Earlier this year, U.S. Legislators took another crack at the curbing the production of violent video games by enacting the Tax Reform Act of 2014, which would offer permanent tax credits to video game creators that do not make violent video games. What some might call a progressive attempt to encourage and incentivize the video game industry to clean up its act and produce more non-violent, wholesome games instead came across as an indirect form of governmental regulation which explicitly excluded any creators from the tax credit that did choose to make games that were determined to fit the “violent” model.
Questions of the constitutionality of this tax reform, which determines what constitutes as “violent” or “non-violent” and thus who qualifies for the tax credit, and how these subjective definitions will impact the larger industry as a whole were just a few of the issues that have arisen in light of this reform.
Ultimately, though, the real issue that this new reform brings up—an issue that has implications that extend beyond just the production of video games—is the seemingly covert methods that the government and other public agencies are continuing to take in order to regulate the creative industries and individual creators’ freedom of expression in the guise of protecting our children.
The reform which offers “an improved, permanent R&D tax credit, finally giving American manufacturers the certainty they need to compete against their foreign competition who have long had permanent R&D incentives” initially sounded like a fantastic plan. The government was actively providing U.S. game creators the assistance that they needed in order to compete with foreign developers. They argued that violent video games had been holding the U.S. back, and permanent tax credits issued by the government could rebuild and restructure the U.S. gaming industry in a way that could be both financially and morally sound. Unlike past attempts by the government to intercede in the creative process, this new reform wouldn’t have any tax penalties for those who did choose to create violent video games (legislation that has been determined to be unconstitutional); they just wouldn’t qualify for the tax credit.
This all sounds well and good, except for the fact that it was never clear in the reform what the definition of “violent” would be and how it would define the standards of a non-violent video game (the Comics Code of 1954 outlined those standards more clearly than the proposed legislation). For all intents and purposes, this reform appeared to be another attempt for politicians to use video games as a scapegoat to incite public outrage and push other initiatives.
Most importantly, though, the reform raised significant questions regarding how the tax credit would negatively impact those creators that chose to create the games that they wanted — which, thanks to Brown v. EMA, they can do under the First Amendment — and fueled the long-standing debate about whether violent video games truly impact and affect those that play them.
In studies conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Rochester, it was found that there wasn’t a noticeable difference in behavior and attitude between those who were given a modified, non-violent version of the popular game Half-Life 2 and those given the regular version, complete with a variety of violent character death scenes. In fact, the aggression levels between both groups remained relatively consistent.
What researchers did find, though, was that players who received a tutorial prior to playing a game had a less aggressive reaction to the video game as opposed to those who received little to no tutorial. It wasn’t necessarily the content that incited aggressive reactions, rather the method of play the individual brought to the gaming experience. As BBC News pointed out, “This need to master the game was far more significant than whether the game contained violent material.”
Other studies performed by University of Missouri researcher Greg Perreault also further grounded the fact that it the debate over how and if depictions of violence impact viewers is less about the violence itself and more about the displacement of responsibility regarding a form of public anxiety Perreault calls “moral panic.” We saw it in the 1950s with the Senate Subcommitee hearings involving comic books and the public anti-comics sentiment that resulted, and we are seeing it now with an anti-video games sentiment. Video games have become the modern-day political and social scapegoat and continued governmental research will be attempted to prove that there is a connection between violence and video games.
It just hasn’t happened yet. In light of the events of Sandy Hook in 2013, President Obama called for a $10 million plan to research the relationship between violence in video games and players exhibiting violent tendencies in real-life (this, despite copious existing evidence that there is no connection). Undoubtedly this would be a large endeavor to undertake, but we still haven’t seen this plan come to fruition and there is speculation that it never will. Private institutions and individuals have continued their research, but as for this plan to be initiated by the government with tax payers money it appears to be dead in the water (which is undoubtedly for the best).
Rather than simply funding more unnecessary research, maybe people simply need to pay more attention to what their children are doing — what they are playing and reading and watching and most importantly, how they feel about the content they encounter. As opposed to waiting for the aftereffects of a lack of supervision, parents and teachers should initiate discussions with children about the things that they will be exposed to and encounter in their daily lives. Babble’s Joanna Mazewski wrote about the depictions of violence in vintage cartoons, another medium that has suffered censorship and scapegoating:
By totally censoring violence in animation, are we taking one step forward or two steps back in our quest to better educate our children about violence in society?… Instead of banning guns on both the small and big screen, shouldn’t we be using these cartoons and films as an opportunity to open up more dialogue with our children about the dangers of weapons and how they shouldn’t be used against people? It is, after all, our job as parents to teach, explain, and be a little more [effective in] preventing gun accidents in America
Needless to say, video games remain a hot topic and frequent target. Along with tax reforms, academic studies, and public outcry, though, it has become more evident that the public really needs to begin initiating more critical, informed discussions at the domestic, community, and national levels to curb the trigger-ready responses to scapegoat an entire industry. Saying that video game violence is the source of our social anxiety and “moral panic” is a band-aid method for fixing larger issues in America. It is important that we recognize this, and work together to protect these creative industries and the First Amendment rights of the individuals who have made producing video games their professions.
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