Earlier this week, Rhode Island Representative Robert Nardolillo III announced plans for new legislation that will levy an additional 10 percent sales tax on video games rated "Mature" and higher. The money will go toward funding counseling, mental health programs, and other conflict resolution activities for students. After the recent deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Nardolillo told Glixel via email he was flooded with suggestions from concerned parents, students, and school officials on how to prevent a similar incident in their home state.
"One issue that kept coming up was the subject of violent video games," he said.
Rep. Nardolillo decided to research the subject and see if it had any merit. He said he was surprised to learn there is evidence that children exposed to violent game play can become more aggressive. Specifically, he points to studies done by the American Psychological Association and other groups. An APA review in 2015 confirmed there's a link between the two, but it also said there's insufficient evidence on whether that link extends to criminal violence or delinquency.
"No single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently,” the report stated. "Rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior. The research reviewed here demonstrates that violent video game use is one such risk factor."
Rep. Nardolillo's research made him think about topics like bullying and depression, and how they affect students. "Today, we are much more aware of things like anxiety and depression among children, but we often do not have the funds on hand to provide resources to help them deal with these issues," he said. "I thought if there is a link between these games and aggression in children, then maybe we could tax them and do something positive."
While video games are a protected form of free speech under the First Amendment, this doesn't make them tax exempt, the representative points out. "We are not censoring or banning these games, we are simply adding an additional tax," he said.
Many states levy so-called "sin taxes" on products considered socially harmful, like tobacco and alcohol – and they're generating big profits doing so. A 2016 report by The Huffington Post found Rhode Island makes more money from iniquity than any other state. Nearly 10 percent of its total revenue comes from sin taxes. Its most profitable vices are the lottery and smoking. A lot of Rhode Islanders also play video games. A 2016 Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (via The Denver Post) claimed it's one of the top five states where people play the most. An estimated 11 percent of residents there game on a typical day.
When asked whether he thinks there should be an increased tax on guns as well, or if other gun control measures should be investigated, Rep. Nardolillo (who apparently has a high approval rating from the National Rifle Association) said he has "no problem with that discussion also occurring," but added that is not what his initiative is focused on.
"Guns are a part of school violence just as much as other issues like mental health are," he said. "Starting with school bullying and isolation, the issue weaves its way down a tortured path often with disastrous results. By adding in additional counseling, we may be able to redirect aggressive behavior and make a positive impact on a student’s life."
Rep. Nardolillo is not the first lawmaker to propose a violent video game tax. House Rep. William Fourkiller of Oklahoma floated a similar idea in 2012. Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, State Rep. Debralee Hovey introduced a 10 percent "sin tax" on games rated "M" and above. Rep. Diane Franklin tried to pass her own bill in Missouri around the same time. When asked if he's confident his bill will pass, Rep. Nardolillo said, "I can only deal with the process we have."
"I am aware that similar efforts have been proposed before and the game industry sees this as a threat," he added. "However, if these products are causing problems in our schools, including bullying and other aggressive behavior, then they should take some responsibility for helping us deal with it."
Glixel reached out to the Entertainment Software Association for comment on this story. We'll update it when we hear back.