News from the virtual world:
— DRIVEN INSANE: Now that the year's biggest video game has arrived, it may be time to add a new feature to this column: Who's Mad at "Grand Theft Auto IV" This Week?
For starters, we've heard protests from feminists, immigrant groups, New York City police and New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
Then there's the industry's most predictable critic, Florida attorney Jack Thompson, who called "GTA IV" "the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio."
Amid the hubbub, there was one voice that's new to this debate. Mothers Against Drunk Driving protested a scenario in which you can get the main character intoxicated, then have him drive a car.
"Drunk driving is not a game, and it is not a joke," MADD said in a statement.
The group asked the Entertainment Software Rating Board to reclassify "GTA IV" as Adults-Only, a step up from its current Mature rating.
MADD's protest ignores one thing about the drunk-driving simulator: It's really difficult — and not much fun — to control your virtual car when your character is intoxicated. And much of the sober driving in "GTA IV' would be illegal and dangerous in real life.
"GTA IV" publisher Rockstar Games responded, "We have a great deal of respect for MADD's mission, but we believe the mature audience for 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is more than sophisticated enough to understand the game's content."
Expect to see any number of variations on this statement from Rockstar in the months ahead.
— DARN KIDS: "Grand Theft Auto IV" isn't supposed to be sold to anyone younger than 17, but a lot of kids are going to find a way to get their hands on it. How concerned should parents be?
Not very, according to Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, two Harvard Medical School psychiatrists who conducted a federally funded research project on the effects of video games on preteens and teenagers.
In their new book, "Grand Theft Childhood," Kutner and Olson write, "Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from our research is that parents should not worry about violent or other M-rated video games having a profound effect on their children's behavior or values."
Most young gamers, they write, "had incorporated their parents' fundamental values into their lives" and realized that "these games were entertaining but outrageous fantasies."
Other factors — violence or abuse in the home, treatable mental health problems, even access to real weapons — are far more likely to result in children behaving violently, they say.
Kutner and Olson sum up their results with one word: "Relax."
— THE CASUAL CURE: There are many more benign games than "Grand Theft Auto IV," and researchers at East Carolina University have been studying their effect on the brain.
Carmen Russoniello, director of the school's psychophysiology lab, hooked up subjects to a variety of biofeedback devices and had them play "Bejeweled 2," "Peggle" and "Bookworm Adventures," three nonviolent, "casual" puzzlers from PopCap Games. (PopCap underwrote the study.)
Different games had different effects. Russoniello found that "Bejeweled 2" was most effective at relieving stress and increasing mental energy, while "Peggle" did the most to improve overall mood and reduce fatigue and confusion.
Women got more benefit from playing "Peggle," while "Bejeweled 2" helped more men elevate their mood.
Russoniello conducted his experiment on a relatively small group of subjects and plans to start more in-depth clinical trials in the fall.
But the results so far, he said, "herald casual games' potential in health promotion, disease prevention and treatment of stress- and mood-related disorders."
— BOURNE TO LOSE: The biggest mystery about Sierra's forthcoming "The Bourne Conspiracy" game: Why doesn't Jason Bourne look anything like Matt Damon?
"I lobbied hard [with Sierra] to not make a first-person shooter game but to make it more like 'Myst,' which was a great, interesting puzzle you tried to solve — you know, to play with his amnesia or his memory," Damon told The Boston Globe. "They weren't interested. They made the video game anyway, without my likeness."
No wonder Bourne's so confused.
— NEW IN STORES: The first product of Steven Spielberg's collaboration with Electronic Arts is "Boom Blox" (for the Wii). ... Nintendo wants you to put down that pencil and solve "CrossworDS" on the DS. ... Ubisoft invites you to visit "The Dog Island" (Wii). ... Warner Bros.' "Speed Racer" movie tie-in zooms onto the Wii and DS.