Censoring Games Through Tax Credits

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A scene from Grand Theft Auto V. NBC/www.nbc.com

Censoring Games Through Tax Credits

By Jon White, Multimedia Reporter

Last week, The Washington Examiner pointed out something that may affect the way video games are developed in the states; those who make violent video games will not qualify for a Research and Development (R+D) tax credit.With the upcoming tax reform bill, The Washington Examiner stated that, “Despite the promise of an improved R&D tax credit, the bill – on page 24 – removes that tax credit from the violent video game industry, under a section about closing loopholes. One of the plan’s provisions: Preventing makers of violent video games from qualifying for the R&D tax credit. This is funny, given the fact that on the very next page the summary says the bill stops the practice of using the tax code to pick winners and losers based on political power rather than economic merit.” Video games have been under fire for years from lawmakers, and it seems that after many unsuccessful attempts to censor games the senate is going to aim right for the pockets of these developers. However, considering how much money the video game industry makes and how many violent titles there are, it could end up having an adverse effect on the economy.

Just by looking at the revenue the video game industry made last year shows how this could impede that medium.The biggest selling title of 2013 was Grand Theft Auto V, a series that is no stranger to controversy and has been in the crosshairs of senators for years. Despite the notoriety, Grand Theft Auto V was released to rave reviews and Computer and Videogames reported that it made over $800 million dollars within the first 24 hours of its release.While that figure is indeed impressive, Business Week reported that the development costs were $115 million and marketing was $150 million. A substantial part of that money comes from R+D, which allows the developers to create the technology behind the game. Any gamer who fires up Grand Theft Auto V and plays for a few minutes will be amazed by the amount of detail put into the environments, animations, and physics. While it is true that graphics are not everything, they can definitely grab a gamer and make it easier for them to be entranced by the game. It really blurs the line between video games and movies, especially when the game is loaded with a substantial amount of cut scenes.

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Bioshock Infinite. PC Gamer/www.pcgamer.com

So that begs the question, is it really an attempt to censor games? It is difficult to interpret it as anything but an attack against the games industry. There was no mention in the reform about any other forms of entertainment, such as movies, television or, comic books; only video games have this rule attached to them. Given the attention that video games have gotten over the past few years, it seems like it is the government’s attempt at censorship through duress. Considering that Games Radar reported that video game development costs are expected to double during the upcoming generation, developers are going to be looking for more ways to help offset the costs for development.When the government dictates whether one gets a credit based on the content of their craft, it is clearly a form of control.

What if this control was put into other mediums? For Hollywood, restricted movies still pull in a substantial amount of revenue, even though they do not make billions. As far as artistic recognition goes, it is these ‘R’ rated movies that are regarded for their brilliance. Looking at the last ten years of the Oscars, seven of the ten movies that won Best Picture have been restricted. These works of art have not been the subject to censorship for their final vision, so why should video games? Compare this to how many of the rated ‘Mature’ games released last year were lauded for their stories.

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A sample of the reviews for The Last of Us. Gamefront/www.gamefront.com

Commercially, there was a market for these lauded ‘Mature’ games. Domestically, VGChartz reported five out of the top ten games were rated ‘Mature,’ as were six of the top ten worldwide. Again, some of these titles, The Last of US, Grand Theft Auto V, and Bioshock Infinite, were critically acclaimed for their story. If the storyteller was hampered by having to impose a limit on the content found in the game, it would make the story less impactful. If other forms of entertainment are not subjected to this form of censorship, then why should video games have their impact neutered in order to qualify for a money incentive?

The incentive is completely counterproductive for the economy. If there are that many violent game developer soperating in the United States, their industry will take a hit, costing many employees their jobs. There are already numerous studio closings every year because they cannot maintain costs, so denying credits has the possibility to accelerate this problem. All this would mean that if companies want to maintain their original vision, they will move development out of the country, thus costing a lot of developers their jobs. This idea is not far-fetched, as other counties are giving tax credits to their developers without imposing limitations to the tax law.

Battlefield_4_China_Rising_Dragon_Pass Battlefield 4.
Battlefield/www.battlefield.com

Furthermore, the law seems to be pretty broad. As for the withholding credits to developers who make violent video games, it does not specify if a developer handles both. Companies, such as EA and Activision, handle a lot of money for a variety of games, which begs the question, would a company that develops for a wide variety of gamers suffer? The Examiner thinks so, “This would affect companies like Electronic Arts, which makes violent games like Battlefield but also non-violent games like FIFA Soccer and The Sims.” Essentially, a company is being inflicted with extra tax burdens for something that only covers part of their revenue.

Even though these game companies are covering a wide variety of games, senators worry that violent games are being bought by kids. However a study in 2012 by the Entertainment Software Association claims that the average age of a game purchaser is 35, essentially double the age for a legal adult. So, in the end, this credit is not hurting the hobby that is enjoyed by kids, but by adults who are old enough to make informed decisions about the games they will enjoy. Like any other form of violent medium, the government is dictating what is and is not allowed even though these purchasers choose what is allowed in their household. The Washington Examiner quoted Dave Their,a Forbes video game contributor, who said “Just because it’s art that you don’t like, or don’t think is good, doesn’t mean it’s not art and entitled to First Amendment protections…If the government started taxing depictions of violence,it would take on the responsibility of deciding what art was worthy and what art must be punished.”

Although the senate has not come out and said it, it is apparent that this is a form of censorship that is targeting video games. It is troubling, as many adult gamers are potentially seeing their hobby become altered to help developers stay in business, which changes the original vision. Consumers should be allowed to buy what they want, especially when other forms of media are not given the same impositions. Whether one believes that video games are an art form or not, there are millions of gamers every year that flock to the store to support their love of video games. Much like movies, some of these games are considered mindless, while others are critically praised. Regardless, it is still a pastime that is enjoyed by millions and this credit seems like an unnecessary act of censorship. In the end, it will only hurt the product and the companies who are trying to deliver what the audience wants