Opinion | Pa. is misguidedly trying to make video games a taxable sin

By Thomas Wick, Staff Columnist

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, suffered a school shooting that took the lives of 17 people about one year ago. In response, President Donald Trump decided it would be best to examine the role video games play in causing gun violence, rather than other possible, likelier causes such as gun control and mental health.

Politicians have been trying to pin the blame for school shootings on violent video games for years, even though it’s a dated concept. Some legislators in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives seem to believe video games contribute to school shootings. Not only are they trying to unfairly villainize video games, which has been done by many others, but they are also violating one of the most basic constitutional rights: the freedom of speech.

Pennsylvania legislators introduced House Bill No. 109, a 10-percent sin tax — something that is meant for products such as alcohol and tobacco — on mature-rated games at retail on Jan. 28. The representative behind this bill is Christopher B. Quinn, a Republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives who claims that violent video games are encouraging all kinds of acts of violence, particularly school shootings.

From Colorado to Connecticut to most recently in Parkland, Florida, students have experienced unthinkable actions by peers in a place that should promote learning and enrichment, safety and protection,” Quinn said in a September memo. “One factor that may be contributing to the rise in and intensity of school violence is the material kids see and act out in video games.”

The money from this tax will go into a Digital Protection for School Safety Account, which will be used to improve school safety in Pennsylvania schools. But what Quinn doesn’t realize is just how ludicrous the entire bill is.

I wrote a column about a year ago about politicians blaming violent video games for mass shootings and found there are plenty of studies proving there is no link between violent video games and criminal behavior.

The American Psychological Association found that while video games do increase aggression levels, there is still no link between video games and criminal behavior. The University of Missouri proved that people with autism spectrum disorder didn’t act violently as a result of playing video games, which some claimed caused the Sandy Hook shooting.

Lynda Cruz, adoptive mother of the Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, told mental health investigators that her son had suffered from ADHD, autism and depression. Officials said he “had a ‘very disturbing’ social media presence and had been expelled from school.”

There is no definitive idea as to what causes school shootings, but according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, school shootings are typically the result of “suicidal thoughts, despair and anger — plus access to guns.” It’s never been a direct result of playing violent video games. If it were, there’d be a lot more shootings going on, considering that more than 90 percent of American children play video games, and 90 percent of video games rated E10+ contain violence.

This would be the first time video games have been regulated by the government, but not the first time they’ve come under fire. Back in 1992, the video game “Mortal Kombat” sparked controversy for its excessive violence, particularly in the manner players execute their opponents by taking off their heads or ripping out their hearts, followed by consuming the leaking blood. This over-the-top violence would become one of the franchise’s major selling points, but to the government this was a major concern because it was corrupting young children’s minds.

To fix the problem, the ESRB rating system was implemented, which is used to assign age ratings to various video games so parents are more informed of the graphic content that their children would see if they played the game. Apparently that simple safeguard is not enough for Pennsylvania legislators — they have to start demanding extra money be forked over if people want to play a certain game.

This bill also is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that video games were protected under it in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association in June 2011, when California tried to pass a law banning the sale of violent video games to minors. Justice Antonin Scalia brought up other forms of violent speech protected under the First Amendment, such as literary works “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and “Lord of the Flies,” which are accessible to minors.

The violence expressed in these books is the same kind of violence that California was trying to ban, meaning it would be wrong to ban video games for expressing the same thing.

“Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world),” Scalia wrote in his decision. “That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”

After Quinn proposed the bill, the Entertainment Software Association released a statement about this constitutional violation.

“The U.S. Supreme Court made clear in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association & Entertainment Software Association that video games are entitled to the full protection of the Constitution, and that efforts, like Pennsylvania’s, to single out video games based on their content will be struck down,” the statement reads.

Republican lawmakers like Quinn tend to point to anything but guns when shootings happen. The sin tax on video games seems like a way to address gun violence without actually addressing the real problem. In doing so, it not only unfairly targets video games but also violates the constitutional right of freedom of speech.

Placing a tax on video games will in no way stop a young person with violent intentions, whether they play mature video games or not, from deciding to get their hands on a dangerous weapon and opening fire in a public space.

The solution to fixing gun violence is complex. But school shootings happen because someone has a gun and uses that gun to commit violent acts, so a step in the right direction would be keeping guns away from dangerous people, such as having stricter background checks, without violating the Second Amendment. Creating a healthy and safe school environment by decreasing isolation and closing the gaps in mental health services are also good steps to prevent more school shootings.

Regardless of what the solution is, blaming video games does nothing.