The Pointed Finger: Violent Video Games

By Max Gruber

I am a gamer. That should not come across anyone as a surprise to those reading this. I love video games as a form of entertainment. Since the first prototype of the Cathode ray tube Amusement Device in 1947 (simply put, the earliest example of a video game platform), many people began to grow an energetic fascination with the technology. “When we started making video games”, Pitfall Creator David Crane said, “We looked into the future and said, ‘This is going to be as big as television, or bigger, because it’s interactive.’” The landscape of the mass media industry has evolved so much since then, that trends begin to emerge—ideas are constantly shared and envisioned everyday.

Video games have hit a critical mass so giant, it’s begun enveloping other forms of media as they try to catch up to the latest trends. Movie studios like Warner Brothers jumped into the gaming landscape when they were getting their start, publishing titles like the Batman Arkham series, The Lord of the Rings, the recent Mortal Kombat, Bastion, Scribblenauts, The Witcher 2 (and the upcoming Witcher 3), and many more—all of which have been a tremendous success. Over the years, electronic gaming has become a phenomenon in and of itself. And, statistically speaking, they speak for themselves; video games gross more than the movie industry. With titles like Halo, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, and many other big named franchises driving the sales of the gaming industry.

As bright of a future as it seems, there is, unfortunately one obstacle blocking its path into the public consensus, one that threatens the very industry we cherish and love dearly: the controversy surrounding violent video games. But, as much as I want to jump right into the heart of the issue, we have to start from the beginning of this controversy, and that starts back in 1992.

The History of Violent Video Games and the ESRB

The history of this subject dates back many years, when video games were still a relatively unknown industry. I spoke with my mother, 54, about what gaming was like back in her time. While she never owned a video game console, she remembered a friend of hers (who would later be her husband, and my father) who was obsessed with arcade games when he was working at a bar.

“Whenever he would clock out or go on a break”, she told me, “he would go straight to the arcade room and would fancy himself with Mrs. Pacman. He was obsessed with it, and even got amazingly good at it, to the point that no one could ever beat his high score.”

Now, there were plenty of violent video games back in the day, and other, more… questionable and objectionable titles back then. But, all of this started back in 1992, with a game called Mortal Kombat.

The game featured scenes of intense violence in the form of Fatalities, an execution-style attack that could only be used when the adversary’s health was depleted twice. The Fatalities ranged from the mild (Liu Kang’s barrage of attacks, Sonya’s fiery kiss and Scorpion’s fire breath), to the absurd and over-the-top (Kano’s Heart Rip, Sub-Zero’s Skull and Spine Removal—pretty much everything else).

Upon seeing the Fatalities, the entire public went into a moral panic that led to various Congressmen speaking up to start a U.S. Congressional hearing on video game violence and the corruption of society to these forms of media. Leading the hearing from late 1992 to 1993, were, now retired, Democratic Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl. In the hearing, all of the involved parties were concerned with the portrayal of realistic replicas of human characters in video games, such as Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and Lethal Enforcers. The hearing did not discuss the portrayal of cartoonish characters in violent video games, like Eternal Champions.

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Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl, the two men that would change the gaming industry for the rest of time.


As a result of the hearings, the entire entertainment software industry was given a year to create a functional rating system similar to the MPAA ratings; one that would easily identify the content in the product. If they were unable to do so, the federal government would step in and create one. At the time, there were various rating systems created by various companies. Sega formed the Videogame Rating Council (VRC), but the rating system was mainly in place to rate its own games. Following that, the 3DO Company created its own rating system, the 3DO Rating System. Similarly, the rating system was only used for its 3DO Interactive Multiplayer console. The 3DO Rating System would later be discontinued after a certain rating system would be implemented in full.

In 1993, one of the various rating systems was pending approval from Congress: the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA). In 1994, the Software Publishers Association formed the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC). Then, on July 29th, 1994, the IDSA’s rating system, known today as the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), was presented to Congress and was approved. In September 1994, following the approval from Congress, the ESRB rating system was established, becoming the official rating system for American video games. Originally, a handful of video game companies like LucasArts, Sierra On-Line, and 3D Realms followed the RSAC system, but would eventually migrate over to the ESRB. Its impact is still shown to this day. Scour through your old library of video games, and you’ll see the rating at the bottom left of the box, and on the game disk/cartridge.

