Could Taxing Violent Video Games Actually Save Lives?

... or is it just a politically acceptable way to raise money from a tragedy?

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Guns, troubled young men, and violent video games. Together, they form a tragically familiar background story to America's recent shooting massacres in Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown. But the Constitution protects guns, and mental health is expensive and complicated to treat. So some lawmakers are responding to the latest tragedy by going after the third -- and possibly least consequential -- variable in this murky equation. There is a new push to tax violent video games.

Researchers are still trying to sort out what kinds of behaviors can (and can't) be attributed to playing games like "Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance" and "Killzone 3." And as it stands, the possible psychological link between digital aggression and anything on the scale of the Sandy Hook massacre is shaky at best. That's one of the reasons the president has called on the CDC to examine the potential relationship among video games, media images, and real-life violence.

Connecticut State Rep. Debralee Hovey (R-112) isn't waiting to read the conclusion. Hovey, whose district includes parts of Newtown, introduced House Bill 5735, establishing what she calls a "10% sin tax" on violent video games (those with a rating of "M", intended for consumers 17 and above). The proceeds would go to Connecticut's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to develop "to educate families on the warning signs of video game addiction and anti-social behavior."

Hovey isn't the first state lawmaker in the wake of the Newtown tragedy to target video gamers with a tax. Rep. Diane Franklin introduced a similar bill to the Missouri House on January 14th, calling for a 1% surcharge on games with a Teen, Mature, or Adult Only rating. The Missouri bill states that, "immediate action is necessary to protect the mental health of individuals exposed to violent video games."

Rep. Hovey says that she's been thinking about the issue of violent video games long before the Sandy Hook shootings. As an education consultant for children with a son of her own, Hovey has long worried about the effect of simulated gunfire on youth and believes that violent video games add "no value" to society as a whole.

"In conversations, I've found many 9-12 year old kids who are playing these M rated games," she said. "And they are way too fragile and malleable to be viewing this kind of realistic violence."

The proposed video game bill is modeled on other classic sin taxes -- like those levied on alcohol, cigarettes, or at the slot machine -- where the money collected by the tax not only raises general revenue but also goes into a specific fund dedicated to address the worse effects of the supposed "sin." For example, a tax on junk food helps fund public medical spending and PSAs about healthy eating. In this case, Hovey hopes a sin tax will help parents understand "that this kind of [video gaming] activity can impact their child's brains."

But video games aren't like cigarettes, and not just because their risks are less clear. A sin tax on cigarettes should limit smoking by forcing cash-strapped consumers to buy fewer packs. But even if a sin tax on video games reduces the number of video games sold, it won't necessarily limit the hours played. After all, what's the difference between two hours of "Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance" and an hour each of "Mortal Kombat" and "Killzone 3"?

Rep. Hovey says she doesn't worry about it. "I have no interest in becoming a nanny or parent to all these children or preventing the number of video games people buy," she said. "My goal is to ramp up awareness of how realistic the content is."

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Jacoba Urist is a contributing journalist for NBC News, where she covers health, education, and gender issues. More

She received her JD and LL.M in taxation from New York University School of Law and a Masters in Public Policy from The Johns Hopkins Institute For Health and Social Policy. She has also written for Time, Newsweek/TheDailyBeast, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

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