Last month, Missouri State Rep. Diane Franklin (R-155) introduced a bill to the Missouri House of Representatives that is poorly worded and based on dubious evidence.
HB 893, an amendment to Missouri’s current sales tax law, proposes to levy a $1 excise tax on “violent” video games — that is, any game that has received a rating of “Teen,” “Mature” or “Adults Only.” The bill states, “All such games sold, stored, used, or otherwise consumed in this state must have an issued stamp affixed,” according to the Missouri House website.
The generated revenue would be placed in a special fund devoted to two purposes — “community outreach, identification and prevention of mental health conditions associated with exposure to violent video games,” and “to fund training of school officials, teachers, and staff and law enforcement efforts to combat violent crimes,” according to the bill’s text.
The most poorly worded portion of this bill is the levy of a tax not just on sales, but also on the storage, use or “other consumption” of games. I imagine Missouri stores would be selling games already stamped with proof of the tax payment, but what if I purchase a game from an out-of-state retailer via the Internet? Am I responsible for paying this tax so I legally can use and store the game? What are the consequences if I don’t? Also, I’m not sure what “other consumption” might mean. Am I liable simply for spectating while others play games which have not been stamped?
This proposed tax also is too vague in terms of games that it could apply to. Video games can be rated “Teen” for a variety of reasons, such as mild language, mild nudity or comic mischief, all of which might be inappropriate for children but are not violent. Popular games like Rock Band or The Sims are rated “Teen” but are violence-free, unless you count people smashing guitars or getting caught in cartoony dust-ups as violent. Franklin’s bill easily could be written to more specifically target violent games without becoming less enforceable.
In addition, I have never heard of a mental health condition that is specifically “associated with exposure to violent video games.” The argument that violent video games cause children to become more violent has been debated since the Columbine school shootings, and easily is countered by the argument that children who are predispositioned to violence prefer to play violent video games. Studies on both sides of this argument have been inconclusive, according to a Feb. 11 New York Times article.
Even if violent games cause violent behavior, they are among a whole list of violent media that pervade our culture. Television and movies especially contain a disproportionate amount of violence compared to real life, according to George Gerbner’s 1970 study “Cultural Indicators: The Case of Violence in Television Drama.” This portrayal of violence can affect social behavior, according to the same study. Video games simply are the latest in a long line of media scapegoated by authority figures who do not want to face the reality that violence is so saturated within our culture as to confound any means of purging it.
After the many recent gun violence tragedies throughout this country, I am afraid that lawmakers might be making hasty decisions. I understand the need to be proactive, to feel like we are taking actions to combat the epidemic of violence throughout our nation. However, we should focus our efforts toward finding verifiably effective methods of preventing violence. We should not so hastily blame a medium that merely reflects the greater problem of violence in our society.