Anyone reading this blog has no doubt heard the story of the mass shooting that took place in downtown Jacksonville, Florida just a few weeks ago. The gunman (he will not be named, he does not deserve to have his name publicized any more than it has) was a participant in a Madden NFL 19 tournament at a video game bar, and once he was eliminated from the tournament he went home, acquired two handguns that he owned, returned to the bar and opened fire, killing 2 young men and injuring ten others before turning the weapon on himself. Details revealed since the shooting tell a story of a young man with a history of psychiatric treatment and social awkwardness, whose access to any type of firearm should have raised a red flag. Some speculate the attack was targeted, but that’s just rumor and innuendo, and may never be actually confirmed.
Being that this happened at a video game tournament, the reaction on social media from the FGC was very gloomy. Some influential players were firm that they no longer felt safe at US tournaments, with a few going as far to say that if a tournament didn’t have the “proper’ security, they would not attend. Tournament organizer reaction was pretty swift, with many promising that they would have tighter security from now on. The strictest response was from Alex Valle and his team at LevelUp, who posted that next week’s big tournament, SoCal Regionals, will not only have mandatory bag searches for all attendees, with both metal detectors and wands, but every player using an arcade stick controller will submit to inspection and may also have the bottom unscrewed and examined before they can enter the tournament area if it is deemed “suspicious.” This is actually a compromise to an earlier mandate which stated that they were going to open up every stick as a precaution. The team also noted that they were considering finding some means of paying for some police officers to be in or around the building during the event.
Look, you’re not going to find me denying that there is a massive gun problem in the United States. We’ve got more guns floating around than the population of small countries, and it’s very clear that our leading decision-makers are very okay with this industry operating almost unregulated. Mass shootings in public places like schools are now such commonplace reporting in the news media that the reaction to them is just formulaic at this point: “thoughts and prayers,” “somebody should do something,” and then nothing happens. Politicians remain deep in the pockets of the National Rifle Association (the worst offender of which was the recently deceased John McCain. Hi John, hope you’re burning in hell!), which is stopping legislation limiting how easily a gun can be obtained. With so many guns available and a stunning lack of effort needed to get one, the amount of violent gun crimes (the worst being suicide) is higher in the US than anywhere else on the planet by a pretty huge majority. There is almost certainly a fundamentally American problem when it comes to how normalized these shootings and our responses have become.
Having said all that, what LevelUp is trying to do strikes me more as an exercise in security theater aimed at comforting a lot of people scared about guns instead of a decent security measure. For the folks at home, “security theater” is a term coined by Bruce Schneier, one of America’s leading experts on both cyber and general security, in reference to any security protocol that is highly visible and specific, but rarely effective. This kind of security is typically put in place after a very high-profile event, like a mass shooting or a terrorist attack, something that is seen by a wide audience who is immediately fearful of the next highly publicized happening. Wanting to assuage their customers’ fears, a lot of time and money is spent by the folks in charge (be it the government, big business, or otherwise) on “heightened” security measures that address those fears and make it so that the general public can feel “safe” again.
The problem with this kind of security is that it’s typically only useful as a goodwill measure for the folks in charge. For everyone else, it becomes a logistical nightmare done in the spirit of “the greater good.”
I’m sure each and every one of us whose ever had to travel on an airplane here in the States since September 12, 2011 has a horror story about something that went awry with the TSA: misplaced luggage, additional screening, broken gear, uncomfortable pat-downs, etc. While we can all agree that a terrorist attack on the scale of the 9/11 attacks should never happen again, most of the TSA policies seem excessive at best and downright intrusive at worst. But a lot of people are willing to put up with the annoying security if it means, at the very least, that we are running some effective counter-terrorism. After all, you can’t put a price on our safety, right?
Given the nature of my articles, it shouldn’t surprise you that studies show most of those security measures do approximately jack shit to actually fight terrorism or even prevent half of the things they have banned from going on an airplane. Hell, former TSA members themselves have copped to the fact that most of the new devices they bring in are largely ineffective, and the tactics that they use to investigate passengers have lead to profiling based on race as well as a gross invasion of privacy through extended pat-downs and full on x-ray scanning. In none of these situations is the problem – terrorism – addressed, but it does create an excruciating experience for your average traveler. Which brings us back to the FGC…
Alex Valle and LevelUp have been providing top tier tournament experiences for years now. I’ve attended many a LevelUp event and have felt that they were well-run, timely events that always focused on making sure the player experience was great above all else. Experiencing that is what’s making me so critical of these new policies; I think their heart is in the right place, but they are falling victim to worst-case scenario mindset. In short, it assumes that the very worst thing (a mass shooting, in this case) is likely to happen, therefore certain precautions need to be taken so as to eliminate that scenario from happening. The obvious flaw with that this kind of thinking is that it opens up Pandora’s Box, and now any random plot that could have been the B story of a Rizzoli and Isles episode becomes a possible threat worth taking seriously. Outrageous plots like a player shoving a loaded gun inside their arcade stick and then bringing it to the venue are now credible risks, so every precaution must be taken to ensure that it does not happen.
Bruce Schneier, the securities expert I mentioned earlier, has written extensively about this phenomenon of creating scenarios that don’t actually exist or make sense in order to appease irrational fear. Even in the context of the inciting incident, this level of security doesn’t make much sense: the GLHF bar, the scene of the shooting, was in an open-air shopping center in downtown Jacksonville. Most tournaments take place deep in the bowels of hotels or universities, which completely changes the dynamics of the security needed. The shooter also had the guns in his backpack, which means that a cursory bag search already partially combats the real problem that actually happened. The idea that someone would dutifully take the time to pull apart their arcade stick controller and put a weapon in there, unscrew it later, and pull it out is absurd TV logic, a made-up situation that doesn’t jive with any actual happening. In a sense I think the guys at LevelUp know this, but they are doing their best to appease the players, who are their customer base, and it’s hard to blame them for that. It only took a few days of people yelling back at how goofy that is in order for them to shift the wording from “every stick will be searched” to “every stick may be searched,” which is admirable, but you have to wonder how it came to that in the first place.