Initially, the rating system consisted of five ratings: Early Childhood, Kids to Adults, Teen, Mature, and Adults Only. But overtime, it grew to seven ratings: Early Childhood, Everyone (replacing Kids to Adults), Everyone 10+, Teen, Mature, Adults Only, and Rating Pending.

Ratings for a game work similarly to ratings for movies and television: the publishers send out a short film on a DVD containing footage of the most graphic and extreme content in the game. These can contain content related to the game’s context, such as the story, reward system, and anything that might affect the overall rating. The publisher also fills out a questionnaire describing the content in the game, while paying a small fee—which is generally lower for games that have development budgets under $1 million.


Today’s ESRB rating system.


After the ESRB was put in place, the world went on its merry little way; everything went on by, as if nothing ever happened. Of course, there was the occasional incidence of crime or violent behavior that is directly influenced by video games, but no one seemed to have a care in the world. That was, until recently, the video game industry would once again take center stage in the fiasco, this time, in Newport, Connecticut, on December 14th, 2012:

The Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

On December 14th, 2012, some time before 9:30 am EST, Adam Peter Lanza, 20, shot his mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, four times in the head before leaving the house. He then drove five miles to Sandy Hook Elementary School. At 9:35 am, using his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, Lanza shot his way through a locked glass door at the front of the school and marched straight in.

Before he entered the school, Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach were holding a meeting with other faculty members of the school. At that moment, when they heard the gunshots from outside, Hochsprung, Sherlach, and lead teacher Natalie Hammond left the meeting to see what the commotion was. As they left, standing before them was Adam Lanza, staring them down the hallway. One of the faculty members attending the meeting heard the three women shout, “Shooter! Stay put!” At that exact moment, Lanza opened fire and killed Hochsprung and Sherlach. Hammond fled to the meeting room and pressed her back against the door to keep it closed. Lanza fired into the door, wounding Hammond in the arm and leg. The sound of gunshots rang through the school’s intercom.

For the next twenty minutes, he moved from classroom to classroom, killing anyone that stood in his way. It was reported that he frequently reloaded his gun dozens of times, even when he only had half a cartridge left in his magazine. When police arrived to the scene, he fled from them, and shot himself in the head with a Glock 10mm inside one of the classrooms he was in. In those twenty minutes, Adam Lanza killed six staff members, twenty first-grade students, and wounded two people in his rampage.


A young mother discovers the fate of her child during the shooting.


During an investigation of the massacre, detectives searched the Lanza’s house for any clues as to what happened. As they searched the house, they searched one of the bedrooms and discovered more than a thousand rounds of ammunition, and a trove of various rifles, including a .45 Henry rifle, a .30 Enfield rifle, and a .22 Marlin rifle. The guns were legally owned by Adam’s mother, who was described as a gun enthusiast. When they searched the basement for additional clues, they discovered a pile that contained “thousands of dollars worth of graphically violent video games”. When this tidbit of evidence was found, dozens of news outlets were in uproar that video games were involved in a mass shooting that claimed the lives of so many people. And then we move on to the present issue.

The News Outlets

In recent times, various news networks, like CNN, Fox, ABC, etc. have been on a quest of sorts to demoralize video games, because of the violent nature these video games are to others. They go out of their way to unjustifiably denunciate video games with the “fact” that they are a link-up to crime and violence in recent memory. Fox and Friends host Elisabeth Hasselbeck spoke to a group of panelists about the shooting in Washington D.C.’s Navy yard, and how the killer was known by a friend to have played video games. “Are more people susceptible… maybe more susceptible than others to playing video games”, she spoke, “Is there a link between a certain age group or [demographic] in twenty and thirty year-old men, perhaps, that are playing these video games than in their violent actions?”

Later in the discussion, she looked at the “possibility” of video games being monitored through frequency testing.

