In an effort to fend off mounting calls for regulation of video games, the industry's major companies are in serious talks aimed at establishing a system of rating games for violence, sex and profanity.
A hastily formed coalition of video game producers and rental shops, lead by Sega of America, hopes to announce an outline of its plan Thursday morning, before a scheduled hearing on draft legislation that would give the industry one year to start using a rating system.
Sega's archrival, Nintendo, may not participate in the Thursday news conference, but Perrin Kaplan, speaking for Nintendo, said Tuesday that the two companies, which dominate the video game market, have agreed that they must work together to create a consistent, industry-wide system.
"Both companies are in agreement that violence is an issue that consumers need to have more guidance on, and we will be together on this," Kaplan said.
William White, Sega's marketing vice president, said the coalition aims to include CD-ROM manufacturers as well as conventional video game producers. For example, 3DO Co., the Silicon Valley upstart whose new machine plays the sophisticated CD-ROM-based games, plans to participate. The Washington-based Software Publishers Assn. will also play a major role.
"We believe in self-regulation," said William White, Sega of America's marketing vice president. "We don't want these hearings to become a press conference. We're moving as quickly as we can to get the whole industry together."
There's nothing new about violence in video games. But now, driven by advances in technology, games that were once clunky and cartoon-like are using video footage of human actors that add realism. And explosive sales in recent years have drawn attention and concern from consumer groups and politicians. The video game market's $5.5 billion in annual revenues now exceeds the film industry's U.S. box office receipts.
For example, Mortal Kombat, which hit the shelves in September, features characters such as Sub-Zero, who pulls off his enemies' heads with their spines attached. Incineration, impalement and dismemberment figure prominently in the game, which is expected to sell at least 5 million copies at prices ranging from $30 to $65 for different systems.
In a letter to several video game manufacturers last month, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren urged video game manufacturers to withdraw violent games, which he said "have a deadening, desensitizing impact on young, impressionable minds."
And legislation sponsored by two U.S. senators, Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.), introduced last week, spurred the industry's major players to start talking. Still unclear, however, are what form the rating system will take and whether Sega and Nintendo will be able to agree.
Nintendo in the past has maintained that it does not need a rating system because it adheres to strict guidelines that prohibit excessive violence in its games.
Under a movie-style ratings system introduced earlier this year, a panel of psychologists, sociologists and educators rates Sega games as suitable for a general audience (GA) or for young people over 13 (MA-13) or mature audiences over 17 (MA-17).
Sega's White said the coalition might adopt similar guidelines or may opt for a labeling system. About 20 game manufacturers had signed up for the coalition, White said, as well as the Video Software Dealers Assn., which represents companies that rent video games.