WASHINGTON — It wouldn't be the holiday shopping season without schmaltzy commercials, mall Santas, and Halo 2, the most hotly anticipated video game in American entertainment history. Expected to gross $80 million, this "shoot-'em-up" sensation may not change the world, but it could help put the compassion back into conservatism with a financial boost for chronically under-funded domestic policy programs.
The Bush administration has talked a good game about supporting federal programs designed to keep kids safe from abuse and neglect, drugs, gun violence, and crime. With a war to fight and an economy to revive, however, investing in America's children has predictably taken a back seat to other front-page issues, allowing the administration to sidestep a crucial postelection question: How is it going to pay for all this stuff?
It can start by requiring an industry that profits from violence to help prevent it. A modest excise tax on the sale of violent video games could fund an array of new supports for children. And - even better - such a tax could help fully fund existing programs such as Head Start and successful initiatives to help prevent child abuse and neglect.
This wouldn't be the first time that politicians have used so-called "sin taxes" to fill budget gaps, especially in rough economic times. After all, corrective taxes already generate millions of dollars a year by targeting such all-American vices as cigarettes, liquor, and guns. Despite the occasional grumble, the public generally tolerates these taxes as the price it must pay for using potentially harmful products. And targeted industries have come to regard these taxes as an inevitable cost of doing business.
With so much violent media fare, why single out video games? Despite growing evidence of the psychological harm of these games, few would claim that they are the sole cause of family or community violence. But in a nation where 92 percent of children grow up playing them regularly, violent video games aid and abet a popular culture that champions even the most extreme brutality through games like the "Grand Theft Auto" series, self-described studies in "hedonism and violence" that encourage players to kill prostitutes and hijack cars. [Editor's note: The original version erroneously included an example of another violent video game, "Life or Death Xtreme Beach Volleyball." The title of that video game is actually "Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball," and it uses the "kill" as a volleyball term and not in the literal sense. The error does not change the writer's thesis about a sin tax.]
If graphic content isn't enough to convince squeamish politicians of the undeniable sin tax potential of these games, recent events have pointed to a more compelling link between the virtual world and real-life violence. Last year in Ohio, a teenager obsessed with "Grand Theft Auto" stole his friend's car and then bludgeoned her to death with a bedpost. Teenaged sniper Lee Malvo and the Columbine High School killers used highly realistic first-person shooter games as virtual training grounds for their murder sprees.
How will we know video-game violence when we see it? Conveniently, most video-game makers already comply with a voluntary ratings system that includes descriptors for violence. By making these ratings mandatory, the government could impose a 3 percent federal tax on every violent video game sold. This would not eliminate or even discourage violence, but just 3 cents on every dollar of sales in the $10 billion a year domestic video-game industry could provide the government with millions of additional dollars a year to support American children.
Some critics will argue that a sin tax on video games impedes freedom of speech. But a modest tax would not dictate the content of video games, nor would it ban - even significantly reduce - sales. And while free market enthusiasts excoriate this proposal as an improper use of economic coercion, sin taxes have never claimed to be the brainchild of high-minded economic theory. They are the imprecise but nonetheless lucrative tools of political expediency.
Now that the campaign rhetoric is over, it's time to get real: Violent video games aren't going away and neither is the real world violence that plagues the nation's children.
While the Bush administration may be reluctant to have its "moral values" discussion with the politically formidable entertainment industry, it seems only fair that at-risk children share in the profits as well as the pitfalls of the boundless American imagination.
• Mary Bissell is a fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy institute.