They love Bach, baseball, and a little carnage
LOS ANGELES — Hamilton Chu likes Kurt Vonnegut novels. Mark Adami loves Johann Sebastian Bach and Thomas Hardy. John Platten spends his free time watching the History Channel.
Meet the people who bring you video games that shoot, slice, dice, and otherwise maim characters in the fantasy world of electronic entertainment. In the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, they have become the talk of America from Congress to California.
Yet they're not what many people might expect. Yes, they're young - in their late 20s or early 30s - and mostly male. But they're also an international bunch, with above-average education and a love for sports and the arts.
Still, few of them are likely to walk around in Brooks Brothers suits - one has his own band and another studies martial arts. As a group, they are inclined to shrug off criticism of their handiwork, unfazed by the less-than-flattering glare of attention coming from Washington luminaries and cultural thinkers. With youthful nonchalance, they all say they simply enjoy the freedom and creativity of designing games.
"The electronic games industry is changing fast," says Mr. Platten, a producer and designer for Black Ops Software, a Santa Monica, Calif., electronic programming firm. "When it started, there were a lot of nerds and geeks sitting in their garages typing up code. But today, creating a good game takes Hollywood production values, creative story lines, and compelling interactivity that players want to take part in. You need a person who leads a creative life and can translate it into a compelling experience."
Many of the industry's top designers gathered here late last week for E3, the Electronic Entertainment Exposition trade show, in which hundreds of developers introduce games for the coming season.
After the Littleton tragedy, was the industry even a tad chastened for potentially playing a part in desensitizing a generation to violence?
"No one is asking how many kids didn't go to school with guns because they could more easily pop a video game in the console after school and burn off energy and frustration shooting fake characters in a land of make-believe," says Platten.
Despite recent scrutiny from President Clinton and the US Senate, game creators speak candidly about their motives. Most caution against overreaction and agree that violent video games - a shrinking part of the overall electronic industry - did not cause the Colorado tragedy.
"Don't look for any changes from our end," says Christian Dailey, a programmer who grew up in San Diego, plays baseball, and sings in a band. His new game, "Fear Factor," features a female mercenary with two revolvers who chases bad guys through a warehouse.
He, like most other designers, says parents should pay more attention to the games their children use by noting the rating. Indeed, many here point out that in 9 of 10 cases, it's the parent who actually buys the video game.
For Platten, the video-game industry represents an enormous opportunity. A former associate producer for film and TV at Universal Studios, he left his job because he feels video games will be the dominant entertainment of the next century. Analysts say the $6.3 billion video-game business will likely surpass film - which made about $6.9 billion last year - by 2001.
Yet for others, making video games is all about creating your own extraordinary world. Katherine Anna Kang, who was born in Brazil of Korean parents and has studied martial arts, says games are a reflection of how people's interests change.
"When you are a kid, it's OK to use a game in which a boy is doing battle with broccoli or vegetables," says Ms. Kang, director of business development for idsoftware, creators of "Quake" and "Doom." "But when you grow up, you want something with a more mature theme. Ours are shooter games, but we feel they have appeal because the user is a warrior or champion blowing away bad guys to save the world."
The ability to create themes and stories like this is exactly what drew Kyle Riccio to video-game design in southern California. A former programmer of high-density telephone systems for the Wall Street commodities market, he eventually decided he had had enough. Now, he makes electronic dinosaurs eat humans on Sony Play Station's "Jurassic Park" video game.
"When you go to play in a fantasy world, you want stuff that is over the top, you want a rush," says Mr. Riccio, who grew up in Richfield Park, N.J., and wrestled varsity in high school. "Players want things to move faster, be more dangerous, and have higher stakes than real life."
It's not so much the blood and gore of shooter games that is the point, but rather the sense of competition and challenge in beating an opponent, designers say. "People don't want to just mash buttons and watch people get killed," Riccio adds. "They want to develop skill."
Still, old-fashioned escapism remains a powerful allure for some. "This is just meant for jolly good fun," says Mr. Adami, a programmer for Mucky Foot, a small British firm.
He has created a game called "Urban Chaos," in which a woman runs through the streets of an inner-city neighborhood, engages baddies in combat, and can even calm down a person preparing to commit suicide by jumping from a building.
"You spend all day in a world you can't control," says Adami, who bicycles regularly and plays soccer. "Why not visit a fantasy land where you can act without consequences?"