On Jan. 28, several members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives introduced a bill that would impose a tax of 10 percent on action-oriented video games rated M for mature or AO for adults only. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s efforts to single out action games violated the First Amendment. Beyond standing on similarly questionable grounds, Pennsylvania’s own proposed bill is more likely to do harm than good.
Theproposal is driven by the popular belief that such games cause acts of violence. In a September memo that previewed the legislation, its sponsor, Republican Rep. Christopher B. Quinn linked violent games to societal violence, including the 2018 Parkland shooting in Florida. He cites a Washington think tank that connects playing videos games to showing aggression in real life. But as researchers in this field, we’ve found the evidence to be clear: No links exist between video games and violence.
As we discuss in our book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong, data on school shootings going back to a 2002 Secret Service report find that less than 20 percent of school shooters played violent video games with any amount of regularity. Evidence suggests these individuals are actually less interested in violent games than the typical high school student. Many people continue to believe falsely that some shooters, such as those in the 2012 Sandy Hook and 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, were avid action gamers. Yet official investigations reported that these individuals preferred the nonviolent games Dance, Dance Revolution and Sonic the Hedgehog, respectively.
If there is a link between video games and school shootings, we’ve found it to be in the opposite direction than what’s implied by the proposed tax. Our research shows that from 1996 to 2011, as video game sales soared, youth violence dropped by over 80 percent. Countries that consume more video games per capita than the U.S., such as South Korea, Japan, and the Netherlands, have among the lowest violence rates on the planet. The finding that violent video games are related to decreases in violent crime is extremely robust and reached multiple times by different scholars. Long-term studies of youth have not found that playing action games predicts later bullying, violent crime, or conduct disorder. As a result, many scientists in this area no longer believe violent media cause societal violence.
Put simply, if we’re serious about tackling school violence, there is little evidence that doing anything related to violent games will help.
Concerns about violent games do seem to be slowing down. Beliefs in the harmfulness of video games is driven primarily by older adults who didn’t grow up playing them. In this sense, fears about video games resemble previous moral panics over novels, the radio, comic books in the 1950s, rock music in the 1980s, and Harry Potter. Fears of media and technology tend to predictably rise up, usually driven by older adults and then die off, well … when the older folks do. This has been going on for 2,500 years on record, stretching back to the ancient Greeks. It’s not hard to imagine even older generations calling for a 10 percent tax on the wheel.
There’s a real risk that comes with not letting go of this moral panic once and for all. Hand-wringing over technology tends to distract society from real issues that can influence crime, such as mental health, educational disparities, and poverty. This bill to tax video games is a paean to a bygone era where ignorance led people to blame games for all manner of societal ills. It is time to reject these efforts, not waste time on an unconstitutional and unscientific bill.
Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University, and Patrick Markey, a professor of psychology at Villanova University. They are coauthors of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong.