Video Games: Is All That Gore Really Child's Play?

In video arcades across America, your kids are pumping quarters into Mortal Kombat, a game that features characters vying for the title of the world's supreme street fighter. It's a common enough theme in the video world--but there's a twist. Mortal Kombat's characters look more like photographic images than cartoons, and the fights are for keeps: Good punches send animated blood flying. The winner might knock the loser off a ledge to land impaled on a spike, or rip out a still-pulsing heart by hand, or tear off the opponent's head and hold it up victoriously, the spinal cord dangling from its neck.

This ain't the Mario Brothers. But Mortal Kombat may be joining them in your living room soon. Acclaim Entertainment Inc. is working on versions for the Sega and Nintendo game systems.

HEATED DEBATE. The home edition probably won't have all the gore of its arcade counterpart. Nonetheless, the graphic violence has launched a heated debate among video-game makers. Sega of America Inc., anticipating the criticism Mortal Kombat could touch off, has said it will initiate a self-imposed rating system (table). Nintendo Co. has condemned Sega's scheme as a self-serving way of tolerating sex and violence. "We want to produce general-audience games," says Peter T. Main, vice-president for marketing for Nintendo of America Inc. "A rating system is not acceptable."

Most video games today are indeed tame, especially compared to movies or TV. To ensure that games do not contain racist, sexist, sexual or "overly graphic" violence, Nintendo and Sega both impose guidelines on their own products and ones from outside developers. Sega says it will continue to exercise restraint. The ratings system "is not a license for pornography or excessive violence," says Ellen B. Van Buskirk, a director of marketing at Sega.

But a ratings system may be a way of pushing the boundaries outward. That may be inevitable because of games such as Mortal Kombat. Live-action video technology makes graphic violence more realistic. And these games are attracting older audiences. Some 70% of those who play the most advanced Sega system, the one with a built-in CD drive, are 18 or older. James Stewart, a 19-year-old playing Mortal Kombat in a San Francisco arcade, enjoys the fact that "it doesn't look fake. It's a lot more real with all the blood and stuff."

The question now is whether children should have access to that. Parker V. Page, president of the Children's Television Resource & Education Center, a consulting group, says that the few studies done on the effects of interactive games on kids suggest that after playing violent video games, kids play more aggressively on the playground than those who had played less violent ones or none at all. "I don't think anybody's going to find the effects of violent games to be positive," says Page.

Video games are also getting more sexual in nature. In Sega's CD-based Night Trap, for example, teenage girls at a pajama party are abducted by zombies. The British Board of Film Classification has banned sales of the game to kids under 15, and Toys 'R' Us Inc. won't sell it in Britain and Canada.

"WHERE'S THE BLOOD?" For now, the issue is mainly violence. Even Nintendo, which says two-thirds of its consumers are under 15, approved distribution of Street Fighter II, which features a fighter gnawing on an opponent's head. There's demand for more violent sports games as well. Bing Gordon, senior vice-president at game maker Electronic Arts Inc., says he recently tested a new hockey game with 25-year-olds. "They said, 'Where's the blood?' "

But is a ratings system the answer? Nintendo criticizes Sega's scheme because it claims Sega could cheat on a rating system it controls itself. For its part, Sega says it approached software and film organizations about an independent scheme and found no takers.

Some video-game makers are prepared to forge a common solution. "If people won't regulate themselves, we should have some sort of rating system," says Joseph P. Morici, senior vice-president of CapCom USA Inc., maker of Street Fighter II. Indeed, as adults join in on the video-game craze, ratings are probably as inevitable as your kids begging for Mortal Kombat by next Christmas.

      GA (General Audiences) No fighting games or "life scenarios," such as 
      sexually suggestive situations, allowed.
      MA-13 (Teens, 13 to 17) Some mayhem permitted, but no decapitations and other 
      "graphic" violence. Adult themes such as violence and crime must involve only 
      cartoon characters.
      MA-17 (Adults Only) More graphic violence and adult themes involving "real" 
      filmed characters allowed. Still prohibited: Very graphic killings, nudity, and 
      ethnic and other stereotypes.