I understand that the biggest issue in all of this is that a trust has been broken. A lot of people truly believed that a mass shooting wouldn’t happen at a gaming tournament, and now it has, and it’s confirming all of the fears folks may have had in the back of their minds. And if you’re a guy like Justin Wong, who recently got engaged and intends to start a family, seeing a guy who’s roughly the same age with a young family get shot and killed at a supposedly friendly gathering is fucking terrifying. I get why he feels his safety is worth not attending tournaments anymore, but the cold reality is that, as Vice Sports points out when talking about security theater at American ballparks, people herded together at any place become a viable target for a person looking to take lives. Their methods may vary, but if someone really wanted to do it, they will do it, by any means necessary.
We can’t possibly prepare for every single worst-case scenario that can happen; we can only weigh the risk and cost and see how we can make large areas safe for entry. I’m not saying that FGC events’ relative lack of security hasn’t resulted in some definite gaffes that could have been trouble in the past, but things have been looking up. Final Round 2018, despite a few logistical errors, introduced a new policy which saw clear bags become the only thing allowed on the tournament floor. They were given as a bonus through pre-registration, and were available on-site for tournament attendees. In the introduction video, FR staff explained that it wasn’t by any means foolproof, but it did make life easier for the staff who had to check bags, which in turn made it easier on the participants. It wasn’t perfect, and I’m sure there were growing pains, but it was a relatively minor bit of security theater, overall. In fact, this policy alone would have put a major hole in the Jacksonville shooter’s plan, as a clear bag and a very minor bag check would have revealed a big problem. Sure, an attendee dead set on bringing a weapon could have placed it in an arcade stick, but I think weighting the sheer odds of that versus a gunman putting the weapon in a bag would reveal the safe bet to be on the bag. Not all security theater is bad – after all, that’s how we got child-proof medicine caps and ID tags for newborn babies. The difference is that those are security changes done with reasonable risk assessment and knowledge that it is not going to completely solve the problem.
I appreciate SCR trying to at least listen to some reason by easing up on the stick searches, but I can already see some other worrying trends on the horizon. In a response to the town surrounding this year’s event being overtly hostile to people of color, Alex Jebailey has stated that CEO 2019 will have a higher police presence in order to help combat that hostility. A cursory look at most statistics would tell you why any person of color would feel less safe with a higher police presence in a notoriously racist town, but this seems to be the popular answer for not just CEO, but most events going forward. The FGC is very diverse and has a huge PoC and LGBT+ population, groups that have historically been victimized by police and other authority figures. I am not sure that inviting more of these types than needed is going to do a whole lot to make people feel safer, especially when FGC events are avenues for gambling and drinking in good fun, something cops love to bust.
My other worry is how TO’s plan to recoup the prices on these big security ventures. None of this stuff comes cheap, and FGC events aren’t exactly known to be events run by the fabulously wealthy. My prediction is that event prices will go up in order to help chip in, which means that attendees will be paying more money in order to feel safe, but they will actually just suffer through the logistical mess of these ventures and not actually be any safer than before. With tournament prices already reaching their zenith, additional costs built in to cover ineffective security seems like a weird thing to do to a community who has much of its base operating out of low-income homes. If millions of dollars in Federal money has yet to really help the TSA prevent the one thing it’s dedicated to stopping, what is the realistic chance of weaker equipment for smaller events succeeding? That doesn’t mean you can’t introduce some measures of security, but exorbitant spending and increased prices seem excessive for security concerns that have no real basis in fact and exist just to create logistic traps. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, there is no way in hell any top/known player is going through those long lines, which means that yes, I guarantee that none of the guys saying they are afraid of dying at events (at least the really well known ones) are suffering with the rest of the scrubs in line.
Again, I don’t mean to poke fun of people who are afraid; the American news cycle is very good at its job of keeping people aware that gun violence is prevalent. My mother is a school teacher, and I can’t help but worry that something may happen to her every day she goes to work. But I also have to get my brain to properly assess the risk of something like that happening, and it’s just not any more significant than the risk of a car accident. I don’t say that to minimize how much of a problem gun violence is, especially because so much control is out of your hands in a situation like that, but it’s not something to be 100% fearful of in everyday life. Think about this: an FGC event was held at a location one year removed from the deadliest mass shooting in US history, and nothing happened. The only thing of note was that the increased security meant no outside liquids were allowed on the tournament floor, which lead to massive complaints.
If tournaments want to introduce bag checks and/or clear bag policies, be my guest; it’s probably a good idea for FGC events to have at least the basic security that your average comic convention would have. But don’t spend or force attendees to cough up a lot of money for security measures that have a long history of being proven to be ineffective, invasive, and ill-equipped to stop the actual problem. The answers to actually stopping gun violence are convoluted and involve changing a culture that is most likely already compromised, so I get why that’s probably not a very good answer to people who have been victims of mass shootings or are fearful of one, but it’s reality. Events need to do their due diligence and properly assess the realistic risks, not give into 24/7 news cycle stereotypes and valid but misguided customer fears. What happened in Jacksonville (hell, any time someone is shot in public) is a terrible, terrible thing, but it is a symptom of something deeply wrong in the gun control system, and not tournament security. Don’t let the narrative become “FGC Tournaments are not safe to attend,” because that is giving in to fear and it is not the answer.