Fresh off its summer offensive against TV violence, Congress moved into videogame terrain Thursday as lawmakers warned of a legislative crackdown unless the industry polices itself against gratuitous violence.

The warning came on the same day that a coalition of 140 video-game makers and distributors unveiled plans for a voluntary MPAA-like rating system to restrict certain games from use by children. Nintendo, the largest vidgame maker , embraced the ratings proposal, but senior veepee Howard Lincoln said the plan won’t work without more “corporate responsibility” from game manufacturers and retailers.

Nintendo said: “We support Sen. (Joseph) Lieberman and Sen. (Herb) Kohl’s efforts to develop a voluntary rating system. However, a rating system is only as good as the sum of its parts. For it to be effective it must be industrywide, uniform, credible and understandable.”

D.C.’s heightened interest in violence also was evident at the White House Thursday, where President Clinton proclaimed before a group of big-city mayors that violence is “tearing the heart out of our country.”

The voluntary vidgame ratings plan was announced in part to ward off legislation being planned by Sens. Kohl (D-Wis.) and Lieberman (D-Conn.). The bill, to be offered early next year, will give the industry a year to police itself or face the appointment of an independent panel to adopt a presumably tougher ratings system.

A hanging threat

The threat of congressional intervention hung in the air at the Senate hearing. “I hope you’ll walk away with one thought — if you don’t do something, we will,” Kohl said.

Much of the hearing, however, was devoted to sniping between Nintendo’s Lincoln and Sega senior veepee Bill White over which of the two largest vidgame makers is the most egregious purveyor of violence.

Sega seemed to win the prize from Kohl, Lieberman and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) — the only three lawmakers attending the session. Special criticism was directed at Sega for its decision to distribute “Night Trap,” a game that features scantily clad sorority girls first pursued and then drilled in the neck by villains.

Marilyn Droz, veepee of the National Coalition on Television Violence, expressed outrage over Sega’s marketing of the game. “The only thing I can say is … shame on you. How would you like your teenage daughter to go out on a date with someone who had just played three hours of that game?”

White, calling the game “appropriate for adults,” defended the video by pointing out that as a player’s skill progresses, there is less violence against the women.

That response didn’t sit well with Lieberman, who called Sega’s actions “objectionable.”

In Sega’s defense, White noted his company is the only vidgame maker that has already instituted a rating system. However, Nintendo’s Lincoln claimed there was no initial rating on “Night Trap” and that the rating was applied “only after they got heat.”

Lieberman said the rating system must be uniform, easily understandable, visible to consumers, and strictly enforced at the retail level.

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