Pols set sights on vidgames’ big guns

Gamers face ire of watchdogs

Drugs. Cursing. Graphic violence. Sex.

Are those the signs of an art form growing up or an industry looking to make a buck at the risk of harming America’s children?

The videogame biz has transformed from Pac-Man and Donkey Kong to “Grand Theft Auto” and “Resident Evil.” So as the vidgame industry gathers May 18-20 in Los Angeles for the E3 confab, gamers will be mulling the same foes that their brethren in the film biz have been dealing with for years: The ire of politicians and watchdogs.

Pic parity?

The vidgame industry insists it’s increased self-enforcement of ratings and that it’s no more deserving of a legal crackdown than the movie industry, where self-regulation is widely accepted.

The MPAA is lobbying against legislation that would impose fines on vidgame retailers for selling M-rated titles — the vidgame equivalent of film’s NC-17 –to minors.

With their content maturing, though, vidgame companies face competing pressures from at least three different groups:

  • the core audience of young males who want games that are as realistic and brutal as R-rated movies and cable TV;

  • developers who want the freedom to make games that tackle mature topics;

  • watchdogs worried that children are playing explicit games that could cause psychological harm.

Outsiders tend to take notice only of the most explicit examples, like Midway’s “Narc,” in which the protagonist can use crack, marijuana or ecstasy.

While “Narc” is on the outer edge (and didn’t even sell well), M-rated games are becoming an increasing part of the vidgame mainstream. In sharp contrast to movies, where PG fare like “Shrek 2” dominated the box office, last year’s two biggest-selling games, “Halo 2” and “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” got the an M for graphic violence and, in the case of the latter, sexual content and drugs.

Electronic Arts, the industry heavyweight that has thus far eschewed the controversy that comes with an M rating, will release its first adults-only game with its adaptation of “The Godfather” this year.

The M rating is supposed to mean that only players over 17 can get their hands on the game without parental permission. But as most vidgamers know, enforcement at stores can be spotty.

In response to such concerns a decade ago, the Entertainment Software Assn., the vidgame equivalent of the MPAA, created the independent Entertainment Software Ratings Board to rate games with anything from an all-ages E for “everyone” to the M for intense violence, sexual content or language.

But a study by the Federal Trade Commission several years ago found that nearly 70% of 13-to-16-year-olds could buy M-rated games. And whether due to parental permission or ignorance, teenagers across the country are playing “Halo” and “GTA.”

State governments are worried about precisely that; about a dozen states have legislation pending to make sale of explicit games to minors a crime.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has made the issue a pet cause, backing a bill that would fine store clerks $1,001 for selling such games to kids. In California, two Assembly committees have approved a similar bill.

“The preponderance of correlational data shows these games are harmful to children,” insists California Assemblyman Leland Yee, who authored the bill. “If a voluntary regimen was all that’s needed, why is it a crime to sell cigarettes or alcohol to children?”

But the vidgame industry insists self-regulation is the best solution.

“We believe we’re just like the motion picture industry and should be given the same opportunity to prove ourselves,” says Hal Halpin, president of game retailer org Interactive Entertainment Merchants Assn. “Our ratings system is only a decade old and we have a lot of education left to do, but we’re improving.”

Halpin insists his org has focused on increasing ratings compliance in the past year. He also says that, in contrast to the older FTC study, his group’s data finds only 30% of kids can buy games rated beyond than their age — a percentage he claims is similar to theater ratings compliance.

While loath to talk about the ratings controversy, vidgame execs generally view attempts at regulation as a nuisance, rather than a threat — for now. As long as M-rated games sell, they plan to keep pumping them out and let retailers deal with potential fines.

Many point out that games featuring explicit content also tend to have the most sophisticated stories and mature themes. With the vidgame audience increasingly over the age of 18, publishers want to make content that appeals to them.

Of course, if federal legislators get involved — as Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl did in the 1990s –the vidgame biz may move to clean up its act.

But as in any other segment of showbiz, vidgamers will almost certainly be ruled by that other law of the land: consumer demand.