Real news from the virtual world:
— RATINGS PLUS: With the holiday shopping season bearing down on everyone, a lot of people who don't usually buy video games are wandering the aisles of electronics stores, wondering what software is really appropriate for the kids.
The ratings on the packages are some help — the Mature-rated "Fallout 3," with its "blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language and use of drugs," probably isn't right for a 10-year-old — but some parents want to know more.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board is offering a little more assistance. Its Web site, www.esrb.org, now hosts detailed descriptions of recent games.
For example, "Resistance 2" earns its M rating with its "blood and gore, intense violence, strong language."
That info is on the game's box, but the ESRB site gets a bit more graphic: "Aliens and humans get blown up, torn apart, shot, impaled and killed in gushes of red blood and body parts. During cutscenes, team members are killed by aliens, and in one instance, executed by another character."
Some of the descriptions are a little too thorough: The "Fallout 3" synopsis, for example, gives away one of the game's more intriguing surprises.
But some of the industry's most strident critics are appreciative of the additional information.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called it "a real gift for parents," and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said: "I applaud the ESRB for taking this proactive step to inform video-game consumers."
— CONTROL FREAKS: Here's another thing many parents don't realize about the current generation of consoles: They have parental controls, so if you don't want your kids playing "Grand Theft Auto IV," you can at least stop them from doing it in your own home.
And with more movies coming to Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, now is probably a good time to learn how to prevent Junior from downloading "Saw IV."
Still, says Robert Stephens, the founder of Best Buy's Geek Squad, "Most parents have ceded technology controls to their children."
So if you don't want to learn how to change the parental settings yourself, and you (reasonably) don't trust the kids, you can now get a Geek Squad technician to do it when you purchase a new console at a Best Buy outlet.
"We expect young children and teens to rebel against Geek Squad with great fury and anger," Stephens says.
But it's a simple enough solution for concerned parents.
— RETURN TO LIBERTY CITY: Those of us who are old enough to buy M-rated games have been anxiously awaiting one particular chunk of downloadable gaming: the long-promised expansion pack for "Grand Theft Auto IV." And now we know that the wait will be over Feb. 17.
Called "The Lost and Damned," the next chapter will focus on a new character whose story intersects with that of Niko Bellic, the antihero of "GTA IV."
Rockstar Games Vice President Dan Houser told USA Today that the new protagonist is Johnny Klebitz, a member of a Liberty City biker gang called The Lost.
Besides the new characters and mission, Houser said "The Lost and Damned" will also offer new multiplayer modes, weapons and vehicles, as well as some fresh tunes for its already impressive soundtrack.
Price has yet to be determined, but it will probably cost somewhere between $15 and $20.
— A BONE TO PICK: One of the more amusing feuds to bubble up in recent years has been the pre-Thanksgiving back-and-forth between People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Majesco, publisher of the kitchen sim "Cooking Mama."
First, PETA protested the wealth of meat dishes in "Cooking Mama" with a gruesome online parody called "Mama Kills Animals."
Majesco responded with a press release pointing out more than 25 vegetarian meals in the series' latest edition, "Cooking Mama: World Kitchen."
"I would never put rat in my ratatouille," the release quoted Mama as saying. "Like any accomplished chef, I create my recipes to appeal to a broad range of tastes and preferences."
Not good enough, said PETA, which is now asking Majesco to create an all-vegetarian version of "Cooking Mama."
— NEW IN STORES: With Black Friday coming this week, most of the year's biggest games are already waiting on shelves.
But there are some worthwhile titles coming to the Nintendo DS: Square Enix's remake of its landmark role-playing game "Chrono Trigger"; Disney's "Club Penguin: Elite Penguin Force"; THQ's "Age of Empires: Mythologies" and "All Star Cheer Squad"; and Nintendo's "Personal Trainer: Cooking."