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THE CUTTING EDGE

Making a Killing

Violence sells in video games, which is why manufacturers are marketing ever-bloodier products to ever-younger audiences.

January 26, 1998|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You've just stolen a car. On your getaway you cut through a crowded park, leaving a trail of blood. A patrolman pulls you over. Don't think twice--your best bet is to run him over. Play it right and you'll move up in the crime family, graduating to drug dealer, kidnapper and drive-by shootert.

Get ready, parents. Grand Theft Auto, the video game, will soon be available for that Sony PlayStation you just gave your child for Christmas. And it's just the latest in a growing line of shocking, blood-spattered titles on store shelves.

As game makers around the world compete for attention in a crowded market, they are using cutting-edge graphics and soundtracks and increasingly elaborate story lines to give players the experience of being death-defying, machine-gun-toting Rambos.

The most violent games, once played primarily by a narrow group of hard-core gamers on personal computers, are increasingly becoming available for game consoles as sales of those machines take off. And the games are being marketed to the broader, younger audience that tends to use the consoles.

With game prices plunging from $50 or more just a year ago to as low as $19 today, purchases that once almost always involved parents are now within the budgets of most teenagers.

For all the mayhem, the death and destruction on most video games is still more comic than real. And with the video game business booming--the industry sold an estimated 100 million titles in the United States last year--there are plenty of high-quality, nonviolent games for the discriminating parent to choose from.

Still, there are reasons for parents to remain vigilant.

One favorite among young teens: Duke Nukem. The game, in which the hero blasts his way through a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, mowing down aliens and mutant pigs dressed as LAPD cops, was released in November for both the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64, the two most popular video game machines among youngsters. GT Interactive, the game's publisher, says the title has already sold more than 500,000 copies.

Included in the PlayStation version of the game is a scene in which the muscle-bound hero encounters a go-go dancer and has the choice of paying her to "flash" her breasts or blowing her away.

The sequel to Carmageddon, a game distributed by Interplay that rewards players for running over pedestrians--including an old lady with a walker--is now available only for the PC but will be made available for the PlayStation by the end of the year.

"The big market is the 8-to-12-year-old kids, and [game makers] are increasingly aiming their products at that market," says David Walsh, executive director of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonprofit group that issues an annual report card on violence in the video game industry.

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Walsh points outs that many game makers now have lines of action toys based on the characters in their most violent games.

Toy Biz, which makes action figures based on Marvel comic books, will soon begin selling toys based on Lara Croft, the sexy, gun-toting heroine of Eidos' popular game Tomb Raider. GT Interactive is selling a line of Duke Nukem action toys that come with two tiny Uzis and a bloody knife.

The game publishers are unapologetic about marketing violence to youth.

"It's pretty apparent what the attitude of the [Duke Nukem] doll is," says Allyne Mills, a spokeswoman for GT Interactive. "If there are people who find it offensive, they shouldn't allow their kids to play with them."

Although research into the effect of video games on players is inconclusive, many psychologists worry that violence in games further desensitizes youngsters already accustomed to violence on TV.

While video games are less realistic than TV, psychologists say the increasingly involving quality of the games and elaborate story lines make them potentially worse.

"In these games you become the character. It's a much closer identification than TV," says Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA who has studied the impact of games on human learning. "We usually identify with someone in the family. [Games] allow them to identify with some very violent characters."

Game makers say they are simply responding to demand for violent games from the older teens and adults who make up a growing proportion of console players.

"Ten years ago, the intent was violence, but the graphics were so poor it just looked like pixels kicking other pixels," says Brian Fargo, chief executive of Irvine-based Interplay. "Now you get screams and blood. . . . That is what people are asking for."

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As the violence gets more real, the main concern should be "not letting the games get into the young people's hands," says Fargo. "With the rating system, you have that."

The rating system, implemented three years ago, divides games into three categories: E for everyone; T for teens 13 and older; and M for mature players, 17 and above.

But the system has been ineffective in preventing younger kids from playing "mature" games.

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