Sega of America, the company whose ubiquitous electronic games have entranced a generation of children with murderous villains, calamitous car chases and bloody shoot-'em-ups, said Monday that it would voluntarily impose a rating system on its products.
Taking its cue from the movie industry, the U.S. arm of the Japanese-based manufacturer said its ratings would help parents differentiate between simple action-oriented games and the increasingly graphic fare that is made possible by new technology.
The announcement by Sega, the second-largest video game maker in the world after Nintendo Co., comes amid rising concern over the level of violence on TV and in the movies, particularly in programming aimed at children. Last week, for example, two bills were introduced in Congress to clamp down on violent TV programs, and top officials from the network and cable TV industries have agreed to consider steps to mollify critics.
Some observers said Monday that Sega was hoping to preempt attempts to include video games in the anti-violence crusade--much as the movie industry voluntarily adopted its code in the late 1960s amid criticism of cinematic violence.
At the same time, some sources suggested the voluntary ratings plan was a shrewd marketing move: By highlighting a game's violent nature, Sega might be able to make such games stand out with teen-agers titillated by such fare.
"It was a matter of time before the video folks got swept up" in anti-violence efforts, said Arnold Fege, director of government relations for the National Parent-Teacher Assn. "I think this is a really good public relations point."
Sega said it will begin labeling its games three ways: GA (for general audiences); MA-13 (for "mature audiences" 13 years old and over), and MA-17 (for those over 17). The company released no criteria for the ratings Monday, although it said an internal panel would render judgments on all new products starting this week. Products already on dealers' shelves won't be relabeled.
Because its games appeal primarily to players over the age of 15, Sega's cartridges are generally more violent than those of rival Nintendo, said Vince Matthews, director of game testing at the magazine Game Player.
In "Mortal Combat," a game licensed for the Sega system, players fight off their video rivals by decapitating them or breaking their spines with punches and kicks. The packaging for another Sega game called "Streets of Rage" tantalizes would-be consumers with the following words: "Jab 'em. Slam 'em. Kick or throw 'em. Whatever it takes. . . . All with your barehanded martial arts moves. . . . Amazingly realistic street fighting action."
Sega makes the popular Genesis system, a small computer unit that hooks up to a standard television set. By manipulating a joystick, the user can direct the action supplied by game cartridges, which can be bought or rented.
A Sega official said the company was under no outside pressure to adopt the ratings. Instead, she said, the system was made necessary by the technological advances in game players, which deliver increasingly realistic sound and pictures.