Racy video games fire up ire from parental activists

LOS ANGELES: Two controversial video games soon to hit the market - and the media strategies employed by their makers - highlight the difficulties the industry faces as its products become more mature in theme.

LOS ANGELES: Two controversial video games soon to hit the market - and the media strategies employed by their makers - highlight the difficulties the industry faces as its products become more mature in theme.

Acclaim Entertainment will release BMX XXX, a bicycle-riding game that features partial nudity. Players can create topless female riders and view live-action footage of dancers.

In addition, Take Two Interactive Software will release Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the fourth installment of a widely popular series. GTA 3 centers on a protagonist who commits crimes to advance to higher levels, and even allows players to pick up prostitutes.

Both games are already being targeted by parent groups protesting their sexual content and violent nature. Those concerns led three retailers - Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, and KB Toys - to ban BMX XXX from their stores.

Acclaim responded to the controversy by speaking out to the press with well-targeted key messages aimed at changing the image of the average video game consumer. Dozens of interviews with Acclaim CEO Gregory Fischbach and director of communications Alan Lewis have appeared in the national press.

The company is determined to hammer home a trio of ideas. First, the game is rated "M" for mature audiences, similar to an "R" rating, and is not intended for young children.

Second, Acclaim points out that more than 60% of video game hardware owners are over the age of 18 - a challenge to the notion that gamers are kids.

"There's a huge misconception out there that video games are a child's toy," said Lewis. "The thing we've been trying to communicate is that we designed this thing from the ground up for mature audiences."

Finally, Acclaim is arguing that the nudity contained in its games is mild compared to television and movies - and that humor, not sex, is the centerpiece. "It's American Pie in a video game," explained Lewis.

While the payoff of Acclaim's open-access strategy won't be known until sales figures are added up, Lewis based the policy on the idea that all notoriety is good - especially in a crowded market where hundreds of games are released in the fourth quarter, the most lucrative time of the year for game makers.

"I wouldn't call this negative publicity," said Lewis. "It makes people look at the gaming industry and examine how it's gotten older."

Take Two Interactive, however, has taken a very different approach. The company has faced a barrage of negative press with the release of GTA 3, and appears to be engaging in a media blackout of the general press this time around. Few interviews have been granted, and even some journalists in the technology and gaming press said they are having a hard time arranging advance copies or inside information.

Interview requests to Take Two were declined. While the company has hired Los Angeles-based BWR to handle media relations, the agency has also declined interviews.

Despite the protests, GTA 3 was the top-selling game last year, bolstering Lewis' contention that there is no negative publicity for video games.

And certainly laying low will not stop the debate - numerous family groups already have Vice City on their hit list.

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