Shoot to thrill


Violence in video games is becoming more graphic as technology advances. But there is nothing to stop children from buying them, writes Quentin Fottrell

It's about as much fun as a drive-by shooting. The trouble is, some video- game aficionados seem to think a drive-by shooting can be a lot of fun - at least judging by a current blockbuster video game, Grand Theft Auto III. Banned in Australia, this game is freely available in Ireland. It's recommended for over 18s, but there is no penalty for selling it to people younger.

The creators of the game, which is played on PlayStation 2, don't pull any punches. The video action sounds real, and blood spurts from the heads of strangers when they're hit. You can also try throwing a grenade into a busy city intersection or lashing out at passers-by with a baseball bat. Forget passively watching footage on the nine o'clock news: here you're in the driver's seat. You can even choose what music to listen to on the car radio: R&B, hip-hop or rap, anyone?

Of another video game, State of Emergency, one computer magazine declares: "If you've ever wanted to run through a crowded mall while mowing down innocent shoppers with an M-16, or take a grenade launcher to storefronts and parked cars, this is your game. It offers violent, vicarious thrills that are socially unacceptable, brazenly immoral and a 'helluva' lot of fun."

Virtual violence is the new rock 'n' roll. Although there is legislation for age classification of films and videos in Ireland, video games remain certification-free. Yet this violence is interactive. As technology advances, the violence you can perpetrate in one game from this €21.7 billion-a-year global industry will become similarly graphic and realistic.

Sony Computer Entertainment says Ireland is the second-highest per capita market for PlayStation consoles, next to Japan. PlayStations account for about 85 per cent of the video games sold in Ireland, with annual sales of about €150 million. PlayStation 1 has sold 600,000 games since September 1995, while PlayStation 2 has sold 165,000 video games since its launch in November 2000.

Games may not lead to real-life violence, but they have reportedly affected the minds of those on the edge. Take Robert Steinhaueser, who in April strode through the corridors of the Gutenberg school in Erfurt, eastern Germany, firing a pump-action shotgun and handgun as school friends sat their exams. He was apparently fascinated by violent video games and would often play them into the night.

Psychological tests have shown that vicarious violence, even in cartoons, can lead to aggression among young children, says Dublin psychologist Domhnall Casey. He suggests that the playing of video games by older children contributes to the coarsening of their sensibilities to violence as they grow up. "Combine a violent video game with drinks and alcohol, and what have you got? Thomas Street on a Saturday night," he adds.

The possible link between video games and increased violence in society has been the subject of much research in the US. According to the American Society of Pediatrics, young children are more easily impressionable, have a harder time distinguishing between fantasy and reality, cannot easily discern motives for violence, and learn by observing and imitating. "Studies show that when children and young adults play violent video games, their aggressive behaviour increases," it says.

Another group, the American Academy of Pediatrics, concludes: "It is not violence itself but the context in which it is portrayed that can make the difference between learning about violence and learning to be violent."

Paul Goldin, a behavioural psychologist based in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, believes video games promote aggression in very vulnerable children."It's all very well to say they are only games, but they do harm. If a young person is watching a video game about, say, sexual techniques, he is more likely to want to try it. And repetition causes addiction. These games are all about getting to the next level so, of course, they're addictive."

"Grand Theft Auto III is probably one of our best sellers," says Michael, a sales assistant at Game Zone on Dublin's Talbot Street. "I wouldn't like to instil this in a child as a moral standard. But it's the older age group that usually buys the game."

The game has generated nearly $100 million in sales for its US company, Rockstar. Take Two Interactive Software Inc., the parent company, has seen its share price soar more than 75 per cent since it was released in October last year.

"I have a friend who let his nine-year-old son play the game," Michael says. "His son had no interest in the violence. He just wanted to drive." Nor does Michael believe they're addictive. "I know one guy who took two days off school to play [the strategy/role playing game] Final Fantasy VII. But that's like staying home to watch a football match."

Grand Theft Auto III also features prostitutes, who happily holler things at the joy-rider such as: "Hey honey, wanna have some fun?" Critics have said the game also promotes sex with prostitutes. Ironically, Michael says this was an industry rumour "to make the game more popular". You only get extra points for taking someone from A to B, he points out, and not for shooting or running people down. The reward is presumably primal.

Hooligans Storm Over Europe (for PCs) must be a cultural milestone in itself. It has computer-animated football hooligans on the cover, clutching iron bars. With The Sims (also for PCs), you can play God and build communities, only to destroy them with a tidal wave. (There's also an adult "hot date" expansion/add-on pack.)

Browsing through Game Zone is IT consultant Rory Warfield (25). He has a copy of Grand Theft Auto III. "It's quite hardcore, but it's fun. It has no relation to reality," he says.

To date, no video game has been banned in Ireland. The closest we got was the PC game Kingpin. It was banned in the UK and, due to distribution problems, was very difficult to buy here. That said, you can always buy games off the Internet. In order to decide on the age recommendation, Andrea Conlon is one of a number of staff in the Film Censor's Office who plays violent-themed games such as Soldiers of Fortune and Carmageddon. There are no plans to introduce statutory requirements for video games, as they are regarded as almost impossible to enforce. However, a smaller number of European countries - including Ireland - will enter into a voluntary regime to update EU guidelines.

"We still have the right to ban them," under the 1989 Video Record Act, Conlon says.

Three-dimensional images are produced by Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's new Xboxes, thereby catching up with celluloid. Take-Two Interactive Inc., which produces Grand Theft Auto III, is now planning a version for personal computers. As with Lara Croft's Tomb Raider, which was turned into a movie, a film version of Grand Theft Auto hasn't been ruled out.

Parental viewing is the only safeguard, Goldin says. " I get a lot of parents who bring in their children who have problems with aggression. Unfortunately, children are no longer interested in Gulliver's Travels."