“What about frequency testing? How often has this game been played? I’m not one to get in there and monitor everything, but if this indeed is a strong link to mass killings, then why aren’t we looking at frequency of purchases per person? And also, how often they’re playing and how many—maybe they time out after a certain hour.” It seems like whenever news of a crime or murder occurs somewhere in the U.S., the news outlets will go out of their way to immediately point fingers at and shift the blame to video games. One reason why they may be doing this is because it’s easier to blame something big than to blame something petty and small, because it gets attention—and, sadly, that big, attention grabber is video games.

“People like to make a causal link and say video games cause violence”, Cliff Bleszinski, former Design Director of Epic Games’ Gears of War and Unreal Tournament said, “It’s like, ‘Well, let’s see. So, there’s more crime in the summer, and more ice cream has sold in the summer—therefore ice cream causes crime.’ That’s not how legitimate scientific research works.”

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Elisabeth Hasselbeck and two other men discussing violent video games.

Fox News

Sometimes, the news outlets would needlessly steer the narrative and comment that the video game was involved in the crime for the sake of garnering more hits. On August 26th, 2013, an article on CNN was posted about an eight-year-old who shot and killed his grandmother. The culprit? Grand Theft Auto IV—not the kid, a video game. When it was posted, the news article was immediately slammed by various commenters for contributing nothing to the story, and was nothing more than a blatant attention grab. One commenter, James Black, commented on the article, asking, “Why did an eight year old have access to a gun? Good job America and way to go CNN lets find anyone to blame but the people directly responsible.” Another comment was made of the same news article, this time from Seraphna on Kotaku, where they asked how an eight-year-old was able to play Grand Theft Auto IV. “So my two questions remain: 1. Why the hell was there a gun just laying around!? 2. Why was an 8 year old allowed to play that game?”

And it isn’t just the news outlets that do this; it’s also various talk shows that condemn violent video games. On May 2nd, 2013, Katie Couric, known for her work on The Today Show, Dateline NBC, 60 Minutes, and her talk show Katie, did an hour long exposé on the potential risks of addictive and, most notably, violent video games. The discussion focused on two specific events: the 2007 news story of Daniel Petric, a teenager who murdered his mother, and shot his father after they took away his copy of Halo 3 when they were worried that he had become addicted to the game, and Quinn Pitcock, the former Indianapolis Colts draft pick who gave up his career after falling into a bout of depression and compulsive gaming.

While it attempted to be rational and sympathetic about the subject, it boiled down to nothing more than shameless scare tactics meant to paint video games under a bad light. Kotaku journalist Chris Person described it as “essentially a maudlin, fear-mongering and clichéd piece of television meant to provide easy answers and scapegoats to very real, complicated problems.” The editors of Katie used every trite imaginable: Flashy edits, eerie and pensive music, framed shots of gameplay featuring a gun, and shots of someone’s hands violently wrestling and pounding on the controller in a very stereotypical manner.

Introduction to the aired episode.


A day later, Katie posted a tweet on her Twitter account (@katiecouric), asking, “Passionate gamers upset w convo whether violent video games can contribute to v behavior. Tweet the positive side of violent v games? Thanx!” When her tweet was shared to the world, it was met with marring comments that told her out—but not in the traditional gamer way of spewing pointless death threats: the comments ranged from the self-referential (“I'm a 40 YO college professor & dad. I play all games for mental stimulation and good stories. Violence is part of our world” –@casparnic, “Friendship and Comradery. The people I played those games with as a child remain some of my closest friends.” –@DeathbyHappy), the scientific and informative (“Studies have shown that certain games can help establish quicker reflexes, better vision, and also think faster.” –@SidtheKid323, “A lot of them involve a good deal of strategy; teamwork in multiplayer mode. And they're fun. Clean way to relieve stress.” –@UVaKareBear), and even very rational (“Many excellent stories do involve death and pain to add to the realism and emotional drama - why should games be any different?” –@TinyPixelBlock, “To the people who say ‘video games perpetuate violence’; please tell me what video games were being played 500 years ago.” –‏@IrregularDave)

Some even go as far as making wild and erroneous assertions and assumptions of video games by using buzzwords that get across their “points”. On June 21st, 2013, Fox Business aired a discussion on the John Stossel Show about the recent crimes that have been a result of people playing video games. On it, Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and the CEO of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was discussing about Jesus (he’s one of those types of people), and how he “understands violence.” When he started discussing about violent video games, and how people are playing them and then grabbing their guns and go around, shooting people, John Stossel raised his hands to his chest, and motioned him to stop, saying, “Whoa whoa whoa.” He followed with this statistic:

“You talk about all this stuff… but crime is down; Youth offences are down. Maybe it’s good for kids! We don’t know!”

