Pow! Bang! Towns zap video games

Pac-Man, the computer creature happily eating his way across video screens from Maine to California, may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. With businessmen and kids pumping quarter after quarter into him, he became one of the most popular machines in the multibillion-dollar-a-year computer game industry. Yet in the midst of all this ''Pac-Man fever,'' some parents and city officials have become less than enchanted with the critter's eating habits.

In their voracious bid for the juvenile market, Pac-Man and his computer comrades may have bitten off more than even they can chew.

Increases in juvenile truancy, theft, and vandalism are being blamed on the bleeping, blinking games now found everywhere from laudromats to liquor stores.

In the past six months, dozens of communities across the country have hastily devised a fate for Pac-Man worse than extinction by mastication -- restriction by municipal ordinance. Such moves are dividing communities and raising some constitutional questions. Already the New Jersey Supreme Court has overturned one local town's restrictions, a Texas case has landed before the US Supreme Court, and in Massachusetts alone some half a dozen towns are facing probable litigation due to new licensing restrictions.

As few states possess stringent video game regulations, updating licensing procedures has largely fallen to local communities:

* In Massachusetts at least a dozen towns have slapped on new licensing and player-age restrictions on the games. Just last week, Boston clamped down a 30 -day moratorium on all computer video game and pinball licenses to give the city a chance to develop a ''comprehensive plan'' to control the burgeoning arcade industry. A series of hearings is being held to decide if an outright ban of all 4,000 licensed video games should be enacted.

* In California, several communities, including Oakland, have beefed up age and time restrictions for the games. And officials in Glendale last month wrote new restrictions prohibiting video games from being within 500 feet of a school.

* Brookhaven, N.Y., just extended its original six-month licensing ban on video games another three months to give the city a chance to consider new citywide regulations, including a proposed $50 annual fee per machine and increased player-age restrictions.

* In New Hampshire, several towns have increased the annual licensing fee, some in hopes of hiking revenues, others to discourage the games' proliferation.

* In the most stringent regulations to date, West Warwick, R.I., and Durham, N.H., recently decreed that no one under 16 years of age may play video games without the supervision of a parent or guardian.

Why the sudden flurry of ordinances and restrictions where few existed six months ago? In many communities, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and the rest of the highly lucrative computer games have run wild in a license-lenient atmosphere. With a single machine at 25 cents a game able to gross several hundred dollars a week, businesses all the way from big arcades to ''mom and pop'' corner stores were hastening to install the machines.

''We were getting hundreds of licensing applicants each month,'' says Boston city licensing commissioner Joanne Prevost. Another observer, Massachusetts attorney Ira Zaleznick, explains that most states weren't regulating the games any more closely than they did a dog license. ''You simply paid your money and got your license,'' she says.

But much of that laissez-faire attitude seems to be fading as public outcry against the games mounts. ''We never had any regulations,'' said a Brookhaven, N.Y., city official. ''But the emotional fervor in this town just hit a peak, and we had to call for a licensing moratorium.''

Community objections can vary from town to town, but most of those who complain say that the games' popularity among children can lead to truancy, vandalism, theft, or even drug dealing.

''The games have led to major complaints by parents in the neighborhoods,'' explains one Boston city councilor. ''There are increases in crime, pedestrian traffic, noise, and disruptive conduct,'' wherever the games proliferate, he says.

At a recent hearing in South Boston, the neighborhood generally credited with having the highest percentage of video games in the city, one mother, Kathy Fitzgerald, tearfully described her three children as ''addicted'' to the games. ''They were stealing $20 a week from my wallet to play them,'' she said. But Kenny Whelan, an arcade owner in the same neighborhood, countered, ''If you're having problems with your kids (because of the games), don't use me as a scapegoat.''

A similar argument is voiced by the manufacturers of the games. ''Other forms of entertainment don't require licenses simply because of their popularity,'' says James Jarocki of Bally Midway, the US manufacturer of Pac-Man. ''Why should video games?''

Critics outside the industry are just as concerned. ''It's a very big assumption by a community that any wrongful action is going to take place (because of the games popularity),'' says Alan Reitman, assistant executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Other observers contend that city regulations are unnecessary because supply and demand will regulate the number of games. ''After a certain number it simply isn't practical from a business standpoint to have any more games,'' says a spokesman for the Amusement and Music Operators Association. In the meantime, another industry association is hastily issuing a public relations manual to its members to try to defuse the growing confrontation.

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