MARKET FOCUS: VIDEO GAMES - A new PR game. The games industry can'tescape the media's crosshairs. Julia Hood reports

In April 1999, two high school students armed with guns and

explosives killed 13 people at Columbine High School. While the country

reeled in shock, the media turned some of its attention to the video

games industry, speculating what part violent entertainment may have

played in the killing spree.



PC games DOOM and Quake were said to be favorites of the two young

killers.



Headlines like, "A room full of DOOM: Did Columbine take the fire out of

the splatter games business?" (Time magazine) questioned the industry's

ability to survive the scrutiny.



It seems that whenever an incident of youth violence occurs, video games

come under scrutiny. And even though two years have passed since

Columbine, the industry's troubles are far from over. In April 2001,

families of some of the Columbine victims filed a lawsuit against 25

manufactures and distributors of video games, seeking punitive damages

of $3 billion.



Companies named in the suit include Sony America, id Software, Atari,

Sega of America, Virgin Interactive Media, Activision, New Line Cinema,

GT Interactive Software, and Nintendo.



The case is still pending, so, perhaps understandably, the topic of

violence in video games is not one that the companies want to discuss in

great detail with the media. One industry source, who did not want to be

interviewed on the subject, says that companies are concerned about

liability issues, and would be loathe to enter the debate publicly.



Yet more media pressure



Then came September 11. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the

industry has once again found itself defending its content to the

world.



"Video games face setbacks after attacks"(Fort Worth Star-Telegram),

"Rules have changed for video games" (Los Angeles Times), and "Video

games call truce" (The Orlando Sentinel) are among the headlines that

appeared above stories that looked at an industry yet again challenged

for supposedly contributing to a culture of violence. Will the video

game industry ever be able to separate itself from a violent image, or

indeed from some of the horrors of the real world?



But then unwillingness to talk about the past does not mean they haven't

learned the PR lessons of Columbine. The video game companies responded

quickly, either delaying or modifying games that might be considered

offensive or that contained images of the World Trade Center.



Activision postponed the release of Spider-Man 2 Enter: Electro until

October 18, and made changes to the content because the game is set in

New York City. "While the buildings in (the game) act only as a

background environment and do not explode or collapse, Activision is

being extremely cautious about any images in our game that might be

mistaken for the twin towers," states Ron Doornick, Activision's

president and COO, in a release.



Crime Patrol, a game published by Digital Leisure that depicted police

officers fighting terrorists and other criminals, was pulled

altogether.



Bio Soft delayed the release of Tom Clancy's Rogue Spear: Black Thorn

for PC, and no release date has been announced. That game also involves

battling terrorists.



The strategy was a success in the eyes of the industry. "Because I work

with so many game companies, I have been thrilled to see how quick and

strong their reactions were," says John Foster, VP of the games group of

Bender/Helper Impact. "That is the true voice of the gaming industry,

and a true example of the culture."



Not all video game concerns were related to violence, however. Microsoft

delayed the release of its Xbox system from November 8 to November 15,

and Nintendo waited a week before launching its GameCube on October 3.

Microsoft also delayed the release of its upgraded Flight Simulator

after a retailer in the UK pulled the old version from shelves out of

concern that the hijackers may have used it to train for their deadly

exercise. "It wasn't the right time to launch the next version," says

Matt Pilla, a Microsoft spokesperson. "There had been some association

from the media and the attacks. We wanted to do the responsible thing."

The game was finally released on October 18, with images of the World

Trade Center removed.



Its realism is what makes Flight Simulator such a success. "But at the

same time, and most importantly, you simply cannot learn how to fly

based on this product alone," says Pilla, who is a pilot himself. He

says that the company is working to communicate the difference between

real flight training and the simulator. "The reality is it is not a

comprehensive flight-training school."



Fighting for the industry



Much of the work to counter the perceptions of the industry is handled

by trade groups, including the Interactive Digital Software Association

(IDSA). Douglas Lowenstein, president of IDSA, has testified in front of

a US Senate committee about the entertainment rating system.



A large part of Lowenstein's testimony focused on data that is also

provided on the IDSA's website, countering some of the perceptions the

public may have of the industry. "First, the myth that video games are

played predominantly by teenage boys is wrong," Lowenstein testified.

"In fact, the primary audience for video games is not adolescent boys."

