Trade group endorses plan to enforce video-game ratings

By AVIVA L. BRANDT

Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE (AP) _ Seventeen-year-old Ron thinks linking violent video games to school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and elsewhere is ridiculous.

When his mother heard that the two teen-agers who killed 12 classmates and a teacher in Littleton played the game "Doom," she immediately asked her son to delete it from his computer.

The teen from Hot Springs, Ark., who asked that his last name not be used, did so.

Then he asked her about "Quake," another shoot-'em-up computer game. She hadn't heard of it, but after watching him play for 10 minutes, didn't see a problem with his keeping it.

"The thing that gets me is that my mom heard `Doom' and went crazy because I had such an `evil' game on my computer. Since she had never heard of `Quake' before, she didn't mind that I had it.

"For goodness sakes! `Quake' is much more violent than `Doom,'" Ron wrote in a letter posted to www.videogames.com, a Website that reviews video games.

But he told The Associated Press he would support a plan to have retailers enforce the ratings already posted on most video games.

The Interactive Digital Software Association, the Washington, D.C.-based game publishers' lobbying group, is working with retailers across the country to develop a voluntary system.

Potential game buyers would be asked their ages, and games rated "mature" _ usually for violence, but also for language and other issues _ would not be sold to minors without parental permission.

"Personally, I think that the ratings system is a good idea, just like the ratings on movies," Ron said.

"There are some things that some members of the younger audiences shouldn't be seeing."

The system is expected to go into effect in Washington state this summer and later expand to other states, said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the software association. As games are scanned at the cash register, a digital beep will sound for those rated "mature," prompting the clerk to ask for identification. If the buyer is under 17, the clerk could refuse to sell the game without clearance from a parent.

"It's up to the retailers ultimately to decide what they will or won't do since we have no power or ability to direct the retail sector to do anything independently," Lowenstein said.

But neither he nor Jan Teague, executive director of the Washington Retailers Association that has been working with the digital-software group, believe that limiting access to violent video games will stop school shootings or other violence among young people.

"I don't think we as an industry accept the proposition that violent video games are responsible for tragedies like Littleton," Lowenstein said. "Academic research doesn't support the idea of a link between playing a violent game and aggressive behavior."

Some studies have suggested a link while others deny it, and both conclusions are hotly debated. At least three major studies _ a surgeon general's commission report in 1972, the National Institute of Mental Health's 10-year follow-up in 1982 and the American Psychological Association's Committee on Media in Society in 1992 _ all found evidence that viewing violence can increases violent behavior.

Daphne White, executive director of the Lion & Lamb Project, a national parents organization, likened the connection between violent video games and violent behavior to the connection between smoking and lung cancer.

"Exposure to violence definitely leads to violence in a small amount of children," White said, just as exposure to tobacco smoke can cause cancer in some smokers. The Bethesda, Md.-based project was established to fight what members consider the merchandising of violence to children.

Lowenstein noted that "violent shooter" games, such as "Doom," and "Quake," make up only 7 percent of the more than 5,000 rated games on the market and all are rated "mature."

And 90 percent of those games are bought by people over 18, he said _ sales that wouldn't be affected by ratings enforcement, though some likely involve parents buying games for children.

"All this focus on violence creates this impression that the only people playing these games are kids and the only games we make are violent," Lowenstein said.

Teague agreed that limiting access to games was unlikely to end teen violence.

"I think the answer is a serious review of our culture and our attitude toward violence," he said.

"I'm hoping to see parents take more responsibility for the choices their kids make on how they spend their free time and what kinds of games they allow them to play."

Ann Stephens, president of the Reston, Va.-based research firm PC Data Inc., laughed in disbelief when told of the move to enforce the game-rating system.

"It's like trying to kill a fly with a tank," Stephens said.

"I think we're in a knee-jerk-reaction period right now where people just want to show they're taking action. Mind you, it could be mindless frenzied action, but they want to show their taking a stand," Stephens said.

"I don't know what the answer is, but I know that issuing kids ID cards so they can buy video games is overkill."

A PC Data study released last week found that most adults and teen-agers believe television violence is a more dangerous influence than violent video games.

"What the parents say is this isn't really the product of video games, this is the product of parents not paying attention to what their kids are doing," Stephens said.

"Of the kids, 86 percent say one of the biggest reasons for this is the press glorifies these kids in the newspapers."

Mike Wilson, president and co-founder of the Dallas-based software publisher Gathering of Developers, said he didn't think foresee much impact on his company if retailers enforce the rating system.

"We don't see it as a big problem since our target demographic is well over 18 or 21," Wilson said. "We're all for educating the consumers for what's in the box, and if that rating system and educational system is not enough for people ... maybe more desperate measures need to be taken."

Some software companies are taking their own steps to cut down on violent games. Electronic Arts Inc. recently scrapped "Thrill Kill," a violent game it inherited when it acquired another company. The company has decided not to license it or sell it to another publisher, said spokeswoman Pat Becker.

"Our management team evaluated it and felt that it was not a content that was in tone or substance something we wanted to have on the market," she said.

Her company is in favor of restricting sales of violent games to children, Becker said.

But she cautioned against tarring the entire game industry because of the violence of some games, even as she stressed the lack of a proven link between such games and aggressive behavior.

"It is a very small portion of the marketplace. It's like going to a Cannes film festival and only talking about `Natural Born Killers,'" she said.

"There is a lot of great content made in our industry and only a small portion is being singled out here."

Electronic-games sales in North America grew 25 percent last year to $5.5 billion, but "shooter" games like "Doom" represent only 6 percent of those sales, or $330 million, Lowenstein said.

Electronic Arts is best known for its sports-related games, such "John Madden Football" and "NBA Live." It also makes popular simulation-strategy games such as "SimCity 3000."

Ron, who at 17 wouldn't be affected by ratings enforcement, said he doesn't believe video-game violence and real-life violence have any connection.

"There's a difference between playing a video game and shooting someone, just like there's a difference between playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers and shooting a person," Ron said.

"If somebody is going to take a gun and start to kill people in cold blood, then they have a psychological problem."