After that, Franklin responded with this statement (guess which part of the quote is the aforementioned “buzzword”):

“I would say it’s not good for anybody to watch murder. These video games, to me, are murder simulators, is what they are—and it’s very dangerous.”

I don’t want to swear, but seriously? What the fuck is wrong with people making these absurd statements? If they were really “murder simulators”, how come these publicly traded companies that make these “murder simulators” have not been arrested? How have they been publishing these “murder simulators” for over 40 years without any trouble from law enforcements?

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John Stossel, pictured left, telling Franklin Graham, pictured right, to stop.


Anyway, moving away from my utter diatribe, John continued with his use of statistics, this time pulling out a statistic showcasing the crime differences between North America and Japan, and how even though Japan has more video games than the U.S., firearm deaths in Japan is actually dramatically less there than it is in North America.

“In Japan, they watch twice as many of these video games, and the murder rate is a fraction. You look at crime per hundred thousand people—ten firearm deaths in the United States, less than one in Japan, and so on. There’s just no evidence that playing the games causes people to run around and shoot people.”

At this point, Franklin is simply faffing about, and even agreed with him, but he states that the President and Congress need to fix this country, and that violence is an epidemic. John, continuing his streak of pulling out information when it’s needed, discusses the similar treatment of video games today to comic books in the past.

“In the 1950s, the villain was the comic book. The Senate claimed comics were causing juvenile delinquency, and in one hearing, a so-called ‘Forensics Scientist’ said, ‘One comic promotes sadistic fantasies to kids.’ That comic was Superman.” John ended the discussion by saying, “I can’t imagine what more study we could have other than the fact that the games are more popular, and crime is down.”

Many people in the gaming industry have even come out and defended this industry with their own comments about the news industry demonizing video games for the sake of earning higher ratings for their network, and to earn higher profits in the process. In the still-in-production, crowdfunded documentary, Video Games: The Movie, many well-esteemed voices in the industry speak their minds in the segment about this very subject. One of them, Rob Pardo, Chief Creative Officer at Blizzard, discussed the very fact that there are violent video games out there, but it’s not what defines the medium. “There’s always a lot of media talking about violence in video games, and certainly, there are violent video games, but that’s not how you describe the medium of gaming.”

Many people in the industry have discussed back and fourth how all these people are blindly harassing video games, when the real problem is staring them dead in the eyes. “It’s weird how when you watch the people—they go to Congress, they’re angry and, ‘Our kids are being corrupted!’ Yeah, exactly—your kids”, Mikey Neumann, Chief Creative Champion at Gearbox Software said, “They’re your children; you should be not corrupting them. ‘I leave ‘em alone, ten hours a day and he’s getting corrupted by thi—’ well no shit, dude. It’s like finding your dad’s Playboys under the bed and then blaming Playboy.”

It’s so bizzare how these people have no idea there’s a rating system on the front and back of the box that highlights everything in the game. You can’t purchase a video game without being reminded of the rating on the box by the man/woman at the checkout line. What’s even more ironic about this is that the people who spite video games have probably never even played one at all—and here they are, calling them “murder simulators”. But, you know what’s more ironic than this? The Supreme Court is required to play video games to understand what they are, before they are ruled by them. It’s as if 1993 never happened…

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Do people not take notice of these very important letters on the box?


And while we’re back on the subject of the ESRB, Karl Stewart, Creative Director of Crystal Dynamics, addressed concerns that these video games are blatantly pushed out without reviewing the content in the product. He also mentions that they ensure that the game is confined to the rating the whole way through. “We put measures in place. ESRB are our guidelines. We make sure that we build our game to the rating. It gets checked on a regular basis.” Strangely enough, ESRB ratings are actually a better means of evaluating the content in the product than the MPAA ratings, because the box office doesn’t fully explain what’s played in the film—besides a letter and, maybe, a few numbers in there. And it’s even worse on the movie boxes themselves, as the front rarely, or never mentions the content in the film, and the back is just a cluttered mess of names scattered throughout.

