In a letter to Netflix employees about the backlash associated with Dave Chappelle's new stand up special, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said he believes that media does not cause harm, in part because of the popularity of first-person shooter video games.
“We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” he wrote in part, according to a memo obtained by Variety. Sarandos cited several controversial Netflix series, then said that violent video games could bolster his claim:
"The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last thirty years, especially with first party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries," Sarandos wrote. "Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse–or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy–without it causing them to harm others."
The problem with this argument is that Sarandos seems to be focusing almost entirely on the idea that violence in first-person shooter video games translates directly to murders or mass shootings, of which there is no evidence. But this is an extraordinarily narrow definition of the word “harm.” Even people who make video games would not argue that games cause no “harm” whatsoever. Given how much the industry has changed over the past 20 years, it feels clear that depending on your definition of harm, they absolutely do.
Many first person shooters that I have played and enjoyed focus on getting you to fight non-human combatants, like the demons from hell in Doom or the various aliens in Destiny. But for a very long time (and still, today), the extremely popular genre of modern military shooters have players face off against other human beings. Often, these human beings are from the Middle East and are portrayed in explicitly negative ways. The lack of humanity given to these combatants was so pronounced that comedian Kumail Nanjiani pointed out in a stand up special that the developers of these games just put gibberish on the signs in the background rather than write them in the language these characters speak.
Issues in games like these are not unknown or obscure—the critically acclaimed video game Spec Ops: The Line takes the portrayal of the American military as saviors to task in its Apocalypse Now-inspired story campaign. Even more recently, Arab professionals in video games took issue with the upcoming Six Days In Fallujah, seeing it as military propaganda that paints Arabs and Muslims as terrorists. None of these people argued that the existence of this violent game would lead to a rise in crime, but rather it would contribute to an already extant prejudice against Arab people.
"Harm" means a lot more than violence. Harm also doesn't just have to do with what people get out of a cultural product, but what goes into it. It can mean making outspoken women fear for their life; creating a culture so inhospitable to women of color that they have to write personal appeals to have characters like them in some of the most popular games on earth; abuses against your employees so egregious that your company is sued by the state of California; and turning the human rights of trans people into a debate. If harm could be so easily calculated that it offered a one-to-one correlation to violent crime, Jack Thompson's grift would have caught on. But the issue is more complex than that, and in the face of the consequences of the harm that games have created, the culture is ever so slowly changing.
If anything, the way that games have changed over the past two decades is strong evidence for the opposite of Sarandos's claim. The people who make and consume video games are more conscious than ever of the ways that they can contribute to a negative perception of marginalized groups. Netflix learned this when they made the choice to edit a scene depicting suicide in the show 13 Reasons Why. Creating "content" and releasing it into the world is not a neutral act.