Making a Killing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You've just stolen a car. On your getaway you cut through a crowded park, leaving a trail of blood. A patrolman pulls you over. Don't think twice--your best bet is to run him over. Play it right and you'll move up in the crime family, graduating to drug dealer, kidnapper and drive-by shootert.

Get ready, parents. Grand Theft Auto, the video game, will soon be available for that Sony PlayStation you just gave your child for Christmas. And it's just the latest in a growing line of shocking, blood-spattered titles on store shelves.

As game makers around the world compete for attention in a crowded market, they are using cutting-edge graphics and soundtracks and increasingly elaborate story lines to give players the experience of being death-defying, machine-gun-toting Rambos.

The most violent games, once played primarily by a narrow group of hard-core gamers on personal computers, are increasingly becoming available for game consoles as sales of those machines take off. And the games are being marketed to the broader, younger audience that tends to use the consoles.

With game prices plunging from $50 or more just a year ago to as low as $19 today, purchases that once almost always involved parents are now within the budgets of most teenagers.

For all the mayhem, the death and destruction on most video games is still more comic than real. And with the video game business booming--the industry sold an estimated 100 million titles in the United States last year--there are plenty of high-quality, nonviolent games for the discriminating parent to choose from.

Still, there are reasons for parents to remain vigilant.

One favorite among young teens: Duke Nukem. The game, in which the hero blasts his way through a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, mowing down aliens and mutant pigs dressed as LAPD cops, was released in November for both the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64, the two most popular video game machines among youngsters. GT Interactive, the game's publisher, says the title has already sold more than 500,000 copies.

Included in the PlayStation version of the game is a scene in which the muscle-bound hero encounters a go-go dancer and has the choice of paying her to "flash" her breasts or blowing her away.

The sequel to Carmageddon, a game distributed by Interplay that rewards players for running over pedestrians--including an old lady with a walker--is now available only for the PC but will be made available for the PlayStation by the end of the year.

"The big market is the 8-to-12-year-old kids, and [game makers] are increasingly aiming their products at that market," says David Walsh, executive director of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonprofit group that issues an annual report card on violence in the video game industry.

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Walsh points outs that many game makers now have lines of action toys based on the characters in their most violent games.

Toy Biz, which makes action figures based on Marvel comic books, will soon begin selling toys based on Lara Croft, the sexy, gun-toting heroine of Eidos' popular game Tomb Raider. GT Interactive is selling a line of Duke Nukem action toys that come with two tiny Uzis and a bloody knife.

The game publishers are unapologetic about marketing violence to youth.

"It's pretty apparent what the attitude of the [Duke Nukem] doll is," says Allyne Mills, a spokeswoman for GT Interactive. "If there are people who find it offensive, they shouldn't allow their kids to play with them."

Although research into the effect of video games on players is inconclusive, many psychologists worry that violence in games further desensitizes youngsters already accustomed to violence on TV.

While video games are less realistic than TV, psychologists say the increasingly involving quality of the games and elaborate story lines make them potentially worse.

"In these games you become the character. It's a much closer identification than TV," says Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA who has studied the impact of games on human learning. "We usually identify with someone in the family. [Games] allow them to identify with some very violent characters."

Game makers say they are simply responding to demand for violent games from the older teens and adults who make up a growing proportion of console players.

"Ten years ago, the intent was violence, but the graphics were so poor it just looked like pixels kicking other pixels," says Brian Fargo, chief executive of Irvine-based Interplay. "Now you get screams and blood. . . . That is what people are asking for."

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As the violence gets more real, the main concern should be "not letting the games get into the young people's hands," says Fargo. "With the rating system, you have that."

The rating system, implemented three years ago, divides games into three categories: E for everyone; T for teens 13 and older; and M for mature players, 17 and above.

But the system has been ineffective in preventing younger kids from playing "mature" games.

"It's like the R rating on movies," says Wes Nihei, editor of GamePro magazine, a monthly for gamers. "People look for mature games."

Some game makers even exaggerate the violence in their games to attract players. Sony's Armored Core is rated T for its relatively mild content, but advertisements for the game ask players to "Get in touch with your gun-toting, testosterone-pumping, cold-blooded, murdering side."

