Lawmakers, Bureaucrats Need to End War on Video Games

September 12, 2019

The blame game over social ills has become a cottage industry, with lawmakers, bureaucrats, and talking heads calling for restrictions on everything from video games to social media apps. Even the World Health Organization is in on it, telling hardcore gamers that they have a mental disorder. Complex issues such as depression, gambling addiction, and mass violence are pegged to simple “vices” such as Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto. Amidst all this hysteria, research is quietly demonstrating the immense benefits of the virtual sphere and complicating the case for regulations and bans. When consumers can pursue the entertainment of their choice, everyone benefits. Now is the time for freedom and innovation, not fear and prohibition.

After the two latest mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, President Trump reasonably declined to blame guns for the twin tragedies. But instead of cautioning against hasty, ill-considered prohibition, POTUS merely shifted focus to video games. At an August press conference, the president spoke about the need to “stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”

The president is hardly the first public figure to draw the tempting link between mass violence and video games, but the evidence just isn’t there. Examining time-series data on the violence-video game link, Villanova, Florida State, and Rutgers scholars found “no evidence… to suggest that this medium was positively related to real-world violence in the United States.” In fact, “many of the results were suggestive of a decrease in violent crime in response to violent video games.” Nonetheless, spurious fear-driven claims continue to rule the day.

Video games are also a target for anti-gambling zealots, since many new releases give consumers the option to make in-game purchases via “loot boxes.” Some lawmakers argue that, since “loot boxes” within video games give consumers the option to purchase mystery items that could be valuable or worthless within the virtual world, these purchases amount to gambling.

Senator (and noted anti-tech zealot) Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) released legislation in May that would ban these “loot boxes.” And now, the Federal Trade Commission appears to be mulling agency action. Regulatory agencies around the world have found that loot boxes aren’t gambling, because even “valuable” items inside said boxes are only important within the game and don’t confer any real-world value. Sen. Hawley is unlikely to admit the dire, real-world implications of “loot box” bans. In-game purchases raise the substantial sums of money required to support burgeoning developing budgets for games that have not budged in purchase price for years. Even as development costs increase around tenfold every 10 years, video game prices have stayed at around $60 for more than a decade. A ban on these digital boxes would destroy this status-quo, leading to higher prices and/or worse quality for video games.

Outright bans or tortuous restrictions on video games could prove disastrous for millions of consumers. According to a 2017 study from the University of Montreal, video games may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease in older gamers. The complexity of these games can bolster the “hippocampal memory system of older adults” and increase grey matter in the brain. And for older and younger people alike, stardom in the digital domain can give a sense of purpose and belonging that can be difficult to obtain elsewhere. These findings are, of course, far from ironclad. But they do show that oft-demonized technologies can have unpredictably positive impacts on populations already vulnerable to despair and cognitive dysfunction. Meanwhile, there simply isn’t evidence to tie gaming to violence or gambling habits.

Instead of rushing toward simple, damning attribution, policymakers should be humbler when dealing with deep, complex societal problems.  Technology can be and is a friend to millions of vulnerable Americans. Paternalism and prohibition are false solutions to the very real problems afflicting America. Onerous government regulations of video games would raise prices on millions while harming mental health.

Ross Marchand is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He focuses on a range of issues, ranging from health-care reform to internet regulation to Postal Service-related issues. Ross is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship at George Mason University, where he received his MA in economics in 2016. He has interned for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, analyzing and blogging on a variety of public policy issues.
Catalyst articles by Ross Marchand