“The interesting thing, I think, with games is that we actually have an even better rating system than movies”, Rob Pardo stated, “But there’s this misunderstanding with the elder generation that, somehow, all games are like Grand Theft Auto.”

But all of these media outcries are not solely pressed on video games. It was also a problem with other forms of media: Music was in the same boat for many decades. Many Christian parents condemned Elvis Presley, KISS, ACDC, and many others as being, “music from the Devil himself”. Television was also criticized for being “the lazy man’s entertainment”, and was the center of attention whenever a child would harm someone, because they watched the content on television and tried to reenact the events on the show. The news outlets would immediately point the finger at television and damn it all for causing violence. And who could also not forget the famous term, “Couch Potato Head”?

As discussed earlier, comic books were in a similar situation to video games. They were criticized as being too graphically violent for kids. Look back at the example of Superman. The man fires freakin’ lasers from his freakin’ eyes, has frost breath, super strength, and can fly! Yet, look at how iconic he is today, despite the controversy surrounding comic books. The moment you notice his blue suit, his red cape, boots, and tights, and the giant, red “S” with the gold background on his chest, you immediately recognize him. After all, he’s neither a bird, nor a plane.

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Don’t be cruel; you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.


Sadly, our very existence is born from conflict. Our ancestors spilled their blood for wars and other battles, big or small. The very fact that every form of media has violence or conflict in some form reinforces our desire to pursue them as entertainment; you know why this is the case? Because conflict sells. I bet we wouldn’t be watching an action flic if the entire movie had the performers drinking tea the entire time. We’re always fascinated with violence, because we’ll never see it—or even attempt to do it. We’re interested. We get excited about it. We fantasize about it. “Violence, unfortunately, is a part of human nature”, Tommy Tallarico, Founder of Video Games Live said, “And last time I check, Cain didn’t bludgeon Abel with a Gameboy, Genghis Khan didn’t have an Xbox Live account, and Hitler didn’t play Crash Bandicoot.”

Perhaps the reason why video games have not yet been accepted as a form of entertainment is because they’re “games”. It’s a game to kill someone, even if it’s a virtual silhouette of a person. Perhaps that’s the reason why people aren’t yet comfortable with calling video games a form of entertainment. And maybe that’s why people are demanding that people should not play video games. “It would be like saying, ‘We don’t want anyone to watch movies, because all movies are violent’”, Rob Pardo said, “But people don’t say that, because everyone understands movies as a medium.”

Another aspect of video games that is seldom discussed is the involvement of multiplayer in crimes, and how the men in the suits rail on competitive multiplayer games for incentivizing killing people with small awards, such as, “DOUBLE KILL!” or, “KILLING SPREE!” While they have a good stance, my counter argument to this, is that the Gladiators of Roman times were of today’s equivalent. Gladiators would battle to the death to determine who was stronger; a sort of Natural Selection, if you fancy considering it artful. For Rome, the Gladiators were the Roman equivalent to American Football—or European Football: it was a national sport for them.

The Gladiators of yesterday are no different to today’s competitive multiplayer gaming.


Solving the Real Problem That the News Outlets Don’t Understand

Let’s cut to the chase: There’s clearly a problem going on that is fundamentally at the heart of crime in America and other nations. It’s a widespread and universal acknowledgement that there’s something wrong with these people going out and committing these atrocities. We try so hard to find the real culprit to all this needless killing, but what we all do instead, is take two steps back and blame it on something petty and feeble. It’s time we stop dilly-dallying and find the true perpetrator and try to put a stop to it, hopefully once and for all—even if that sounds hopelessly optimistic.

I’ll start by saying what I think the real problem is. To start, it has nothing to do with gun safety regulations. The Second Amendment, The Right to Bear Arms, protects us as Americans. We are born with the right to arm ourselves, should our lives be in the path of danger. If someone chooses to do evil with their hands and arms, then they will be rightfully punished for their arrogance.

