Canada

KILLING TIME

Video games present a child’s garden of mayhem. The B.C. government wants to regulate and classify them—and other provinces will likely follow suit

Ken MacQueen April 30 2001
Canada

KILLING TIME

Video games present a child’s garden of mayhem. The B.C. government wants to regulate and classify them—and other provinces will likely follow suit

Ken MacQueen April 30 2001

KILLING TIME

Canada

Video games present a child’s garden of mayhem. The B.C. government wants to regulate and classify them—and other provinces will likely follow suit

Mainstream media, including Maclean’s on its Web site, review new video games, often with a connoisseur’s eye for detail. There are also scores of Internetsites dedicated to reviewing the games, including www.nw.com.au/-sabre, www.videogames.com, www.gamespot.com and www.ign.com. The Web site revi ewers-gamers themselves and so more likely to be fans than objective assessorsendlessly debate the games’merits. An industry-sponsored panel has rated many of their top choices “Mature,” recommending them only for those 17 and older. Butas one reviewer noted: “The best way to ensure that kids under 18 buy a game is to put a ‘Not for sale to anyone under 18’ label on it.” Extracts of typical reviews for a few of the more violent, but popular, games:

BLOOD ► “Exploring the basement of a sinister hospital, I came across a row of cells holding harmless, innocent bystanders. At the end of the row, there was a switch I thought would undoubtedly open the doors and let the poor guys free. But when I threw the switch, flames shot from vents, scorching the hapless victims, who then ran in circles shrieking.This is just one example of Blood’s twisted, gory, yet giddy sensibility.”

wants to regulate and classify them—and other provinci will likely follow suit

U; I 1 FC E V E A “If it moves, shoot it. If it doesn’t move, shoot it. Anything and everything can be destroyed. Coin stuck in the soda machine? Pipe bomb the sucker. Toilet won’t flush? Nothing a few rounds from your double-barrelled shotgun can’t handle. You slay your way through each scenario.There are, however, a few morally questionable conventions of the game-namely those numerous instances where the player comes across one or several women bound and rendered helpless who are almost always inadvertently caught in the line of fire.”

can understand hy I had the bit where Stephanie’s spinal cord is found lying on her bed.The three kids

eating their mother’s legs. ‘Popping’ the baby’s eyes back into their sockets. Axe through the chess master’s head. The decapitation of the wasp woman.Tearing out Stephanie’s spinal cord with the ‘Harvest Blade.’ ”

Ken MacQueen

For a remarkable number of children, happiness is a virtual gun. A scoped rifle for the long shot, though you can’t beat a shotgun for close work. Grenades have a certain indiscriminate charm, but if you’re into shredding flesh, consider a nail gun for that personal touch. Nothing is more intimate than a knife; you can practically feel them die. But, hey, when things start backing up, and it seems there’s a killer or a cop or a civilian or two around every corner, no kid should be without your basic high-calibre assault rifle.

The arsenal is loaded into home computers or stacked as video-game cartridges next to the Nintendo or PlayStation. In all, the $12-billion-a-year gaming industry now surpasses Hollywood box-office receipts. Few children—boys outnumber girls by more than three to one—have not been exposed, whether at a friend’s home or through schoolyard tales of video conquest. Families that wouldn’t consider having a real weapon on the premises would do well to inventory their computer games, says Stephen Kline, a professor of communications at Simon Fraser University. Odds are parents will find a child’s garden of mayhem: exotic weapons with endless rounds of ammo; graphics so cinematic that bodies twitch and

For many Canadian children, happiness is a virtual gun

\ QUAKE - ▼ “Realistic machine - and chaini guns also pack a powerful punch, with the latter capable of cutting an opponent to shreds within a ^ second or two. Who can forget the grisly discoveries in the torture chamber where your comrades are being torn apart limb from limb in all manner of clever machines? This game reeks of class

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE A “It’s infamous for the level of violence because you can target specific body parts. Shoot an enemy in the neck, and he’ll grip his blood-spraying throat as he drops to his knees. Shoot him in the calf, and he’ll hop around on one leg. Limbs and heads can be blown clean off with a shotgun blast. Even though there are a number of different target areas, enemy reactions to being hit in any specific area remain generally constant. The dimwitted enemies are little more than strawberry-jam-filled turrets.”

faces contort when Johnny pulls the trigger; the sounds of trash talk, of clattering shell casings, of body parts splatting. For those who don’t like killing in the abstract, “skinning” allows the technologically adept to superimpose a real face on a virtual target. “Until now,” says Kline, “the industry has been able to get away with murder.”

This month, the B.C. government passed what it calls the first legislation in North America to implement a mandatory classification and regulatory system for video games. Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are also considering stricter controls. “We’re not in a hurry to slap on new regulations, but it’s not something we have ruled out either,” says Brian Kelcey, a spokesman for the Ontario ministry of consumer and business services, which is preparing an internal report on the issue.

