As the video game industry gears up to release a new generation of consoles that allow even sharper graphics and more realistic action, lawmakers nationwide are considering bans on the sale or rental of violent titles to minors.
In California, for instance, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has until midnight Thursday to act on a bill that would ban the sale to minors of games that "depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious or cruel."
That worries the $25-billion global game industry, which fears that its wares would be the only form of entertainment other than pornography subject to such heavy regulation.
But it's welcome news to Mary Gilbertson, who yanked "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" from her 16-year-old son once she realized the game was about more than fast cars.
Her son argued that it was just a game, but "it still disturbed me that he found it entertaining," the Minnesota preschool teacher said of the title, which allows players to shoot cops, run over pedestrians and have sex with prostitutes, then beat them senseless.
In the weeks since publisher Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. acknowledged that some versions of "San Andreas" also included a hidden sex scene, the game has renewed and intensified longtime concerns over excessive sex and violence in video games.
The debate over violence in one of the fastest-growing segments of the entertainment industry ebbs and flows. There's disagreement over whether virtual violence breeds real violence, but the video game industry has for years churned out increasingly graphic titles that rile its critics.
"The topic tends to resurface every few years," said American McGee, a veteran game developer. "Some of it has to do with the improvements in game graphics. People who never play video games see how visceral it is, and they freak out."
In addition to the California bill, Michigan last month passed a similar law, set to take effect Dec. 1, to ban the sale of "ultra-violent explicit video games" to minors under 17. And an Illinois law, set to take effect Jan. 1, prohibits the sale or rental of violent or sexually explicit games to minors.
The Entertainment Software Assn. has filed suit in Michigan and Illinois seeking to block the laws, contending that they amount to censorship.
"The graphics [are] too shocking, too realistic not to have an effect on children," said Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), a child psychologist who sponsored the bill now before Schwarzenegger. "These games are very intense.... You have children scoping targets, pulling the trigger, blowing people's heads off and burning people to a crisp."
Some social scientists say the criticisms lodged against video games parallel the scrutiny that faced other new forms of media -- including comic books in the 1950s and television in the 1960s.
"With just about any new medium, there has been concern about the negative effects it might have on young people," said Karen Sternheimer, a lecturer in sociology at USC. "From movies to television to comic books to music and now video games, society tends to project its fears onto newer forms of pop culture. There's a generational divide that makes people on the other side nervous."
In 1957, for instance, when a 21-year-old Elvis Presley gave his trademark, hip-swiveling performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," cameramen were ordered to shoot him from the waist up to appease offended advertisers.
Four years earlier, a Senate subcommittee led by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee held hearings on the corruptive influence of comic books, citing a book written by Frederic Wertham called "Seduction of the Innocent," which tried to link comic book reading with murder.
"There was this belief that comic books led young people to kill," Sternheimer said. "The parallels between video games and comic books are eerie."
That argument does little to appease critics of the video game industry. They contend that video games differ from traditional media because games require active participation.
"A violent game is not going to affect a 15-year-old the same way it affects a 30-year-old," said David Walsh, a psychologist and president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. "Adolescents are much more impulsive. They're predisposed to anger. So you put a 15-year-old in front of a violent video game for hours and hours, and you get a kid who becomes much more aggressive."
The American Psychological Assn. agreed. In August, the Washington-based group said a review of existing studies indicated that "exposure to violence in video games increases aggressive thoughts, aggressive behavior and angry feelings among youth." As a result, it adopted a resolution recommending a reduction in violence in games.
But Dmitri Williams, assistant professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the studies on which the association based its conclusions were few and flawed.