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Friday, September 10, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Video-Game Gore Is Cause For Concern

"Finish him!"

To anyone who's ever played "Mortal Kombat" - one of the most popular and graphically violent video arcade games, which will be available for both Nintendo and Sega home systems on Monday - these words are more than a command to take out your opponent.

True "Kombat" junkies know they mean you're entitled to the prized "fatality move," or the chance to humiliate your opponent to a bloody pulp.

That means ripping off an opponent's head, spinal column and all, while the rest of the body crumples to the ground in a pool of blood.

Or torching the other guy, shoving him off a cliff onto a bed of metal stakes, electrocuting him or tearing out his heart with bare hands.

Those moves are certainly 11-year-old Brian Turner's favorite moments in the game.

"I like when you get to push the guy off a bridge and he lands on a bunch of spikes with heads already hanging on them. It's cool," says Turner, of Bellevue.

Craig Patnode, 13, of Redmond, knows his mother isn't too crazy about games he likes a lot, such as "Streetfighter II" and "Mortal Kombat."

"Mortal Kombat" features more carnage than "Streetfighter II" and an added dose of realism, with computer-generated graphics and footage of fighting actors, not just animated characters. The blood and gore, however, are still cartoonish.

Yet the fact that both "Streetfighter II" and "Mortal Kombat" have blood in them concerns some parents, educators and

psychologists.

The National Coalition on Television Violence, one of the only groups to conduct any research on the issue, believes there's a link between children's behavior and violence in video games.

Mary Ann Banta, a member of the coalition's board and a teacher at the University of the District of Columbia, points to the more plentiful research and the current debate in Congress on television violence.

While she acknowledges that very little research on video-game violence exists, she questions whether more data is necessary.

"If simply viewing television is bad, then interacting with it (as in video games) has got to be worse," she says.

She also worries that parents and video-game manufacturers aren't taking enough responsibility to dissuade kids from playing video games with violent themes.

Sega has introduced a rating system to address that concern. Sega ratings are similar to movie ratings, ranking games from GA (general audiences) to MA-17 (mature audiences 17 and older). Banta says that's a helpful guideline to parents.

On the other hand, do ratings give the industry carte blanche to create more violent games, as long as they carry a restricted rating? And what good are ratings without watchful parents to enforce them?

"The community needs to have more awareness of what's out there because these things are so readily available to children," Banta says. "We also ought to ask ourselves who is making these games and why. Are they so lacking in creativity that all they can think of is making games where people kill each other?"

Parents like Chris Patnode, Craig's mom, see a possible link between the games and behavior.

"What concerns me is that my son likes the more violent games," she says. "It seems like he isn't able to let go of it. He's more aggressive. Sometimes I have to pull him away from it because he gets angry when he can't win. I know how addicting it can be."

While both Nintendo of America Inc., the industry giant, and Sega agree on the need to take some responsibility for the games they market, they differ in their approach.

Redmond-based Nintendo - which reported $4.5 billion in sales for the fiscal year ended in March, and projects $5.3 billion in sales for fiscal year 1994 - prides itself on strict game standards that apply to all Nintendo games and licensees who make games for Nintendo game systems.

Such standards guard against excessive violence and other too-graphic or offensive subjects in all Nintendo games, the company says.

Perrin Kaplan, manager of corporate communications, says that's why the most graphic and gruesome "fatality moves" for "Mortal Kombat" were removed from the Nintendo version.

"We care about this issue enough that we're willing to forfeit some profit to make sure we stick to our guidelines," she said. "And everyone has a different definition of a good game," she says.

Kaplan is quick to jab at Sega, Nintendo's main competitor, by pointing out that Nintendo would never back the game "Night Trap." It was banned in Australia for its graphic nature but is available for Sega CD.

Filmed much like a B movie with actors rather than animated characters, "Night Trap" centers on five young women in bikini tops and shorts staying in a house filled with vampirelike creatures that hunt the women.

Ellen Beth Van Buskirk, Sega's director of marketing services, defends the game. Because some of the material in "Night Trap" may be more suitable for adults, it's rated for players 17 and older, she notes.

Sega's video-game rating council, made up of educators, psychologists and child-behavior specialists, gave "Mortal Kombat" an MA-13 rating, for those 13 and older.

"There's a big difference between seeing two cartoon characters beat each other up and true video," she says. "The level of realism really hits home."

That realism fans a large part of the video-game violence debate. Van Buskirk says violence in video games has always been there, but it's now being taken to more realistic levels.

Although Van Buskirk acknowledges there is nothing to stop kids from buying games recommended for adults only, she says the ratings council helps distribute information about the games to adults.

"Sega sees this as an issue of creating information and giving people knowledge," she says. "Of course, it does rely on the family unit to keep aware of what games their children are playing, but I'd say in absence of such a rating system we are in a much graver situation."

"The issue is really about parents and monitoring," says Andy Eddy, former editor of Video Games and Computer Entertainment. "Like anything. A kid can eat chocolate and not have a bad reaction, but you don't want them eating it three times a day."

The appeal of games with more violent themes is not so much the violence per se as it is the challenge, says Eddy. "It's the feeling that you've conquered something. The fatality moves in `Mortal Kombat' are like a cherry on top of the cake."

Eddy doesn't think kids are affected by video games because he believes they can distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Douglas McLean, 15, of Bellevue, who tests video games for Nintendo, doesn't think kids care about the amount of violence in a game as much as they do about beating the game.

"We're more interested in beating an opponent than tearing the heads off the characters we play," he says.

"Some of the graphics can be pretty grim. But then again, they're all fake."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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