Nintendo's Wii game system puts violence in motion

Critics fear it promotes violence

Since it was introduced six months ago, the Nintendo Wii system has been hailed as a revolution in video gaming because of its motion-activated controls that allow a player to participate physically. That's all well and good when the motion is a tennis stroke. But what about when it's a sawing motion, one used to separate a limb from a body, and the scene on the screen shows all the gory details?

As more violent games become available for the Wii, the debate about their participatory nature is intensifying. Researchers who have been critical of first-person shooter games -- in which the player pushes a button to activate a weapon -- say the Wii's increased interactivity raises the risk of antisocial behavior. Others say that while the violent content may be disturbing to some people, there is no evidence to support a link between violent games and aggression.

The newest game to attract scrutiny -- Manhunt 2, from Rockstar Games, the company behind the controversial Grand Theft Auto series -- isn't even out yet, but it is already creating a stir. In the game, the player assumes the role of an escaped mental patient who goes on a killing spree. In the United States the game has received the most restrictive rating possible, Adult Only, from the nation's Entertainment Software Rating Board . In Britain, the game is banned.

An AO rating, which is rare and typically applied for sexual content, means nobody under 18 can buy the game -- in which case many retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy, will probably not carry it. Rockstar, which is owned by Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. , announced Thursday it is temporarily suspending the game's release, which was scheduled for July 10, because of the controversy. The company has 30 days to appeal the rating, accept it, or revamp the game and resubmit it for a new rating.

Rockstar had hoped for an M (mature) rating so the game could be sold to 17-year-olds. "This is a horror genre," Rockstar spokesman Rodney Walker said. "People who like horror will love it."

When the Wii hit the market, many people were excited about its possibilities. Teenagers would get up off the couch and exert themselves while playing. The game system has also been used in physical therapy and in retirement communities, where elderly residents are using it to play virtual golf and bowl. Now that the system has been out for a while, the violent games are emerging -- Scarface, Resident Evil 4, and Far Cry Vengeance , all rated M, are among the eight Wii games with violent content listed on the ESRB website.

"The more realistic and involving the game gets, and the greater the similarity between the action in the game and real life action, the stronger the negative effects would be," says Joanne Cantor, a Wisconsin research psychologist who has spent 30 years studying the effects of media violence on children. "No, your son may not turn into a criminal. But exposure will take a toll on his life somewhere, probably in interpersonal relationships. These are subtle effects. They take time to surface. A teen isn't going to notice them."

Child advocates such as the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial - Free Childhood say violent games such as Manhunt 2 should be kept out of teenagers' hands. "I shudder to think of teenage boys playing this," says child psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint , director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center, which houses the CCFC. "The level of participation makes the game worse than any that preceded it. It might not make anyone a killer, but could it make someone prone to domestic violence or child abuse?"

David Finkelhor , co director of the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire, says no game alone is going to drag a child into criminal activity. "It's when you have other potentiating factors -- family problems, mental health issues, extreme stress, dangerous neighborhoods," he says. "Playing these games with or without the Wii enhancement is not going to take the typical teenage boy and make a killer out of him."

In fact, he says, in the 10 or 12 years in which violent video games have proliferated, the juvenile crime rate has gone down, as have school homicides.

Pediatrician Michael Rich , director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital, says there is a solid body of research to show that exposure to screen violence takes a toll. Teens risk becoming desensitized because their empathy skills and social restraints are not fully developed.

"Wii provides a double whammy," Rich says, "very violent content and physical involvement, which we know is how learning happens."

Not everyone, though, is ready to condemn Manhunt 2 and other violent games. Dennis McCauley , editor of gamepolitics.com , which tracks political developments in gaming, has played the first Manhunt game and other violent Wii games, and is skeptical about the argument that it could harm teenagers.

"No question Manhunt goes beyond the pale in terms of violence. I'm sure this one will be worse," he says. "But that Wii interactivity adds an extra kicker to what happens in the brain is purely speculative. The Wii technology isn't as bad as some folks say or as good as Nintendo wants you to believe."