The B.C. law puts video games on an equal footing with film or video. Minors—who account for more than half the gaming population—can no longer buy, rent or view Mature or Adultrated video games. Stores must segregate Mature games and display Adult-only games in a separate room. The provincial filmclassification branch has authority to ban games if they exceed the same standards that apply to films. And although details are still unclear, arcade games will also be regulated.

While industry reaction is mixed, the law has the blessing of a B.C. pressure group, the Coalition Opposing Violent Entertain-

ment. The organization includes the RCMP, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, Media Watch and End the Arms Race. Coalition spokeswoman Jillian Skeet of End the Arms Race says the campaign against video violence has drawn more interest than her work against real weapons. Still, in her view, there isn’t much difference. The perpetrators of several school massacres in the United States were heavy players of the Doom and Quake series of so-called firstperson shooter games. While there isn’t a direct “causal link,” she says, “there is a pattern there that we ignore, I think, to our folly.” Kline says there is a generation gap on the issue. Surveys indicate, he says, that about 80 per cent of parents view computers as

KINGPIN: LIFE OF CRIME ► “This game makes most R-rated films I have seen look tame in comparison. The cuss word count is, well, uncountable, and the violence is dished out in large, bloody helpings. From burning enemies screaming in agony after a quick thumping with the flamethrower, to the messy results of a shotgun to the head, Kingpin delivers its visceral images without remorse or restraint. In part, this unabashed release of violence and obscenity is what kept me from becoming distracted or even bored by the first several levels."

HALF-LIFE: OPPOSING FORCE ◄ “Get ready for

some wild kill-kill-killing. One of your first new finds, and the best in my opinion, is the sited pistol that allows you to aim, and instantly kill most creatures. It fills that sniper-rifle feeling that makes my tummy warm, and solves the annoying problem of having to fire off 30 rounds of bullets to kill those hard-to-hit head crabs from afar. A new machine-gun sprays an array of bullets that will quickly kill almost anything in your way.”

educational tools. Fewer than one per cent of children say they use educational software. “The kids report that their parents regulate video games less than they regulate TV,” he says. Many games are fairly benign, especially strategy games, flying simulations or sports simulations. Yet 58 per cent of the favourite games of B.C. teens are violent, Kline says, and almost one-third of the favourite games for children under 12 are rated Teen or Mature. Kline plays a videotaped interview with a boy of about 10 who seems genuinely puzzled when asked about the games he plays. “It’s either about racing or hurting a person,” says the boy. “What other goals would you have?”

The B.C. law uses an industry-sanctioned, but independently operated, vetting system, the New York-based Entertainment Software Rating Board. The board established its rating guidelines—E, Everyone, T, Teen, M,

Mature, A, Adult—in 1994, and they are already printed on most game packages. The board was an industry response to the outcry for regulation over such fight games as 1996’s Mortal Kombat Trilogy—a product now too lame and primitive to hold the interest of most gamers. Barry Salmon, spokesman for British Columbia’s film-classification office, said the existing ratings are valid, but they were ignored. “If a five-year-old can buy it, what’s the point?” Still, he notes the games downloaded off the Net will remain unregulated: “There’s no way we can unilaterally affect what’s on the Internet.”

Industry associations in the United States and Canada say regulation is unnecessary as long as families follow the rating system. However, not everyone in the industry considers regulation a threat. “Of course there should be a rating system,” says Danielle

The B.C. law puts games on an equal footing with films

Michael, director of business development for Radical Entertainment Inc., Vancouver-based game developers. “It just shows the industry is growing up. ” Radical creates a wide range of action and sports tides—from Jackie Chan: Stuntmaster to NHL Championship 2000—but it does not produce first-person shooters. Still, Michael dismisses the notion that the games present a danger: “I’m a mother and I have no problem with kids playing video games. I think it’s better than staring blankly into a TV.” Interaction is exactly what makes violent games dangerous, say critics. Children aren’t just watching murders and car wrecks, says Skeet; they’re causing “things that we would consider in real life to be sociopathic.”

So, why do kids play them? Kline has developed a surprising theory: because of their parents. Parental fear that the real world is dangerous has severely curtailed the simple joys of unstructured outdoor play. Instead, parents offer the haven of a well-stocked computer room, perhaps a more dangerous place. “The paradox is, I feel that my kids are safe if they’re in the bedroom playing on these games, safer than if they were out on the street playing street hockey,” says Kline.

Critics and industry alike agree that no law can replace a vigilant parent. “Video games are not a babysitter,” says Katie Rebak, manager of media and community relations for Rogers Video, which has a nationwide policy of not renting ageinappropriate video games to children. Kline says parents can spend $ 1,000 on their kids’ video system and games and rationalize it as a lesson in hand-eye co-ordination. Or they can spend a couple of bucks on a device that teaches kids far more complex skills. It’s called a ball. “And if you go out in the backyard, too,” he says, “you might even get to know them a little bit.”

Do you think computer and video games are too violent? www. macleans.ca