and millions more watching livestreams from home. (Last year a staggering 21 million viewers reportedly watched E3 streams via Twitch, which reported 925,000 viewers on Sunday—up from 840,000 the same day last year.)
Despite a 2011 Supreme Court decision that declared video games forms of expression that “communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium” and are therefore worthy of protection under the First Amendment, the industry has been battling perceptions that violent video games create violent video gamers for decades.
Even the NRA tried to foist the blame for gun violence on video games in 2012. “There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people, through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bulletstorm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Kombat,’ and ‘Splatterhouse,’” said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre a week after Sandy Hook.
Sunday’s massacre, in which 29-year-old Mateen opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub armed with a SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock, took hostages, and left over 100 injured or dead, again prompted critics to draw a link between the culture of gaming violence and real life shooting tragedies.
“Just stop all of it,” tweeted actor and comedian Michael Showalter, decrying a breadth of popular entertainment that glorifies violence. “The video games. The movies. All of it.”
While details of the horrifying mass shooting emerged throughout Sunday, E3 watchers took note as presentations by Electronic Arts and Bethesda Softworks made no onstage mention of Orlando. Instead, EA—which staffs an outpost in the Orlando area—simply tweeted a statement of support as execs presented titles like first-person shooters Titanfall 2 and Battlefield 1 onstage without further comment:
“Today’s events in Orlando were senseless and tragic. This hits particularly close to home for us at EA, given we have hundreds of employees who work at our Tiburon studio in Orlando. Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this tragedy, and to the entire Orlando community.”
Bethesda, meanwhile, swiftly planned an unspoken tribute to Orlando: The company behind sci-fi shooting franchise Doom and titles like Fallout 4 had all of its speakers wear rainbow pins onstage and on streams in solidarity for the LGBT victims killed at Pulse nightclub, and updated its Twitter account to a rainbow avatar.
Watching Sunday presenters like Electronic Arts and Bethesda Softworks tentatively skirt the issue the day of the attack probably showed Microsoft, Ubisoft, and Sony that an official statement on the tragedy was, perhaps, a much better call.
After mentions during the Microsoft and Ubisoft panels, Sony’s Shawn Layden gave the lengthiest onstage moment to acknowledging the Orlando tragedy Monday evening.
“I think it’s important that we take a moment to address the heartbreaking tragedies of Orlando this past weekend,” he said. “A horrific event like that, carried out by a madman, really underscores our need for a greater love, tolerance, and respect of people of all kinds.”
“On behalf of the Playstation community I just want to say that our thoughts are with the victims and the families and the community of Orlando. We stand foursquare with them, and we hope that in this week of our gaming celebrations with the diversity of our gaming community we can find some strength, some comfort, and some solace.
“The Playstation community stands foursquare with our friends and fans in the LGBT community as well,” he continued, “and I know they’re all in the hearts of everyone tonight.”
The speeches did not go unappreciated by those in attendance.
Avery Price, a gamer and streamer who goes by the moniker Little Siha on Twitch, praised Tyler’s statement following the Ubisoft press conference. “It’s an issue that needs to be talked about,” she told me, also commending Microsoft’s moment of silence earlier in the day. “It’s very important to show that we stand with [the victims], which I think is even more important.”
She appreciated the challenge gaming companies face in finding the right way to integrate that message into their sales presentations. “It’s kind of hard to bring up, considering it’s such a different topic to what we’re talking about. We’re talking about gaming and that’s a tragedy, but I think it’s important to bring up in some way even if it’s a little abrupt or awkward.”
Makson Lima, an Xbox blogger from Brazil, agreed. “I shouldn’t say it was enough, but it was a measure,” he said. “Everyone is mourning, and the game community is as well.
Price rejected the idea that video game violence can inspire or exacerbate real world violence. “I don’t think there’s any relation,” she said. “I play Grand Theft Auto all the time and I have no desire to run people over or buy hookers. There’s a huge difference between gaming and real life. I don’t think it has any influence at all. The mass shootings that happen all the time are a huge problem and something needs to be done about it, but I don’t think video games have any effect on what happens.”
That’s the underlying sentiment the organizers of E3 also expressed in response to the Orlando shooting.
“The Orlando tragedy was a horrific act of terrorism and a crime of hate,” read a statement from the Electronic Software Association. “Our thoughts are with the families of all those affected.”
“That [attack] was an act of terrorism and an act of hate,” Electronic Software Association president Mike Gallagher told Ars Technica. “It has no place in this industry, it’s not on the show floor, and it’s absolutely, completely unrelated to anything that we stand for as the ESA or E3.”
“When it comes to the larger issue of violence in our country and gun violence in video games, I think we’re in a much better place today with people’s universal understanding that this industry does not cause any of the violence that you see in our society,” Gallagher said. “You have a realization that this is entertainment.”