Video Killers

Texas is the intergalactic capital of violent computer games.

Texas has long been known as a land of gunslingers and sharpshooters. Less well known—though entirely in keeping with that reputation—is the fact that Texas is also home to a surprising concentration of companies that make violent, shoot-'em-up computer games. While Texas is second to California in the fast-growing computer and video game industry, whose revenues are nearly equal to the take for Hollywood films, the state ranks first in the most controversial segment of the market: so-called first-person shooter games. The genre was more or less invented by two closely linked companies, Apogee Software in Garland and id Software in Mesquite. First-person shooter games typically simulate a "walk-through" in a landscape or cityscape vividly reproduced on the computer screen. The computer user employs virtual weapons to blast the enemies and threats encountered on the way to the game's goal. Apogee is best known for its Duke Nukem series, an array of games based on the hulking comic book-style hero of the title. Id Software is even more famous for its blockbuster games Quake and Doom. Another Texas company, ION Storm of Dallas, founded by one of id's founders, makes the popular Deus Ex and Daikatana games. An Austin company recently known as Iguana Entertainment but now part of Acclaim Entertainment, produces the ultraviolent game series called Turok 3. And the games Heavy Metal: F. A. K. K. 2. and Sin are made by Ritual Entertainment in Dallas. Computer game companies have wound up in Texas, it seems, because of a combination of company spin-offs, personal friendships, and the state's critical mass of talented game designers.

These companies have millions of fervent fans all over the world, but they have also become a target for politicians, crusaders, anti-violence activists, and some angry parents. Duke Nukem 3D landed on the national Video and Computer Game Buying Guide in 1997. The report card is supprted by Senator Joseph Lieberman, who started his campaign against violent computer games in December 1993. Id Software's products rocketed to national attention when it was revealed that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teenage mass murderers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, were Doom and Quake fanatics.

Critics charge that violent computer games are simulating mayhem and murder and desensitizing young people to killing. "Even the Army uses these games as training aids," says Ellen Wartella, the dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin and a nationally known expert on the effects of media on children. "That tells you something about the effects of these games." Those effects are enhanced by big improvements in digital graphics. "In the beginning, we didn't think much about the violence," says Scott Miller, a founder and co-owner of Apogee. "Back in those days, the graphics weren't very good." Now PCs are approaching what was until recently supercomputer graphics performance, and the visual effects can be disturbingly lifelike and gory. Executives like Miller are dealing with the backlash the advanced technology has precipitated.

Nevertheless, first-person shooter games are among the most popular on the market, and there are several reasons why nothing is likely to be done to tone them down. First of all, there are plenty of experts who disagree with critics like Wartella. "In a word—baloney" was the assessment of such criticism by Pulitzer prize-winning author Richard Rhodes in a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine. Rhodes noted, as do many game enthusiasts, that youth violence, like all violence, has actually gone down in the same period as the increase in violent media, including computer games. "Cyber bullets don't kill," he concluded.

And game developers feel they've already done all they need to do. "We've kind of taken care of our end," says Miller. "We include a parental lockout [meaning a password mechanism to block the use of the game by kids], and we and our publisher properly rate the game. The retail side needs to be more strict." He says, however, "I've never heard of retailers abiding by the ratings on these games." Kmart and Wal-Mart have recently agreed to ask for identification from customers of mature or M-rated (seventeen or older) computer games. But the games are readily available for teens elsewhere and, of course, on the Internet.

Last April a federal judge released 25 computer game companies from a civil lawsuit that blamed them for fatal shootings by a teenager at a high school in Paducah, Kentucky. But the violence-in-media controversy continues to elevate blood pressures. It represents an almost religious conflict between protecting young people and defending the First Amendment. Texas computer game companies, which make a lot of money from their products, are likely to stay in the crosshairs.

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