Commentary: Want A Gory Game? Let's See Some I.D.

In the popular video game Duke Nukem 3D, naked women stand tied to pillars in a dungeon. They beg you to shoot and end their misery. "Kill me, kill me," they plead. Slaying them enables you to advance in the game. It's the kind of violence from which most parents believe 10-year-olds ought to be shielded.

But it may be just too easy for minors to get their hands on the games at major retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. At least Illinois Attorney General James Ryan believes that's the case. After sending out children to prove the willingness of major chains to sell to those under 17, he has now asked the distributors to halt such sales. And he's not alone. On May 23, nine U.S. senators faxed letters to Target, Kmart, Best Buy, and Circuit City demanding similar sales restrictions. Since the beginning of the year, legislators in New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Minnesota have also introduced bills calling for an end to such sales. "Retailers have a shared responsibility," explains Ryan. "These games are not good for kids. They push the wrong buttons and send the wrong messages."

TOOTHLESS RATINGS. Hallelujah. It's about time someone called retailers on this unsavory practice. After all, by doing so, the distributors would simply be following the industry's own guidance. Six years ago, the electronic game industry implemented a rating system. The most violent games are rated "M" for "mature" and aren't considered suitable for kids under 17. But retailers have done virtually nothing to make sure children can't buy these games. Not only is that morally dubious, it's bad business. First, only 10% of the $6.1 billion in video game sales last year were to kids, and only a fraction of those were M-rated, according to the Interactive Digital Assn. So there's not much downside in compliance. What's more, retailers' stubbornness clearly puts them in the cross-hairs--to borrow an image from video games--of government regulators and pols sensing a popular issue.

Opponents of regulation claim that violent electronic games don't cause aggressive behavior in children and teenagers. But proponents have long seen a connection, a view heightened by the shootings in Littleton, Colo., and Paducah, Ky., where the teen killers were avid players of the most violent variety of these games. The debate will probably never be definitively settled. "But we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that media violence can cause aggression, desensitization, and fear in children and adults," says John P. Murray, a child psychologist at Kansas State University who has studied the effects of violence on television for 30 years.

In fact, researchers now believe that electronic games have a far greater impact on children than TV shows like The Sopranos because of their interactive nature. Such first-person shooter games as Duke Nukem, Quake, and Kingpin place the weapons and the fate of their characters in the hands of players. "The lesson of the game is learning how to kill people--very efficiently," says Eugene F. Provenzo Jr., an education professor at the University of Miami.

The campaign to keep these lessons from kids has already shown modest results: In May, Sears, Roebuck & Co and Montgomery Ward Holding Corp. pulled M-rated games off the shelves, saying that it was too hard to ensure that children would not get access to them.

But other store chains are balking. Officials at companies like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Circuit City argue that while they can help educate consumers about the ratings, it is ultimately up to parents to control their kids. "It is not our goal to replace parents," a Wal-Mart spokesman says.

GRACE PERIOD. Maybe not. But by passing the buck and failing to enforce the ratings, retailers are being shortsighted. If they flaunt reasonable rules, they risk onerous regulation at the state and federal levels.

Sure, most electronic game sales will ultimately migrate to the Internet, where rating enforcement will be much more difficult. But for now, brick-and-mortar retailers should set an example. Game over.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.