For young fans, the name of the video game is gore

Washington Post
August 24, 2002
By Stephen A. Crockett Jr.

On a pleasant Sunday afternoon a little after church had let out, Kimothy Wilson Jr., aka KJ, 16, picked up his 2000 Lamborghini Diablo at the garage where he had stashed it, then drove to the back entrance of the AmmuNation gun shop and retrieved a 9mm automatic. He chased down a pimp who had been giving his boss problems, and within seconds, he pinned the pimp's ride between his car and a storefront, killing three pedestrians.

A bloody shootout killed two more. They all died screaming.

Game Over.

"Next time, I'm going to just run them over," said Kimothy as he selected a new "Grand Theft Auto 3" mission on his PlayStation 2. "I can't go to Portland. I killed their boss, and now everyone in Portland is trying to kill me."

The Germantown teenager loves the game. "What you can't do in real life, you can do in the game, like carjack people and shoot police," he said.

This is the life of a low-level hit man working his way up through the Mafia in "GTA3." This is the life of a modern-day video game fan.

A young streetwise crew of Mafia-style video and PC games is threatening to strong-arm the turf once dominated by magical dragons and power potions. The growing trend is bloody, violently graphic games in which users play bad guys.

In today's virtual mean streets, Pac-Man wouldn't last a day. The yellow sphere with the slanted pie-hole that gobbled up pellets back in the '80s probably would get carjacked and beaten to a yellow wad of pulp.

Also gone are the days when it was cool to simply behead opponents in games like "Mortal Kombat." Blasting aliens' intestines onto digital walls, as in "Doom," is about as hip as a mullet haircut.

Despite the concerns of groups fighting violence marketed to children, software developers are scrambling to compete with the wild success of "Grand Theft Auto 3."

Coming out later this year is "Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven," a PC game developed by Illusion Softworks. In the game, set in the 1930s, players work their way up the ranks in the fictional Salieri mob family. They steal cars, crack safes and kill rivals.

Sony is working up "The Getaway," an interactive crime movie inspired by gangster shoot-'em-ups "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch." Players are jewel thieves.

And due out next spring: Activision's "True Crime: Streets of LA," packed with lawless car chases and bloody shootouts. The leading man is Nick Kang, a renegade cop who gives players the chance to "dispense their own brand of justice through a variety of rib-cracking martial arts moves and the business end of dual .45s."

Leader of the Pack

Since it hit the streets in October last year, "Grand Theft Auto 3" has been the hottest game for PlayStation 2. "GTA3" is mostly a driving game that takes place in the virtual criminal playground Liberty City. It has sold 7 million copies worldwide at 50 bucks a pop. For one week this June, it was second in software sales only to Norton AntiVirus 2002.

"It's awesome," said James Parker, 27, a Washington computer network administrator. "You can carjack any car, go to the seedy part of town, beep the horn and pick up a prostitute. Then you take her to a dark street and the car starts shaking. When the prostitute jumps out, your money is down but your energy is full."

Players can get their money back by killing the woman.

"GTA3" was released by Rockstar Games, the bad-boy alter ego of Take Two Interactive Software, a mainstream company that offers such wholesome titles as "Wheel of Fortune" and "Action Bass." Rockstar earned street cred a couple of years ago with anti-establishment games like "State of Emergency," in which an underground resistance movement tries to liberate the oppressed. Players smash store windows, shoot security guards and chop off people's heads with an ax. The head then can be used as a weapon.

In "Smuggler's Run 2," players join a gang known as the Forgotten and prove themselves worthy to potential clients by smuggling contraband while dodging rival gangs and police. And "Max Payne" is about a vigilante ex-cop with nothing to lose and enough bullets to kill everyone in his path -- which he does.

Rockstar, based in New York, built its gangsta empire by buying game rights from independent developers, then spiking the games with urban twists, such as illegal street racing in "Midnight Club." It even added music from rappers Royce Da 5'9 and Black Rob. Sound clips from both "State of Emergency" and "GTA3" have appeared on underground hip-hop mix tapes by DJ Clue.

Rockstar had noticed something that many other game companies hadn't realized: The generation that grew up playing Atari 2600 and Colecovision still loves playing video games. The average age of the game player is 28, and 72 percent of people playing console games are male, according to Interactive Digital Software Association, which follows trends in the $6 billion computer and video-game industry.

Last year, according to IDSA, games rated M (mature) made up only 9.9 percent of the gaming market, and games rated E (everyone), 62.3 percent.

Even when the games are rated M, anyone can buy them.

"There are no official age requirements placed on the games, and since there aren't, we don't stop kids from buying the games," said Donna Beadle, spokeswoman for Best Buy.

But look for that M segment to increase. Andy Reiner, executive editor of GameInformer magazine, devoted to PC and console video games, thinks it's going to dominate the market.

"I'm sure that by the end of the year all of the game developers will be working on the answer to 'GTA3,' " he says. "They would be stupid not to."

Just this month, Vivendi Universal Publishing, the digital communications behemoth involved in everything from music to education, announced that it would launch Black Label Games, a video-game development studio for teen and adult titles.

Daphne White, founder of the Lion & Lamb Project, a Bethesda group whose goal is to stop the marketing of violence to children, is furious. "Violence gets marketed like apple pie," she said. "It is sold to boys as cool, and if you come out and speak against it, then you are uncool. I'm not outraged at the game, I'm upset at the way that these games are marketed to children. . . . Every high school and middle school guy you talk to has played this game."

