Redneck Rampage, Carmaggedon, Kingpin -- all these games include material guaranteed to be offensive to someone.
In Redneck, targets include "hicks" and chickens; in Carmaggedon, which was banned in Brazil, players run over pedestrians for points; and in Kingpin, the player forms a gang by pummeling, shooting and blowing up others to move up the urban food chain. "They are all given M [mature] ratings -- they are not for kids," said Curt Green, spokesman for Interplay Productions Inc., the publisher of the games. Surely, parents would avoid such titles, right?
Wrong. In an American study released last Thursday, the US media watchdog National Institute on Media and the Family found that while more than half the parents surveyed thought video games had a negative effect on their children, only two in five actually used the established rating system more than occasionally in making purchase decisions.
That earned parents a grade of "C-" in the NIMF's last report card, and makes them at least partly to blame for video games' effects on their children, said experts. In many families, both parents work, which some argue has prompted them to push kids indoors for safety's sake. "Inside, outside -- it doesn't matter. Parents have just as much responsibility when kids are home rather than outside," said Arthur Pober, president of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the organisation responsible for rating games.
In the wake of the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, the worst school shooting in American history, victims' families, politicians and the media are searching for someone or something to blame. So far, black trenchcoats, alternative music, and violent movies have had fingers pointed at them. Now, it's time for video games.
One expert accuses certain games, so-called "first-person shooters" -- like Redneck Rampage, Kingpin, Quake, and Unreal -- of teaching kids how to kill. "Every time a child plays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, they're learning the exact same conditioned reflex and motor skills [as taught to police and military recruits]. They will shoot and shoot to kill," said Dave Grossman, a former Army psychologist and author of "Trained to Kill," while testifying before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation last Tuesday during a session on Marketing Violence to Children.
With such sentiments directed at them, game makers headed to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles seem ready to accommodate their critics and, at the very least, help parents choose the right game for their kids. Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association -- which runs E3 and represents 35 companies that make up 90 percent of entertainment and edutainment software sales -- has already promised the Senate subcommittee that his organisation will push a three-point plan to the industry. According to Lowenstein, the game makers will:
- Take new steps to publicise game ratings, increase parent awareness, and encourage the use of ratings,
- Explore ways of encouraging retailers to enforce the ratings -- in particular, prevent kids under 17 from buying mature-rated software,
- Review the industry's advertising code of conduct to moderate the promotion of violence in ads.
The three-point plan is earning the industry high marks. "I think those are three very, very good steps," said David Walsh, president of the NIMF. In fact, the steps almost exactly match the recommendations made by Walsh in the organisation's December 1998 report card. In that report, the NIMF gave the industry an 'A' for its rating system, but a 'D' for enforcement. The IDSA now seems ready to try for extra credit. The plan "reflects our desire to work with Congress and others to ensure that parents have the tools and information they need," said Lowenstein. Game makers agree the steps are necessary. "We are trying to support parents in making the decision to limit access to their children," said Interplay's Green.
While about seven out of 10 American families own or rent video and computer games, four out of five players of Interplay's violent games are adults, said Green. "The key issue is, that right now, when people think games, they think children," he said. "Parents have to change their thinking: Games don't necessarily mean children."