Arthur I. Pober, executive director of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, an industry-supported organization that rates games, says the role of the rating system is not necessarily to keep games out of the hands of youngsters.

"You have to think of it as a label like the one that says sugar or salt on a product in the supermarket," Pober says. "Some parents don't mind if the 3-year-old plays with violent games. Other parents say sex is OK, but they are more concerned with violent entertainment."

Now that the system is in place, says Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who was a key force behind it, "the responsibility is on the parent and the purchaser, even if it is a kid."

Although a few retailers such as WalMart have refused to carry some of the more violent games, such self-censorship has done little to limit sales.

Carmageddon "was excluded from some channels, but we really didn't lose anything by not having the distribution," says Kim Motika, vice president of sales at Interplay. "It instilled more interest in the product."

Growing violence in mature-rated games may also be making violence more acceptable in games designed for younger players.

Goldeneye, a 007 game designed for Nintendo 64, is rated T. Yet gamers say its violence is perhaps more shockingly realistic than that found in many bloodier games. Shoot your opponent in the kneecap, for example, and he grasps his knee in obvious pain.

Microsoft's Age of Empires, a PC game also rated T, is full of blood.

"Microsoft isn't holding back on violence anymore," says Jason Hall, the 26-year-old chief executive of Seattle-based Monolith Productions, which produced Blood, one of the goriest games on the market, and is now producing a title for Microsoft.

"If you want a product to work on all systems and not offend anybody, you get vanilla," says Hall. "You get solitaire."

Hard-core game producers say the violence is just a hook. More important to gamers is sophisticated play that allows them to challenge friends in a competitive, harmless environment.

"At school there are two groups of cool people: [the jocks] and the skaters," says Hall.

For skaters, who wear baggy pants and ride skateboards, video games are the preferred means of competing, says Hall, who grew up in Brentwood and prides himself on having been the planet's top Duke Nukem player for a time.

"It's my mind against your mind," he says. "I get to kill you and crush you. I can suppress you and leave you weaponless."

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Although much of the violence may appear shocking to adults, Hall says it's usually no more than a reflection of adolescent humor.

In Blood, the player can use a pitchfork to knock the head off a zombie and watch as a fountain of blood spews forth. The exaggerated gore, Hall says, attracts fans of horror films.

Jenni Gant, head of marketing at Monolith, says she felt better about her job after she gave Blood to her 15-year-old son to play. "My son laughed. He had a ball. It wasn't real to him at all."

Interplay executives say about the only thing the company frowns on is scenes in which children, babies or defenseless people are shot. Although Interplay's game, Carmageddon, does reward people for running over fleeing pedestrians, Fargo doesn't mind because it's fantasy: "People don't really get in their car and drive over pedestrians."

Even game makers say some titles go over the line. Interplay chose not to distribute Grand Theft Auto and Postal, Fargo says, because they portrayed things that could really happen.

In Postal, produced by a company called Running With Scissors, the gamer becomes "Postal Dude" and begins to shoot everyone in sight after he discovers that his bank has foreclosed on his home.

But to its producers, even Postal is a parody. "It's always funny until someone gets hurt," Running With Scissors proclaims on its Web site, "and then it's absolutely friggin' hysterical!"

Many gamers evidently take the experience more seriously. In online forums, they insist that violence in games, and the opportunity to vent steam, is the whole point of playing.

"I want to riddle bullets in a dinosaur, see it squirm and suffer," says Marc Lexingburg, an 18-year-old from Hollywood, in an e-mail. "Without violence, games would suck," says another.

The makers admit a major factor driving violence in games is the limits of technology. It's technically far easier to develop a shoot-'em-up game than one in which characters have complex motivations and actions.

In an increasingly global market in which selling across borders is important, violence is an international language. Some of the most violent games, including Grand Theft Auto and Carmageddon, were made in Britain.

Although many nations have stricter laws on violence than does the U.S., game makers find it relatively easy to bypass them to sell worldwide. Monolith sold Blood in South Korea simply by turning the blood green.

Game makers say they will continue to push the envelope on violence and that it is up to parents to draw the limits for their children.

"Ultimately it's all fantasy," says Interplay's Motika. "How each child deals with fantasy is something parents need to decide for themselves."

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