One step ahead of the law

As the gory killsport game Kingpin hits the street, the gaming industry toys with self-regulation to avoid government action.

Published July 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's a hot summer evening in New York City and Dave and his friend head to the Software Etc. store on Broadway and Eighth Street for their digital fix. Once inside, Dave, who is 14 and has spiked hair, makes a beeline for the box with the large yellow sticker "WARNING, Violent Subject Matter."

"Check this out," Dave calls to his friend, still hunched over the PlayStation gear. "You form a gang of the retro-future, shoot people in their kneecaps and kill their bitches."

But Dave's not buying Kingpin, the gritty game released this month by Interplay, because he's too young to pass the new censors. "We have had to start carding for this game because of all the attention after Colorado," says the store's salesman, who asked not to be identified. "But it hasn't been a problem so far, everyone looks over 21, or comes in with their parents."

Software Etc. and at least four other retail chains are carding kids under 17 on Kingpin sales. But teens can buy hundreds of other Mature-rated titles at these same stores, so what makes Kingpin special? Kingpin is the first killsport game to be released since the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and carding is part of a new industry strategy to avoid criticism and Congress.

Bills before Congress and in four states would restrict the availability of violent electronic games and punish retailers who sell violent material to minors. But -- just as Web publishers are voluntarily adopting privacy policies to avoid new consumer protection legislation -- game makers see the handwriting on the wall, and are attempting to preempt new laws by regulating themselves.

Not too long ago, computer games were a big ($5.5 billion) business with a low profile. But in the post-Littleton world every violent game is guaranteed some media scrutiny. No firm wants to be accused of fostering homicidal tendencies. But before the Littleton murders, game design firms ">Xatrix Entertainment and Interplay had together sunk millions of dollars into developing Kingpin. Stopping production was not an option. Instead, they are attempting to sidestep criticism by launching a spin campaign that argues that Kingpin was never intended for minors.

But the game obviously caught the fancy of Dave and his friend, and it is certainly adrenal enough to suit 14-year-old tastes, or adults with an inner teen. To play you must recruit gang members in a fantasy ghetto, where women loiter under streetlights and winos slump in the shadows begging for booze. You can tell the bums to "fuck off," but curse at the wrong "bitch" and she attacks with a pipe or pistol. Bludgeon her if you want to survive, then pat down her corpse for cash.

Violence against women, illegal guns, casual alcohol use, curses and gang warfare: This list would provoke the wrath of any moral crusader. It's no wonder Interplay loaded Kingpin down with more warning labels than any computer game in history.

Apart from the giant yellow sticker on the box, there's a message during the install asking minors to turn back. It also comes with a password-protected low-violence version that bleeps out profanity. Perhaps most telling is the missive from Xatrix president Drew Markham that appears during the load up. It reads, "In light of the recent acts of youth-related violence that have taken place across America we thought that you should know how 'Kingpin' was initially conceived. 'Kingpin' was never intended for children. This is a game with mature themes made for a mature audience. There was never any attempt to market or influence children to buy 'Kingpin.'"

Interplay is not the only firm looking for a new image. The entire industry wants a new, more virtuous look and has embraced a ratings system as a sign of its responsibility. Most games already display a rating from the industry-backed Entertainment Software Rating Board, be it "E" for everyone, "T" for teen or "M" for mature, meaning 17 and older. But most consumers are unaware of the ratings, and perhaps not by accident.

If ratings systems were followed and enforced, the industry would lose hordes of young gamers. But in the wake of Littleton, and the media backlash against gaming, that's a risk that some manufacturers are willing to run.

Soon the Interactive Digital Software Association trade group will blitz the media to tout its rating system. "It simply doesn't have the visibility and the awareness that it should have," says Doug Lowenstein, president of the IDSA. "When you talk to everyone from reporters to politicians, and these people think that there isn't a system, then it tells you have work to do."

But there's more to this campaign than informing the press and politicians. Its real goal is to stop legislation.

Bills that would criminalize the sale of violent games to minors are making their way through the legislatures of Florida, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania. Congressman Henry Hyde, R-Il., floated a bill that would have made it a crime to sell or lend to children under 17 any books, videos, magazines or any other materials that contain explicitly violent content. That scheme was tossed aside a few weeks ago, but another plan in the Senate is still very much alive. Called the "21st Century Media Responsibility Act," this sweeping bill would require movies, music CDs and video games to share a common rating system that not only suggests an appropriate age, but also provides a description of the content inside. If the bill passes, retailers who sell "Mature" games to minors would be punished with $10,000 fines. The bill is the brainchild of Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., and is cosponsored by Senator Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., whose jihad against games began in 1994 when Mortal Combat was maximum gore.

Also on the horizon are two studies, one ordered by President Clinton on marketing violence to children, and the other commissioned by Congress on the health effects of electronic gaming. Both of these studies were initiated soon after Littleton, with the promise of saving America's children from the scourge of media violence.

But despite that mission, in the age of small government, no federal agency will be set up to enforce the study's findings. Politicians, however, are more than happy to pressure the industry into regulating itself. And if Kingpin is any measure, the industry is responding.

"There is this feeling that government will say, 'We gave them a chance and they didn't do it, so now we have to regulate for them,'" says Lowenstein of the IDSA. So the group's current position is that "We would prefer if 'Mature' games were not sold to people under 17."

This view assumes that industry control is somehow less pernicious than government intervention. But as it happens, the government is constrained by the Constitution, whereas the industry is at the mercy of public opinion. The courts consider violent games a form of speech, protected from government meddling by the First Amendment, and the industry is confident that even if those state or congressional bills pass, they will be struck down in court as unconstitutional. Still, to avoid an expensive day in court, gamers are arming themselves with the argument that the government needn't step in, as game makers are already censoring themselves.

No matter how well-meaning, censorship always looks clumsy in retrospect. Consider this call to control the culture: "The tendency of children to imitate the daring deeds seen upon the screen has been illustrated in nearly every court in the land. Train wrecks, robberies, murders, thefts, runaways, and other forms of juvenile delinquency have been traced ... [and] the imitation is not confined to young boys and girls, but extends even through adolescents and to adults."

That passage was written about films in a popular periodical called Education in 1919. Such remarks were common in the early days of cinema, as the culture grappled with a strange and exciting new medium. But these days, the censors have a harder job, thanks to technology. They can card at the cashier, but if somebody like Dave really wants to, he can easily go around the checkpoint. The Kingpin demo can be downloaded by anyone -- and, of course, no one checks IDs when you buy games online. At least, not yet.

By Mark Boal

Mark Boal is a reporter in New York.


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