Could Taxing Violent Video Games Actually Save Lives?

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... 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."

THE PROBLEM WITH SIN TAXES

Adam Hoffer, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, is one of three co-authors of a new working paper examining the creation and growth of the "sindustry"--and why sin taxes often aren't the magic remedy lawmakers hope they'll be.

"Video games [are] the vice right now, what's next down the road?" he said. "Are we going to tax violent movies? TV shows? Hey, why not an HBO tax?"

If the state of Connecticut feels strongly that parents should learn about video game addiction and anti-social behavior, Hoffer explains, the state can collect revenue from other sources-- or allocate existing public health funds to the problem.

"I do like the [Connecticut] bill because it deals with an education component," says Michael Thomas, another a co-author of the working paper, and an economics and finance professor at Utah State's Huntsman School of Business. "But I fear that what happens in reality is that the expenditures end up getting put in a general fund or the specific public health part gets dropped from the bill."

According to Thomas, the logistics of allotting money from a specific sin tax to a trust for a particular public health campaign can get dicey. States often end up dipping into these funds if they need to make ends meet, and just put an IOU into the pot. In the end, the sin tax could just end up being a run-of-the-mill revenue grab -- a politically correct way to raise money that does nothing to actually reduce gun violence. 

NOTHING LEFT TO TAX BUT SIN

"Raising taxes in general, on income, is a non-starter," said William Shughart, the third co-author of the working paper, and a professor in the economics and finance department at Utah State University. "So you have to find something only a minority of people take part in and then tax it." Video gamers, he says, are the prime example of a politically vulnerable group. As best he can see, the majority of the voting population doesn't play violent video games. And for that reason, Shughart believes the Connecticut tax will likely pass.

"It's a classic sin tax situation," Shughart says about why he's not surprised by the lack of evidence linking video aggression and real life shooting. "We are told, we must tax violent video games under some claim that they harm the people playing them, and we're told those harms are spilling over onto the rest of us who don't play these game."

The problem is, even in a perfect world, where placing a sin tax on certain video games reduces exposure to violent imagery and the money is used for a series of public service announcements about anti-social behavior, there's still no clear evidence that this would do anything to protect kids from gun violence or from another school shooting. Even more dangerous, lawmakers may fool us all into thinking we've solved the problem of gun violence by slapping a 10% price hike on "Grand Theft Auto," when in fact, the only problem they've solved is the hole in their own budget. In the meantime, we will have done nothing to reduce gun violence.

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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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