Mortal Kombat - if mom's there

Indianapolis sets strictest rules yet for what arcade games kids can play

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Clad in an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt, 10-year-old Colton Chojnacki squeezes a plastic pistol and dispatches attackers charging across a video-game screen. While his mother shops elsewhere in a multistory downtown mall here, Colton's cyberfoes burst and perish, despite their bulletproof vests and powerful weaponry.

Although similar scenes are played out daily in arcades across the country, come September 1 they'll be history in Indianapolis.

A city ordinance passed this week will severely restrict children's access to violent arcade games - including a mandate that Colton's mom or a parent would have to stand by. "No way that will happen," he says as "game over" flashes on the screen.

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With a stroke of his pen, not a joystick, Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson has turned this middle-America city into a national test bed for a unique assault on the scourge of youth violence.

Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the action has pushed a decades-long debate over violence and video games beyond academia and talk radio and into lawbooks and the living rooms of the 750,000 people of this heartland city. It has also set the stage for a battle with the booming video-game industry, which decries the presumed link between their fare and acts of real violence.

"People need to understand, we're not proposing to ban these games," says Mayor Peterson, in an interview in a 25th floor conference room with a panoramic view of the city. "We're doing nothing more than what we as a society do with regard to restricting children's access to tobacco, liquor, and pornography."

What the ordinance does

The ordinance, which passed the city council 27 to 0, will force coin-operated video-game vendors to put warning labels on violent and sexually explicit games, separate such games from others by a wall or curtain, and forbid people under 18 from playing without a parent present.

It mandates a $200 fine for each violation. Three violations in one year risks revocation of an arcade owner's license. At least six other states and a number of cities are considering similar legislation.

Critics - including the video-game industry - consider the new stricture unnecessary and unconstitutional. They believe it will do nothing to address the underlying causes of youth violence. Some say the city has no right playing the role of parent.

"The men and woman of this industry are extremely upset at the singling out and targeting of their livelihood," says Elliott Portnoy, legal counsel for the coin-operated video-game industry.

He and others believe the ordinance is unnecessary because the industry has had its own rating system for six years and already provides parental advisories on new coin-operated video games. The system is modeled on a traffic light: Red is for strong violence, yellow for mid-range, and green means the game is OK for all players.

Mr. Portnoy says no decision has been made yet by the industry to challenge the constitutionality of the ordinance.

But he says such a case could be won.

Peterson, whose office consulted a First Amendment expert in drafting the ordinance, disagrees. "No court has ever held that video games are protected under the First Amendment as speech - that they have a political or artistic message."

Research attempting to link actual violence with TV and video-game violence provides fodder for both sides in the debate. A study that appeared in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that violent video-game play is related to aggressive behavior and delinquency. It also suggested that the games may be more harmful to adolescents than either violent TV shows or movies, because players identify with the aggressor, actively participate in the violence, and become seemingly addicted to the games.

But critics are quick to point out that "aggressive behavior" is a long way from a murder, and that a joystick is no pistol grip.

They also worry the entire $8.9 billion industry - which has doubled in size since 1996 and now surpasses Hollywood in terms of domestic revenue - will be tarred with the brush Indianapolis is wielding. They note that 145 million Americans play video games, and that only a small percentage of the games depict graphic violence.

Proponents of restrictions on electronic mayhem counter that stopping the rare school shooter is only one reason to adopt new measures. Mostly, they say, they're interested in preventing kids from becoming desensitized to violence.

"It takes three things for a person to kill: the weapon, the skill, and the will," says David Grossman, author of "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill." "Video games provide two out of three.... They are the moral and psychological equivalent of putting a rifle in the hands of every kid."

He says there are many causes of youth violence, but he doesn't believe the number of factors renders the new ordinance irrelevant. "It will be as effective as seat-belt laws and laws that say you can't sell liquor, tobacco, or guns to kids," he says.

A desensitizing influence?

Grossman argues that humans are naturally reluctant to kill their own kind, and that studies dating back as far as the Civil War show that soldiers often do not fire their weapons in battle - and sometimes even fake doing so. He claims that the military has successfully raised "fire rates" by desensitizing soldiers to violence using the kind of imagery video games employ.

Yet critics of attempts to restrict violent video games point to the drop in youth crime in the '90s - at the very time video games were surging in popularity - as evidence no link exists between the two.

For the mayor here, Peterson answers the charge by pointing to an increased incidence of such things as road and air rage in modern society.

"When I was a kid, we had all the same social conditions in place - young people who felt alienated, who resented their classmates, and we had guns around - and we didn't have the kind of school shootings we've seen in the last few years," he says. "Something has definitely happened."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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