digital MAYHEM

Critics take aim at violent video games

June 14, 1999|By Deborah Claymon | Deborah Claymon,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Psychologists say it is important to feel something when you kill." That's how Logitech International of Fremont promotes Wingman Force -- a joystick for computer games that simulates sensations ranging from the force of gun recoil to the undulations of cobblestones on a medieval street.

But the creators of such deafening hits as Resident Evil and Tomb Raider are quiet.

The industry is in serious conflict: It is trying to distance itself from mayhem -- most recently the high school shootings in Littleton, Colo., where the killers were identified as obsessive players of violent games. Yet, it is selling violence at the same time.

Game makers made it big in 1998: U.S. video game revenues grew to $6.2 billion, just short of U.S. movie box office sales at $6.95 billion. Now they find themselves immersed in the debate about the influence of violent popular culture on criminal behavior.

They are in deep.

In April, 18 computer and video game companies were named in a $100 million wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the parents of the three children shot to death by Michael Carneal, a devotee of violent games, in a Paducah, Ky., high school in December 1997.

The industry is relying on the solidarity of silence, keeping heads down until the heat from Littleton cools. For now, Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, which represents U.S. video and computer game software companies, is the only spokesman heard.

"Fairly or unfairly, all the entertainment industries are facing serious attack on our ability to produce the kinds of products we make," Lowenstein said. "But if you are looking for the most perverse indicator that the gaming industry is now side by side in the holy trinity of American entertainment, this is it."

In 1998, 181 million games were sold in the United States -- almost two games for every household.

Lowenstein is quick to point out that violent games account for a very small percentage of the games out there. Last year, only two of the 20 best-selling games were rated Mature -- for 17-year-olds and older -- by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. First-person shooter games like ke Doom and Quake, which give a killer's-eye view of the action, accounted for 6 percent of the games available in 1998. The largest category consists of family-oriented digital puzzle and board games, Lowenstein said.

"Most of these kinds of games don't make it in the marketplace, but the few games that do have long shelf lives," said Anton Bruehl, president of International Development Group, a multimedia research group based in San Francisco. "They can become classics just like old Clint Eastwood movies. But they are not an overwhelming cancer in the industry."

These games may be few, but they are extremely lucrative. The action genre earned game makers almost $1.5 billion in 1998 in North America. In the first quarter of this year, Havas Interactive's Half Life, in which a scientist must blow away aliens and human troops to save the Earth, made more than $5 million -- $3 million more than the next most popular PC game. Sales of action titles surged 6 percent for both the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 game consoles in the same time period; those titles accounted for 52 percent of PlayStation sales and 36.5 percent of Nintendo 64 sales.

However the industry positions itself, it will not soon escape the long-term publicity surrounding the Paducah lawsuit. The complaint alleges that Carneal was "profoundly influenced" by his exposure to violent media and that "the media's depiction of violence as a means of resolving conflict ... further condoned his thinking."

Although the gaming industry claims kinship with Hollywood in defending its creative rights, gaming invites sharper criticism because games invite direct participation in simulated violence.

"They are murder simulators which over time teach a person how to look another person in the eyes and snuff their life out," said Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former professor of psychology at West Point, who teaches a course on the psychology of killing to the branches of the military and to federal agents.

Grossman said that the military and police employ similar kinds of tactical training simulations to teach not only skill with firearms but also the mentality needed to use guns against human beings.

The Marine Corps uses Doom to train soldiers, he said.

Carneal's sharpshooting may be linked to his video game prowess. He had never shot a pistol before and yet got hits with eight of nine shots, three of which were kills, according to Mike Breen, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the case.

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