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Sounding the alarm on video game ratings

By Brad Wright

Tom Clancy's
Tom Clancy's "Splinter Cell."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Members of Congress and watchdog groups are again sounding the alarm over the sexual and violent nature of some video games that are falling into the hands of children even though they are intended for adults.

Although critics agree that the majority of video games have little or no objectionable violent or sexual content, those that do, they say, have gone far beyond the pale.

"This relatively small but highly popular minority is not just pushing the envelope," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut. "They are shooting, torturing and napalming it beyond all recognition and beyond all decency."

Raising awareness

Lieberman said a new round of congressional hearings may be necessary to raise parental awareness of the issue.

In a written statement, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, said it is time that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board re-examined the rating system that was established a few years ago to determine if it is still appropriate.

Thursday, the National Institute on Media and the Family showed reporters the violent nature of some of the video games in question. For the first time this year, the institute handed the game industry an "F" grade.

"This year's grade reflects the dramatic increase in violent games and, in particular, games rewarding violence against women," the report's authors said.

In one of the animated games, the player scores points as a male figure gets into a car and has sex with a prostitute, then scores more points when he beats and kicks her to get his money back.

In another, the male figure blasts away at various female figures with a gun, while in another game actual video tape of strippers is featured.

Trade group: Allegations unfounded

"Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance."

The Interactive Digital Software Association (NIMF), a major trade association for the video game industry, says concerns that the violence in video games can result in violent teenagers is unfounded.

"The most objective and methodologically sound studies of video game play and aggressive behavior find no link between the two," the association says in a written report on its Web site.

That report quotes former Surgeon General David Satcher as saying in January 2001, "We clearly associate media violence to aggressive behavior. But the impact was very small compared to other things. Some may not be happy with that, but that's where the science is." It says he made that comment at a news conference to release a report on youth violence following the Columbine shootings in Colorado.

But the report by NIMF says the industry isn't keeping up with its games.

"While the industry is making the same efforts to protect children it has over the past few years, research and anecdotal evidence show that the potential for harm from video games is much greater than previously understood. Increasing power (i.e. realism) of technology is one factor; our increased knowledge base is another. Despite some commitment to implementing our past recommendations, the industry is slipping backwards by standing still."

Parents key to finding an answer

NIMF said that games such as "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" and "BMX XXX" are two of several titles that are particularly objectionable. Kohl wrote that the toy store chain "Zany Brainy" has elected not to stock video games at all because of the increasing trend toward violence in the most popular games.

One thing that both the industry and its critics agree on is the critical role of parents making careful decisions about what their children interact with. NIMF and other watchdog groups maintain that many parents are unaware that a rating system exists for video games.

A study of the database maintained by the Entertainment Software Rating Board found that of 672 games rated for the three major consoles -- Nintendo's GameCube, Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox -- 80 took the board's 17-and-over "Mature" rating. That's approximately 12 percent of the total.

The review of the data also showed that the previous generation of consoles -- including Sony's PlayStation, Sega's Dreamcast and Nintendo's N64 -- had about 9 percent of the games rated "Mature."

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