- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

Many parents will unwittingly stuff their children's stockings with video games that feature strippers, prostitutes, and violence that isn't just "pushing the envelope" of decency, but "torturing and napalming it beyond all recognition," a video-game watchdog group charges.
For the first time, the National Institute on Media and the Family's annual "MediaWise Video Game Report Card" gave the video game industry an "F" grade, prompting Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, to threaten congressional hearings.
Mr. Lieberman and David Walsh, founder of the institute, conceded at a news conference yesterday that "the clear majority" of video games are free of violence, but the industry still received an overall grade of "F" for the first time since the group's report card has been tallied.
"Women are the new target of choice in the most violent video games," Mr. Lieberman said in announcing the group's seventh annual report. "This relatively small but highly popular minority [of games] is not pushing the envelope, they are shooting, torturing and napalming it beyond all recognition and beyond all decency."
Most "ultraviolent" games are given ratings of "M" for mature, and games with sexual content are rated "AO" for adults only. Some games slip under the radar of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, Mr. Walsh said.
Games in which characters continually fire weapons and kill characters on the screen are reduced to a "T" rating for teens by merely editing out the red pixels that simulate blood. And even some games rated "E" for every age group, Mr. Walsh said, include scenes in which "women are portrayed as sexual objects."
"Do we really believe our sons are unaffected after spending hour after hour objectifying and brutalizing women?" Mr. Walsh asked.
Many parents, however, don't pay any attention to the ratings system, Mr. Lieberman said, canceling out the benefits achieved since the early '90s when game makers succumbed to pressure from Congress and stopped directly marketing their violent games to children.
"Parents have made only marginal affirmative efforts and little progress in protecting America's children from the most harmful of these games," Mr. Lieberman said. "All of this says to us that it may be time for a new round of congressional hearings to focus public attention on this problem, to raise parental awareness of the consequences and to find some solutions."
Mr. Walsh singled out a game for the Sony PlayStation 2 called "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" as especially harmful. In that M-rated game, points are scored for picking up and having sex with a prostitute and a bonus is awarded if the player kills the prostitute and takes the money back.
"Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" sold 1.4 million copies in two days when it was released in October and is poised to become the best-selling video game of all time.
"These games are phenomenally popular with kids," Mr. Walsh said. "Anyone who says that the only people playing these kinds of games are adults are not talking with kids. By and large, parents are very uninformed."
Jeff Castaneda, spokesman for Rockstar Games, creator of "Grand Theft Auto," said their games are "geared towards mature audiences and makes every effort to market its games responsibly, targeting advertising and marketing only to adult consumers over the age of 17."
Rockstar Games also submits every game and advertisement to the ESRB, and clearly marks every game with the ESRB-approved rating, he said.
Holding congressional hearings, said Mr. Lieberman and Rep. Betty McCollum, Minnesota Democrat, might get parents to pay more attention to the games their children are playing.
Mrs. McCollum said that because children play these games for "hours and hours," parents also need to sit down with their children and play these games to determine whether they are appropriate.
"Today's games hold incredible power to be positive and educational, or in too many cases, damaging," Mrs. McCollum said. "We must put parents back in control."
According to research by Mr. Walsh's institute, 92 percent of children between the ages of two and 17 play video or computer games. The video game industry is expected to generate $20 billion in sales this year.
Mr. Walsh cited a study showing that violent video games lead to increased aggression in children and discipline problems in school.
"If we think 'Sesame Street' taught our 4-year-olds something, what do we think 'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City' teaches our 14-year-olds?" Mr. Walsh asked.

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