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GameWorks to Restrict Youngsters at Arcades

Entertainment: In an industry first, company will ban kids under 16 from playing video games with violent content.

October 06, 2000|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER and CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Bowing to congressional pressure to stop marketing violent entertainment to children, the Steven Spielberg-conceived company GameWorks announced Thursday a policy restricting youngsters from playing certain games at its arcades.

This is the first voluntary action within the arcade industry that mandates an age restriction. The industry has yet to collectively respond to the recent Federal Trade Commission report criticizing the movie, music and video game industries for peddling violent entertainment to children.

Enforcement of the new policy may be impractical, however, according to analysts who question whether access can be restricted at entertainment centers that serve young patrons. The move also falls far short of efforts by other companies to remove violent games from their arcades.

"We're taking a monumental step that could hurt our business, but we're doing it because it's the responsible thing to do," said Ron Bension, GameWorks' president and chief executive.

GameWorks is part of an industry facing increasing financial pressure from a shrinking market, estimated to be 2% smaller each year for the last decade. The arcade industry is losing out to high-end home video game players and the Internet.

Starting this week, GameWorks officials said employees will check IDs of young consumers as they buy a debit-type card that allows them to play interactive games at their nationwide chain of high-tech entertainment centers.

Unaccompanied by an adult, kids under 16 will be sold cards that block access to certain video games that contain mature content, roughly 10% of GameWorks' games. With an accompanying adult's permission, a child can access all games, including such violent titles as "House of the Dead" and "Time Crisis II."

The plan isn't fail-safe, Bension said. "Is this 100% bulletproof? Absolutely not."

Just as movie theaters have struggled with enforcing age limits, GameWorks' ban is unlikely to keep inappropriate material from youngsters, analysts said. They noted that the policy does nothing to prevent children from being exposed to violent images displayed on oversized game screens.

Perhaps the biggest screen at GameWorks is part of the company's flagship attraction, Vertical Reality, designed by Spielberg, whose entertainment company DreamWorks SKG is a partner in GameWorks with Japanese video-game giant Sega Corp. and Universal Studios. The game allows four players, strapped into seats, to ascend as much as 24 feet as they shoot criminals in a skyscraper.

Bension described the violence as "Batmanesque," because players use a joystick rather than a gun to shoot bad guys and "there's no gore."

Not everyone considers such entertainment appropriate for youngsters. Jack Thompson, a Florida defense attorney, is threatening to sue Spielberg under Florida's public nuisance law if he doesn't yank violent shooting games from his company's arcades. Thompson said when he and his 8-year-old son visited the GameWorks site near his house in South Miami this week, he witnessed several teenage boys playing first-person shooter games.

One was "Time Crisis II," an aggressive game that pits the player against gun-wielding terrorists.

"I walked up to one boy playing 'Time Crisis II' this afternoon. His Namco gun was recoiling with every burst of gunfire as he obliterated one virtual life after another," Thompson recounted in an Oct. 4 letter to Spielberg. Thompson said the 12-year-old boy playing the game said he was not accompanied by a parent or adult.

Thompson, who represents the families of three girls killed in the 1997 Paducah, Ky., school shootings, had sued video-game makers, among others, alleging that they incited the rampage by 14-year-old Michael Corneal. The case, which was dismissed, is being appealed, Thompson said.

"When I learned that the man who gave our children 'E.T.' was involved in these violent arcades, I felt this to be an utter betrayal by Mr. Spielberg of the trust that American parents have placed in him," Thompson said Thursday.

Spielberg, considered the world's most successful movie director with such family-oriented hits as "E.T." and the "Jurassic Park" series, was on location and unavailable for comment, according to a spokesman.

GameWorks officials dismissed Thompson's criticisms and described the lawyer as an "ambulance chaser" and "an extremist."

Bension, the longtime head of Universal's theme park business, was fired during a management shake-up. He joined GameWorks a year ago. He said Spielberg today is "not involved" with the arcade company or any of its operations.

Under the current ownership structure, said Bension, DreamWorks, co-founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, owns slightly more than 9% of GameWorks. Universal has a 27% stake and Sega owns 37%. Individual investors own the rest of the company, but have no control, board seats or voting rights.

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