VIDEO games are often violent. But new technology is turning cartoon mayhem into something much more realistic. Some people are troubled by that.
Britain, for example, recently banned its first video game because it was too explicit in its depiction of violence. The uproar there is slowly crossing the Atlantic.
"It's not the little beat-'em-up, shoot-'em-up characters," says Patrick Ferrell, president of Infotainment World, which publishes the leading video-game magazine. "It's much more graphic."
"The parents are starting to take note of some of the violence on these games - and they are shocked," adds Walter Miao, vice president of technology at Link Resources Inc., a New York-based market-research firm.
The criticism is beginning to produce some action. Mr. Ferrell's publishing group announced last month it is starting a bimonthly newsletter to help parents choose appropriate video games. Sega of America says it is instituting a rating system for its games: GA for general audiences; MA-13, which advises parental discretion; and MA-17, which is not appropriate for minors. Many industry observers say more needs to be done.
Sega is instituting the rating system in the wake of the biggest uproar yet over a video game.
In May, British film censors for the first time restricted a video game to those 15 years and over. The British Board of Film Classification said it was too violent.
The game is called "Night Trap." Sega bills it as the first title with continuous full-motion video and audio - nearly movie-like, in other words. The object of the game is to save five scantily clad co-eds from intruders "with blood on their minds," as the game puts it. If the player fails, the co-eds are murdered.
Although restricted now in Britain, the game remains available in the United States. A check of a Pittsburgh-area Toys "R" Us store found the game readily available, not tagged with any rating or warning, and fully within reach of the smallest toddler.
At least one state senator - Joseph Holland of New York - wants to ban the game for children under 15. "It's as graphic as watching an R-rated movie," Ferrell adds.
Other games, while less sexual, depict graphic violence: men battling each other with chain saws; dismembered body parts, and blood.
TWO forces are at work here: Technologically, the games are getting better. More powerful game consoles allow more realistic graphics and more continuous, believable motion. This trend will continue as games move from 16-bit to 32-bit graphics and, eventually, to CD-ROM technology, capable of displaying far more images and information than today's games. Also, the new games are incorporating adult themes.
More lifelike figures, in and of themselves, don't seem to be a big selling point with today's children.
"One of the things that make these games succeed is their novelty," says Bart Mallio, division manager for Venture Development Corporation, a management-consulting and market research firm in Natick, Mass. A CD-ROM game may be more lifelike than today's cartoon-like games, but it's not novel. Some of the most successful games are also among the most abstract, he adds.
Tetris, wildly popular a few years back, involved fitting falling puzzle shapes into place. In June, Nintendo said it had sold its 1 millionth Mario game. Mario, the world's most popular game character, is a cartoonlike individual who faces highly abstract challenges.
The idea that the concept of a game may be more important than its graphics is not well understood. Sega's Mortal Kombat has received a lot of public criticism, because it involves near-movie-quality characters battling each other using martial-arts techniques. But here at a video arcade in Washington, Pa., Mortal Kombat is old hat. Much more popular is a big-screen encounter between warriors called "Time Killers."
One young man in an old straw hat can't seem to get enough of this game. He punches a button furiously with one hand while he moves the joystick with the other. His chain-saw-wielding character squares off against various nefarious but definitely cartoonlike characters. No one will mistake this encounter for the real thing. But the game's theme is gruesome enough. When he chops off an arm or a head of an opponent, the body part goes flying and blood spurts out.
"He must have pumped 10 bucks into it," says Sam Dellorso, a radio-station technician who is looking on. The more death there is, the better a game sells, he adds, pointing to a realistic but unpopular offering behind him. "This `Time Travellers' over here, it has a holographic image. But there's no death. You die, but you die easy."
When the straw hat finishes with "Time Killers," Mr. Dellorso steps up for his turn. He definitely does not "die easy" against a blade-wielding Grim Reaper.
There's no consensus on how to police these games, or even whether it is necessary to do so. Violence is so pervasive in children's culture - from movies to Saturday morning TV cartoons - that video games can hardly be singled out, Mr. Mallio argues.
"Playing a game that's violent - is that a worse thing than watching people do these things passively?" he asks. "This is actually a sticky question. There aren't generations of dead children because of `Three Stooges' movies."
Even among those who would restrict the games, there's little agreement on how to do it.
Nintendo has criticized Sega's rating system as merely a reaction to bad press, but Nintendo appears to prefer self-regulation to some kind of independent oversight. (The company did not return repeated phone calls. Sega promised to make a spokeswoman available but, by press time, had not.)
Parents' groups don't like the game companies in charge of the rating system. Ferrell's new parental guidelines may provide some help, but his company's research suggests that his teen readership makes its own buying decisions 75 percent of the time.
Mr. Miao of Link Resources argues that the crucial players should be the retailers. If they agree not to carry certain titles because they are inappropriate for children, the industry will get the message. So far, though, retailers are reluctant to step in.
At Toys "R" Us, buyers screen all the video games, but they're looking for what will sell.
There are no corporate guidelines on the games' appropriateness, says Carol Fuller, a company spokeswoman. "We're certainly not looking to censor anything."