Proposed PA legislation attempts to put ‘Sin tax’ on Video Games

By Alex E. Proimos -, CC BY 2.0,

Today in “legislators are comically out of touch with how the world woks”, State Legislators in Pennsylvania put forth a bill that would add a 10% tax to any video game that receives a M for Mature or AO – Adult only rating from the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board). The state would then take that money and put into the “Digital Protection for School Safety account”…because you know, protect the children. Unfortunately, text doesn’t let me express just how big my eye-roll at reading this was.

Instead, let’s talk about all the ways this is really, really dumb.

Video games don’t cause violence

First, the justification for the law, sponsored by Christopher Quinn, comes from the link between violent video games and increased aggression. The bill makes vague, uncited references to studies showing increased short term and long term aggression after playing violent video games. The problem is that nothing is shown conclusively, and finding even a correlation has largely eluded researchers. I don’t need to waste the screen space making this argument again, an article on does a pretty good job of that for me.

Suffice to say that this is a weak justification. There’s no reliable evidence to draw relationship between violent video games and increased aggression. Studies have varied in their definitions of violent, aggression, short and long term impacts as time horizons. It’s hard to derive any sort of correlative outcomes, let alone direct outcomes. Researchers haven’t even started to assess potential impacts on a macro-level. And we can also throw in here that violence among youth has been a steady decline for the last 20 years or so. (refer to the for citations / more complete breakdowns).

Legislation is based on a voluntary rating from a private commercial entity

Next up, the legislation is based entirely on the ESRB rating system. The ESRB rating system is 1) voluntary, 2) commercial and private, and 3) could be changed at any time without consequence or even go away altogether. The bill itself makes no allowances for changes to the rating system (which the PA government, or even the Federal government has no direct control over). That means that should the ESRB want to side-step the legislation, they only need to rename the rating levels. The bill being so narrowly defined would no long apply, and tax would no longer need to be collected.

Why would legislators have gone this route? Likely in a half-assed attempt to sidestep one of the Supreme Court rulings —Brown vs. EMA, where one of the points of contention was the overly broad and poorly defined criteria of “violent,” that failed to pass the court’s strict scrutiny test (read Alito’s opinion for more information). To avoid failing a strict scrutiny test, I assume Quinn outsourced the criteria for qualifying for the tax to an unwitting third party.

Violates the First Amendment

Finally, let’s talk about censorship though taxation. This tax actually becomes a First Amendment issue because it attempts to add a tax to a specific segment of medium with the intent and the effect of suppression expression. Quinn’s explicit goal here is to dissuade people from purchasing M and AO games by making them more expensive to purchase through taxes. The Supreme court said that was a no-go in Leathers vs. Medlock:

Taken together, cases such as Regan v. Taxation with Representation of Washington, 461 U. S. 540, Mabee v. White Plains Publishing Co., 327 U. S. 178, and Oklahoma Press Publishing Co. v. Walling, 327 U. S. 186, establish that differential taxation of speakers, even members of the press, does not implicate the First Amendment unless the tax is directed at, or presents the danger of suppressing, particular ideas.

The point here is that intent of the tax is explicitly to suppress expression of violent video games by taxing them and making them less desirable to create because of additional cost (heavy additional cost), chilling the industry away from those types of games. So this taxation actually becomes a First Amendment issue because Quinn is attempting to suppress certain members of a medium based on content, though taxation.

This legislation is a non-starter. I would go so far as to say that Quinn did nothing more than put token effort to make it look like he cared about the values he was espousing. But this is so poorly considered and poorly constructed that I don’t think it’s anything than virtue signally by the representatives involved.

Thanks to MassivelyOP for covering it first!

More Video Game Violence Hooplah

Video Game Violence Controversy Spreads
Missouri Representative wants to Tax Violent games and Obama sics the CDC on violent games

Today isn’t really the best day for video games, specifically video game violence.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, video games have once again come into the spotlight as being the harbinger of doom, despite having no direct connections to Sandy Hook or any other violent crime.  Video Game violence has been on the minds of legislatures like Leland Yee and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, who penned a law in 2010 that would make the sale of violent video games to minors a crime.  Luckily, the law was deemed unconstitutional in 2011 by the Supreme Court in Brown vs. EMA.

There have been numerous studies (way more than I care to post) about video game violence, with the most prevalent outcome being — no conclusive evidence for or against video game violence increasing violence in children.  But, that didn’t stop Missouri Representative Diane Franklin from submitting a bill that would put a tax on violent video games, and then use the money generated to treat exposure to violent video games.  The assumption is that video game violence is a known evil, that needs to dealt with.  Chances are that the bill won’t pass as similar bills in the past have all been overturned (See Brown Vs. EMA for cases).  I won’t rehash old arguments, but the phrase “chilling effect” comes to mind with taxes on certain classes of games.

Then, in almost the same breath, Obama asks the CDC to research the effects of violent media (including video games) on children, to determine the cause of this epidemic of violent children.  I can’t help but wonder what the drive is here, other than to maybe appease the masses and some of the more conservative politicians.  Anything study that does come out of the CDC on video game violence is years away at this point, and video games are often a “shoot from the hip” (pun intended) target – rarely a sticky one.  In all fairness, President Obama does seem to take a balanced approach and not an alarmist, sensationalist approach to video game violence.


Reference: House Bill No. 157 2013

Via: The Escapist and The Escapist