Attempts to link violent video games to violent behavior just won't go away. And thanks to President Obama's new $10 million initiative to investigate the matter, it's not going to go away any time soon. Funding more research into the correlation between video games and violence is not a bad thing, especially in the face of some troubling new activity from lawmakers.
Among them is Missouri state Rep. Diane Franklin who just introduced a new bill that would tack a one-percent tax on violent video games. Actually, because it's hard to legally define "violent video game," the new sin tax would apply to all games with a rating of Teen, Mature or Adult Only. That puts Rock Band in the same camp as Call of Duty, which is weird but illustrates an interesting point. We really have no idea what causes some kids to turn violent, and we're grabbing at straws in an effort to figure it out.
This idea of taxing violent games is a particularly bad attempt. As Paul Tassi points out at Forbes, it equates violent video games to cigarettes in the eyes of tax law. Cigarettes are definitely dangerous, and few would argue that any effort to discourage people from smoking will have a positive effect on public health. But the research linking video games to violent behavior just isn't there, and so the proposed sin tax ends up looking less like regulation and more like censorship. The Supreme Court, by the way, ruled that video games qualify First Amendment protection. If we're going to tax violent video games, why not also tax violent movies? Would you pay an extra dollar to watch James Bond beat people up?
It gets worse, though. Franklin's bill would take the money made from the new sin tax and invest it "in the treatment of mental health conditions associated with exposure to violent video games." In effect, she's saying that video games cause mental illness. This is a big assumption. From a legal perspective, the Supreme Court decided in a 7-2 decision back in 2011 that the link between video games and violent behavior was not strong enough to warrant a California law that restricted the sale and rental of violent video games. The decision reads:
Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media. … California also cannot show that the Act’s restrictions meet the alleged substantial need of parents who wish to restrict their children’s access to violent videos.
There has been some research that links video game addiction with symptoms of depression, anxiety and social phobias, but that applies to all video games, not just the violent ones. On the contrary, a 2012 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research showed that video games did not have an effect on violent behavior. Instead, "depression, antisocial personality traits, exposure to family violence and peer influences were the best predictors of aggression-related outcomes," said the authors. There are other studies that suggest otherwise, but many scientists argue that studying the outcomes in the lab often doesn't translate to the real world.
Inevitably, the president makes a strong point. If people think that violent video games are a cause for these mass shootings, the best thing we can do is more research. "We don't benefit from ignorance," Obama said in announcing the new research initiative. "We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence." We also don't benefit from hasty laws that reek of censorship.