Studying the Impact

After the revelation that the teenage shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., had been infatuated with violent movies, music and video games, President Bill Clinton asked the Federal Trade Commission to study how the entertainment industry marketed to children. The 15-month study, which ended September 2000, found that the three entertainment industries "undermined parents' attempts to make informed decisions about their children's exposure to violent content." As for video games, kids were successful in purchasing M-rated games 85 percent of the time.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board, started in 1994 as an independent, nonprofit group to rate games from EC (early childhood) to AO (adults only), says the stickers are merely an informative aid to help consumers when purchasing games.

To receive a rating, game publishers submit videotaped footage and answer a questionnaire. The "raters" look at the entire game, the overall intensity and most extreme content, and give the game a rating. If the tone of the game is serious and the violence graphic, the games tend to get an M rating; if the tone is more comical and the violence not life-threatening, the rating is more lenient.

The ESRB gave a T (teen) rating, the equivalent of a movie rating of PG-13, to Hypnotix's game that allows players to choose among strippers, bikers and ex-cons for a round of "Outlaw Golf." Once on the green, if a shot is botched, players can beat up their caddies, bringing their score back to par. If a player is partnered with a female caddie, he can grab her breasts and yank her nipples while saying "tune in, Tokyo."

The impact of video games on children has been controversial. After Columbine, the American Psychological Association reported that studies at the University of Missouri and Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina linked violent video game play to aggressive behavior and delinquency.

Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles child psychologist who focuses on children's trauma, thinks too much attention is paid to games that incorporate violence. "Video games are weird because, on one hand, studies have shown that children become desensitized," he said, "but the word 'desensitized' doesn't mean that they are going to go and murder somebody.

"You can pick up a baseball bat and go and play baseball or you can pick up a baseball bat and beat people up with it, but it has more to do with the psyche of the child than the psyche of the bat."

Though there is no law against selling games with mature content to minors, the Electronics Boutique in Pentagon City Mall makes an attempt to keep them out of the hands of kids.

"Usually if they look over 17, then we will sell them the game," said Todd Sterling, the store's manager. "If the parents are there, then we will tell them this is what your kid is trying to buy, because most of the time the parents don't know. All of the kids come in and want to buy 'Grand Theft Auto 3.' "

Although he's younger than the intended age for "GTA3," Kimothy Wilson said he had no problem buying it a few weeks after it came out.

Kimothy's parents don't see the big deal.

"I think that the people that get upset don't realize that it's just a game," said Kimothy Wilson Sr., a shipping supervisor, pastor and founder of Faith International Church of Maryland. "I believe that the parents that get upset aren't parenting the way that they should. I teach KJ godly principles to grow up by and to live by, and if kids don't have the home teaching, they could hook up with the wrong crowd. I trust KJ without a doubt."

Kimothy Jr. agreed: "I think that parents of the kids that go out and do this stuff need something to blame it on, so that's why they don't like the game."

Pushing for Sales Controls

Late last year Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) sent letters to 34 CEOs of major chains -- Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Toys R Us and Electronics Boutique -- urging them to stop selling mature-rated games to children.

It was too late. "GTA3" had been on the shelf for three months, and the buzz among children had started. It was the top-selling game that Christmas.

"Since 9/11 we are very sensitive about our heroes," said Pamela Eakes, founder of Mothers Against Violence in America. "To have a game that has kids shooting and killing police is disturbing. It is disturbing that adults would make this type of game and continue to market this level of violence to children of any age."

In May, Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would create penalties for selling to a minor video games that depict mutilation, killing of humans with a lethal weapon, rape, carjacking and aggravated assault, among other felonies.

Asked about reaction to the games' violence, Rockstar spokesman Bill Linn would say only: "Seven million copies worldwide doesn't seem like much negative feedback."

Reiner said the seedy elements have helped generate interest in the game, but he doesn't feel that's the whole key to the popularity of "GTA3."

"That's part of its success. When two kids are talking, the first thing that they will say is, 'Dude, you will not believe what happened to me last night.' It brings you in, but I don't think that is the hook of the game. I really think that it is the open-ended game play."

There are two ways "GTA3" can be played: One is to complete missions from the crime family's head guy, such as picking up one of his girls from "the clinic" or dropping off prostitutes at parties, and the other is simply running in the streets causing mayhem. Every person can be beaten, every car is simply there for the 'jacking.

"That's why 'GTA3' is so awesome -- you can do whatever you want in this game," said Reiner.

Since the game's release, it has stayed in the top 10 of all software sales, according to NPD Techworld, a marketing group that tracks those numbers.

"GTA3" wasn't the first game on the market that promotes random violence and illicit behavior. It has just been the most successful.

In 1997, Ripcord Games introduced "Postal," a PC game that lets users portray a gun-toting, paranoid psychopath. To complete a level you have to kill a certain number of hostile people; there is no penalty or reward for shooting innocent bystanders. Once a person has been wounded, you can stand above them while they beg for mercy and execute them. If things get too chaotic, you can end your own life with a shotgun blast to the head.

"Postal 2" is due out in November.

The people at Rockstar Games say they aren't worried about rivals. In October, they'll release "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City." Rockstar won't say what the game will offer.

"The development market for games is years," said Linn. "If people are trying to imitate the success of 'Grand Theft Auto 3,' they should wait and see what we do next."