LAST month, two separate computer-industry organizations offered new rating systems for their own computer games and videos.
The Interactive Digital Software Association, representing major video-game publishers like Nintendo and Sega, proposed a rating system based on the age of users: Early Childhood, Adults Only, and so on. The Software Publishers Association (SPA), another advocacy group of computer-game makers, unveiled its own rating system, based on each game's content. With thermometer-style icons, the SPA code rates the separate levels of Violence, Nudity/Sex, and Language on a scale of 1 to 4. The two rating systems are basically incompatible.
The synchronized timing - two press conferences in the same week - points to the industry's sense of urgency to beat Congress to the punch. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and Sen. Herbert Kohl (D) of Wisconsin introduced legislation earlier this year to regulate the world of electronic games.
In the early 1920s, the motion picture industry forestalled a similar threat of censorship by Congress. The industry created the Hays Office, the first of a series of self-policing bodies that led to today's Motion Picture Rating System. Much the same thing happened in television's discovery of ``standards and practices'' in the 1950s. The pattern was established early for menacing gestures on the part of elected officials to inspire last-minute discoveries of social responsibility by suppliers of popular entertainment, who, until the threat of censorship, had recognized no other constraint on content than the bottom line.
NO democratic society can be comfortable with censorship. But it seems that as each new medium has reached maturity, the threat of censorship has been needed to ``boot up'' its conscience.
What is the right way for computer and video-game manufacturers to police themselves? My research leads me to conclude that neither age limits alone, nor sex/violence/language ratings alone, can adequately do the job. Like movies, TV shows, and novels, these programs and games create mental environments for their users. A crucial variable in any created environment is what you might call the relative value of life embodied in that world.
The issue is not so simple as how many guns go off or how many on-screen bodies fall victim to violence. The question is more subtle, yet still quantifiable: How precious or cheap is life made to seem in this world? If you pick up a CD-ROM game called ``Doom,'' where your manifest assignment is to deploy a broad arsenal of ``virtual'' weapons to kill anything that moves, the implied value of life is shockingly low. It should be labeled as such. Pick up Pedro Meyer's CD-ROM ``I Photograph to Remember,'' and you'll still come across a death (that of the photographer's father), but, as in a Shakespearean tragedy, it's a death that makes you feel even more strongly the essential value of life.
Whether they use a pie chart or a thermometer, what the video-game makers need - what the culture needs - is a firm grasp of the Relative Value of Life scale. It's the only way we can start telling the weeds from the flowers in our multimedia gardens and begin to sort out what's worth noting from what's worth nothing. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.