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Violent video games give parent a holiday pause

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

Santa is having a tough time this year. Does he give the kids the video game they're all clamoring for, the one that involves cruising along a city street and committing felonies, such as shooting hookers in the head? Or the one in which the hero is a heavily armed hit man, leaving piles of bloody corpses in his wake? How about the beach volleyball game in which near-naked girls cavort across the screen in stunningly realistic graphics?

The question these days is whether the toys, not the boys, are naughty or nice. Increasingly, the answer is that games are out of control.

As my own teenagers have been quick to point out, I'm acting like an old, out-of-touch fogey when it comes to the world of video games, a subculture that I readily admit has left me far in the dust.

I prefer to think of myself as a careful parent, meeting my obligations of raising kids to know that certain things are fundamentally wrong. Like stealing cars, running over pedestrians or shooting people engaged in the world's oldest profession -- even if you can rack up some serious scores by doing so.

Sure, it's just a game. But it's one that many parents are losing.

For that, we can all thank the video game empire which, the New York Times tells us, was a $10-billion operation in 2002 alone. That's a mighty powerful force for concerned parents to confront.

The game of choice this year is the sequel to a real gem called Grand Theft Auto. This one is subtitled Vice City, and if you haven't heard of it you haven't been watching much television these past few weeks, when it has been hawked repeatedly. Or you don't have teenagers.

My knowledge of the game is limited to news reports and to conversation with other parents. In large measure, that's for a simple reason: I haven't seen it myself because I don't want it in my house.

When my wife and I told our 13-year-old son of our decision, the results were predictable. He wailed that it was just a game and that he knows the difference between the video world and the real world. I'm sure he does. I'm also sure that I don't want to be an accomplice to the constant drumbeat of popular culture that tells kids that anything goes.

For a child of the '60s, someone who has been called a bleeding-heart liberal on more than one occasion, this is strange territory. I realize that I sound like those from my parents' generation who believed that Elvis' wiggling hips would lead to the collapse of civilization.

There is, however, quite a difference between listening to rock music, no matter how loud and extreme, and spending hours engrossed in a game in which the goal is splattering someone's brain matter across a wall.

As technology improves, games become more realistic -- and disturbing. It follows that the edge keeps getting pushed farther and farther by game creators who must come up with the Next Big Thing in order to keep their share of the target market (145-million Americans, mostly males, who regularly play these games).

I asked our teen the question, where is the limit? What would be so outrageous in a game that even he would be repulsed? Is it bayonetting babies, raping nuns or having animated terrorists blow up buildings?

For all I know, there are games that feature those options already. I don't know for sure because, like many parents, I have been left behind in this video revolution. The last video game I even attempted to play involved a bouncing guy named Mario chasing toadstools or some such thing. Forget the game, I was defeated by the hand-held controller.

Parents can try to be vigilant about games and other aspects of the computer world, but it's an uphill battle. New developments arrive seemingly daily and the kids soak them up like little sponges. Factor in peer pressure to have the latest games and devices, many of which can be swapped easily, and it's a perilous landscape for parents.

There may be no way to stop game makers from creating even more ghastly forms of entertainment, as long as there is a multibillion-dollar market for their wares. From time to time, someone in Washington makes noises about cracking down on the violent games or adding more warnings to parents. But those steps won't stem the tide.

The only recourse is for parents to do their jobs and stop such disturbing fare at their front doors. It may lead to hurt feelings among the kids, but that's just tough. No one ever said being a parent was a popularity contest.

And so, kids, I'm sorry, but Santa isn't going to leave Vice City under the tree this year. The Christmas theme of Peace on Earth will just have to arrive at our home in some way other than by capping a prostitute with a 9-millimeter.

Call me a grinch. Or a parent. I can live with that.

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