LOS ANGELES -- Under siege from all sides, the video-game industry took advantage of the national spotlight during the Electronic Entertainment Expo here to defend itself against its critics.
E3 drew 55,000 people this month, an increase of about 33% over the previous year's event in Atlanta. There was a visible increase in the number of national media due in part to a three-day White House conference prior to E3 that addressed violence in the media, including video games. This came amid increasing criticism from legislators and various interest groups seeking to rein in the content of games they say contributed to school shootings, such as the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., last month.
"Since the tragedy in Littleton, this industry has been scrutinized as never before," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, Washington, at a media briefing before the show opened. The IDSA owns E3. "Much has been written and said about the industry, resulting, I think, in a distorted image."
Only 7% of the 5,000 interactive entertainment titles rated by the industry over the past five years have a "Mature" rating, while 70% were approved for all users older than six years. Of the best-selling titles last year, 15 were rated for "Everyone," three were rated "Teen," and two were rated "Mature," Lowenstein said.
"The entertainment-software industry has no reason to run and hide. We do have responsibilities to consumers and we've been proactive in meeting them," he said. Addressing three misconceptions, Lowenstein said, "One, the market for the games industry is dominated by adults, not kids. Two, the vast majority of games do not contain the intense violence so much a focus of media attention. Three, the research does not support the claim that violent video games lead to violent behavior."
However, the IDSA will work more closely with retailers to promote the rating system and improve enforcement at store level, Lowenstein added. "But make no mistake: the industry cannot act in loco parentis. Parents must bring the same vigilance to the games their kids play as the TV shows they watch," he said.
"Video games don't teach people to hate. They don't teach people to embrace Nazi ideology," said Lowenstein. "If getting good at using one of these controllers makes you a marksman, then getting good at using a controller in a racing game qualifies you to drive in the Indy 500. Both are equally ridiculous and defy common sense," he said.
During the week that E3 took place, May 13 to 15, the controversy about violence in entertainment media was raging on several fronts. Here is a sequence of events:
President Clinton convened a conference on youth violence Monday, with lawmakers, celebrities, students, clergy and representatives of the various entertainment industries. Top Hollywood executives pointedly did not attend. "We have to ask people who produce things to consider the consequence of them, whether it is a violent movie, a CD, a video game. If they are made, at least they should not be marketed to children," said Clinton. Later in the week, Clinton again addressed Hollywood executives at a fund-raiser, and asked them to consider the desensitizing effect of violence on children. "There is still too much violence on our nation's screens, large and small," he said.
Tuesday, numerous lawmakers announced their support for bills designed to establish a commission to examine youth violence, determine if violent movies, music and games are being marketed to children, and regulate the use of federal property in the making of violent movies, among others.
Wednesday, the Senate voted unanimously for a bill mandating a federal investigation into the effect of violence in video games, movies and music on children, and whether the industry markets violence toward children. The Senate also called on entertainment companies to voluntarily minimize excessive violence.
Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander urged teachers to make sure that their pension funds do not invest in companies that make violent games. In a nationally circulated opinion article, Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman and Republican Senator John McCain called on retailers to be more vigilant about selling violent games to children.
Walt Disney Co., Burbank, Calif., unplugged or removed arcade games that involve human targets from its theme parks. "We just don't think there's any place for violent video games at Disneyland," spokesman Ray Gomez said.
At E3, many game makers sought to downplay the controversy, deferring comments on the violence issue to their IDSA representatives. During the first day of the show, a seminar on "Ethics and Entertainment," which was to address "shock value" as a selling tool, was canceled without explanation.
One company that was talking about the violence issue was Nintendo of America, Redmond, Wash. "As our industry has become so large, we have become fair game for criticism," said Peter Main, executive vice president for sales and marketing. "We are mass market. We are part of pop culture. This is no longer a niche product." The industry has done a good job with its rating system, but more needs to be done to educate parents about it, he said.
Nintendo has been talking to retailers about making the ratings more visible, said George Harrison, vice president of marketing and corporate communications. About 90% of games are bought by people over 18 years of age, and with games priced between $40 and $60, usually it is parents who are buying games for children, he noted. "We are going to try and do a better job of helping people use the rating system. But controlling what actually comes into the home is up to the parent," he said.