I called it “clueless” and “inconsistent” because it was, and now a bill proposed by an Oklahoma lawmaker to tax violent video games has been thrown out by a subcommittee. The bad news: It nearly passed, losing by a narrow margin of 5-6. That means nearly half the subcommittee members were seriously courting the thing.
If I had to guess, I’d say that’s because the bill’s sponsor, State Representative William Fourkiller (D., Okl.), made a significant eleventh-hour change that made the bill less offensive (albeit still wrongheaded).
The bill in its original version would have imposed a 1% sales tax on any game rated “Teen” or above by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, and that money would in turn have gone to programs battling bullying and childhood obesity. That means games like Skyrim (Mature) and Modern Warfare 3 (Mature) would have been taxed alongside other clearly nonviolent ones like Zumba Fitness 2 (Teen) and Dance Central 2 (Teen). But Fourkiller — perhaps in response to strong criticism — altered it to remove the tax entirely. The revised bill would have instead created a task force dedicated to analyzing the impact of video and computer games on children.
But the revision was itself poorly worded, including this part:
The Task Force shall seek to analyze and address the major challenges relating to the health, well-being and education of the children in this state associated with video games and computer games and resulting in decreased physical activity and increased aggression.
Whether a task force of nonspecialists would be qualified to “analyze” behavioral questions pertaining to video game use notwithstanding, the revision effectively links video games (note the elision of “violent,” meaning everything’s on the table) with physical inactivity and aggressiveness. That’s a problem, in particular where matters of “aggression” are concerned, because research into aggression and video gaming remains inconclusive. That, and as video games have effectively become the predominant form of U.S. entertainment in terms of consumer spending, violence levels have dropped to their lowest levels in four decades. That point is crucial and often brushed past — just because there’s no smoke doesn’t mean there’s no fire, but for all the sins laid at video gaming’s feet by anti-gaming types, you’d think we’d at least have seen distributed, correlational evidence by now. Even if it some day turns out that gaming actually does increase aggression levels (you know, like caffeine, or playing football), it’ll be no more clear the answer’s to legislate away basic freedoms.
For now, we have to live with the fact that video gaming’s influence on behavior remains unsettled. As academic researcher and TIME contributor Christopher Ferguson recently wrote, aggression research “just hasn’t panned out,” and “much of the early research on [violent video games] linking them to increased aggression was problematic.” Why? Because it involved metrics that “had nothing to do with real-life aggression and failed to control carefully for other important variables,” notes Ferguson. Variables like: family violence, mental health issues and gender.
According to Ferguson:
More recent research has not found that children who play VVG are more violent than other kids, nor harmed in any other identifiable fashion. A recent longitudinal study of my own, following 165 10- to 14-year-old boys and girls over a three-year period, now in press with Journal of Psychiatric Research, finds no long-term link between VVG and youth aggression or dating violence. Another recent longitudinal study with young German children published in Media Psychology by Maria von Salisch and colleagues similarly found no links between VVG and aggression.
In any event, Oklahomans should rest easier knowing at least some of its legislative members are critical thinkers. In the subcommittee minutes, member Mike Reynolds questioned the wisdom of a task force in general, noting he didn’t “see many task forces that meet beyond the legislative session.” Fourkiller said he hoped the task force would in fact work to “curb childhood obesity and also bullying.” That prompted Pat Ownbey to ask the more salient question: “Why just video games? Why not French fries or rap music or movies?”
Why not indeed. Books, movies, comic books, music and now video games — what have they all got in common? They’ve each been accused of rotting our minds or ruining or health or wrecking our manners. You’d think we’d know better by now.