According to research by Peter Hart, 60% of Americans say they play

video games, and the average gamer is 28 years old.



The IDSA quotes similar data that counters assumptions about the

industry.



For example, it reports that 70% of games produced in the US are rated

E, meaning they are appropriate for everyone.



Women also make up 43% of those who play. According to the IDSA, games

like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are more popular in sales than many

violent games. Lowenstein also said that people over age 18 purchase

nine out of every ten video games.



After the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, Lowenstein issued a

statement to publicly urge game companies to "go through a process of

self-examination and questioning that is different than ever

before ...



What was acceptable on September 10 may not be acceptable ever

again."



While Lowenstein was not available to comment for this story, the IDSA

did provide answers to e-mailed questions. "The IDSA has developed a

communications program that focuses on providing information about the

industry to the public and the media," writes Carolyn Rauch, SVP. "We

feel that significant progress along these lines has been made since

1994, when the IDSA was formed." She adds that both members and the

association need to be involved in the initiative.



In a continuing effort to demonstrate its concern for the victims of the

attacks, the IDSA devoted its annual "Nite to Unite - For Kids"

fundraiser in San Francisco. The group used the event to raise money for

the relief efforts, in addition to its usual recipients (Boys & Girls

Clubs of America, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and other

children's organizations).



Under increased scrutiny



The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is also concerned

about the industry's violent image, and set up a violence committee a

year ago. "We are trying to take a more proactive or positive approach

to building awareness," says Jason Della Rocca, the IGDA's program

director.



Della Rocca says that the industry is frequently the target of

misperception, citing a recent study by a Japanese group that said video

games do not stimulate the frontal lobe of the brain as effectively as

mathematical exercises. The story appeared under the headline, "Computer

games stunt teen brains" in The Guardian, a UK newspaper, and was

covered in other media around the world. Della Rocca says the IGDA might

have been able to dispute the findings, but as far as the media is

concerned, "the damage is already done."



With hard data on its side, and vocal industry players poised to discuss

them, it is not clear why the video game industry continues to be a

target for criticism during times of crisis in America.



But some in the games business do not think the coverage following

September 11 was particularly unfair. Tina Vennegaard, SVP at Golin/

Harris, worked on the launch of GameCube, and says that retailers are

starting to see increased interest in people looking to games as

alternatives to going out, during a time when many people prefer to stay

close to home. "We are looking to illustrate how the video games

business is part of what is happening, and helping facilitate what

people are looking for right now," she says.



Kirk Owen, president of Octagon Entertainment, an agent for game

developers and publishers, says some players in the industry need to

grow up, and start really caring about what the major media is saying

about them. "We are kind of an immature industry in a lot of ways, only

about 20 years old," he says.



Big companies like Nintendo and Sony consider themselves mass-market

players, he says, but some of the smaller companies still think of

themselves as niche companies and are only concerned about getting

coverage in the gaming trades, like ie Magazine or PC World. "As we are

competing with more PR-savvy industries for entertainment dollars, we

will become more savvy about how we market what we do."



But Owen admits general media outlets often aren't interested in the

games industry, even though it generated $6 billion in sales in

2000.



"As a whole, we are not really newsworthy. Only if they are looking at

something sensational." And therein lies the PR problem: It is tough to

stimulate journalists' interest in the benefits of gaming (and who's

really playing), but a story blaming violence on violent games will

always sell newspapers.



ENTERTAINMENT SOFTWARE RATINGS BOARD "M" TITLES

Titles rated "M" (mature) have content not suitable for persons under

age 17. These products may include more intense violence or language

than products in the "T" (teen) category. In addition, these titles may

also include mature sexual themes

ABOMINATION

Company: Eidos Interactive

Format: PC CD-ROM

Features: Animated blood, gore, and violence

ALIEN RESURRECTION

Company: Fox Interactive

Format: PlayStation

Features Animated blood, gore, and violence

DUNGEON KEEPER

Company: Electronic Arts/Bullfrog

Format: PC CD-ROM

Features: Animated blood, gore, and animated violence

CONKER'S BAD FUR DAY

Company: Nintendo

Format: Nintendo 64

Features: Animated violence, mature sexual themes, strong language

AN ELDER SCROLLS LEGEND: BATTLESPIRE

Company: Bethesda Softworks

Format: PC CD-ROM

Features: Animated blood, gore, and mature sexual themes



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