I’ll say it right now that video games are most definitely not the problem here. As discussed in the John Stossel Show, Japan has more people playing video games than the U.S., yet the crime there is practically nonexistent. If this entire Mindshare has not yet convinced you that video games are not to blame, I question your intelligence and every aspect of you as a gamer/hypocrite. You will also be the butt end of every joke made for the rest of time.

But, in all seriousness, the time has come to answer what is really the cause of the crime and violence in our country. What I’m about to say will be contentious for what it is, but, for the longest time, the problem has been of three issues: the psychological well being of an individual, poor parenting, and societal pressures.

To be blunt, America’s mental healthcare programs are terrible. The price needed to pay for services is ludicrous, with average expenditures of $700-$900 per day being the bare minimum for payment for services. Some even spend upwards of $50,000 for full mental healthcare coverage. It’s in no way surprising that people do not have the budget to spend on services like that, especially given the state of the economy. And, to that end, the people who can’t afford those types of services will probably be the ones you hear in the news somewhere down the road that commit these acts against mankind.

Everyone reading has probably heard of the saying, “Guns don’t kill people—people do.” The gun doesn’t kill someone; the person holding the gun and pulling the trigger on a person is the one that kills someone. Conversely, the video game doesn’t kill someone—or anyone for that matter. Sure, a video game can be a catalyst involved in a murder, but it’s not the sole perpetrator that killed them. And no, they don’t physically beat someone to death with the box of the video game—that’s just plain silly.

In the Sandy Hook Shooting, Adam Lanza was noted for not having a criminal background, but was noted for being “mentally ill”, and was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and sensory processing disorder (SPD). While neither of these conditions are in no way considered mental illnesses, it is still worth noting, regardless of the implications. Various students and teachers that knew him in High School described him as being, “intelligent, but nervous and fidgety”. He was known to not have many friends.

Conversely tying into mental illnesses, we have the nature of poor parenting skills contributing to the cause to violence. While I’m not a parent myself, I understand two important tasks a parent is faced with: knowing every little thing about what’s going on in their child’s life at all times, no matter what, and to keep them out of harm’s way. It’s imperative that parents understand what is going on in their child’s world, as well as ensuring that their child is not doing anything that could harm them or others—like the news article of the child who shot and killed their grandmother. She was sleeping with a fully loaded gun next to her that was in reaching distance to the child; she wasn’t being precautionary in keeping her grandson safe. Combine that with the naïveté of children, and you have a recipe for disaster waiting to happen.

It also has to do with societal pressures weighing us down every day. Thousands of years ago, if you were a Carpenter, you knew what your responsibility in society was: you made sure people were wearing shoes, and were living in homes. If there weren’t a Carpenter, then people would have a lot of foot pain. If someone was a Blacksmith, they knew their importance in society: they forged weapons, armor, home decorations, and, essentially, made sure that no one could breach the inner walls. If there weren’t a Blacksmith, the village/castle would have been invaded/destroyed with little trouble. I don’t even think we’re remotely comfortable living in a world with 6 billion people populating the planet. It’s hard to find a role in society when there are people who do what you do, and are probably five times better at it than you. Some people will eventually lead a life of crime, because they can’t think of any other way to live in this giant world of ours.

What Can We Do to Stop This?

We live in a corrupt and menacing world. The very thought of chivalry is a trait of ancient past. It may seem daunting, and otherwise impossible, but we can make a change. But, what we need to do is to be strong for ourselves, and to others that follow in our footsteps. We need to speak up and let our voices be heard. When news of a crime or murder occurs, and they begin pointing fingers at video games, we need to ensure that our voices are louder than theirs.

Go to Facebook, Twitter, whatever means of communication is possible, and speak up, tell them that video games are not to blame. Be rational. Be thoughtful. Be informative. Be honest. And for God’s sake, please don’t boil it down to death threats or angry ranting. If that happens, what are we but advocates of their ideas? We have to let them know that video games do not perpetuate violence, in a mature and reasonable manner.

And if we don’t? Well, we’re going to have this happen for the rest of time.

See you, Space Cowboys.

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