Parents Should Say `Enough' to Video-Game Violence

IS nothing sacred?

That's the question I asked myself when I first saw the gruesome and violent video games children play these days. And a lot of those games may become gifts this holiday season, mainly because many parents are unaware just how explicit the games really are.

Violence seems to be everywhere in today's society, and we are all worse off for it. Violent video games alone are not tearing apart the fabric of civilization, but they probably stimulate some violence: They certainly mark a decline in decency and innocence in our society, especially for the children who play these games.

We've heard the debate over violence in movies and on television, but the violent and sexual themes that exist in video games today take that debate to another level. What happens to a child who not only watches violence or sex on the TV screen but actually controls the action and is rewarded for causing it to happen? It is the interactivity of video games that makes them even more damaging than movies and television. Watching TV is passive; playing a video game is active. Worse still, video games can be addictive, and it is not unusual for children to play them for three or four hours straight.

We are not talking about Bugs Bunny or PacMan. The computer has given us a brave new world of realism, allowing children to manipulate digitally created, realistic characters on the screen. One game (on even more realistic compact disc technology) features dark, hooded men who stalk and attack scantily-clad young women and drain them of their blood. The maker of the game alleges that it is intended for the adult player. But there are no limits on children buying, renting, and using the game - and plenty of kids are doing just that.

Parents should take more care, you might say. But there is no easy way for parents to know what kind of violence or sex that video games contain before they purchase or rent them. Only one manufacturer, Sega, has developed a rating system, but many parents do not know the code the company uses. Besides, the company is rating itself, which hardly inspires confidence. And when major video-store chains rent the games, they are put in boxes that do not indicate the game's rating on the outside.

Even once the video game is in the house, parents cannot easily determine what the game contains: In most cases, they do not have the skill or knowledge of ``secret'' codes to get to its most violent scenes.

As a parent of a five-year-old, I am upset that my child may be exposed to this junk. The video-game industry should stop making it. A precedent for such a course exists; in reaction to concern about violence in comic books in the 1950s, the industry developed the Comics Code Authority, which contains detailed guidelines on what comic books can and cannot depict. Every comic book that follows the guidelines (and most do) are allowed to show a ``seal of approval'' on the cover. For nearly 30 years, the system has worked.

If the video-game industry does not respond, the government should step in. Enacting a ban on violent or sexually explicit video games may not be constitutional, but the government can surely require video games to carry some kind of informative rating or warning label so parents could tell immediately whether the game is appropriate for their children. It's simply good consumer protection. We require labels on everything from Twinkies to cigarettes to stepladders. Certainly we can require a label to let a parent know whether a game contains blood and gore or sexual scenes they do not want their kids to see.

Sen. Herb Kohl (D) of Wisconsin and I will introduce the Video Game Violence Act when Congress convenes in January. Our bill would set up a council (bipartisan and comprised of volunteer experts, to keep costs low) that would give the video game industry one full year to come up with its own ratings system or warning labels. After one year, if the video manufacturers refuse to act, or act inadequately, the council will set up its own rating system or warning label and require video games to carry the information.

In response to our bill, some in the video game industry have announced plans to create a rating system. But will the system be adopted industry-wide, and will it be effective?

A warning on video games does not solve the problem of violence or sex in the games. It would be better if video-game manufacturers sought to elevate kids instead of drag them down. But at least parents who are concerned about the level of violence their kids are exposed to would have a fighting chance when it came to video games. They may not have control over the movies or TV shows that are produced or over the crimes that afflict many of our neighborhoods, but at least in this case, with adequate information, parents can say, ``Enough.''

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