Published February 20, 2011
It's too violent for Germany. But it's okay for America?
Yet another uberviolent video game will be unleashed on an unsuspecting public next week. Featuring over-the-top violence, strong profanity and crude sexual innuendos, Bulletstorm shocked Germany's watchdogs, who slapped the game with an 18+ rating -- and demanded that publisher Electronic Arts (EA) significantly censor it to cut scenes of dismemberment and gore.
EA won't censor the violent game for its U.S. launch February 22 however.
Such games are easily purchased or watched online by anyone, despite warning labels, experts say. And games like Bulletstorm can have a particularly heinous effect on minors, said Clair Mellenthin, a Director of Child and Adolescent Services at Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City.
“Being rewarded for sexually assaultive and violent behaviors and thoughts … I believe that the unintended consequences far outweigh any possible positives,” Mellenthin told FoxNews.com. “There should be significant blocks in downloading this game to ensure that it is truly an adult making an adult decision to use this technology.”
“If a younger kid experiences Bulletstorm's explicit language and violence, the damage could be significant,” Dr. Jerry Weichman, a clinical psychologist at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Southern California, warned FoxNews.com last week.
EA acknowledged the censorship by German advisory board USK, explaining that the country censors many videogames, a policy the publisher disagrees with.
"Game censorship is based on antiquated thinking about our audience," said Jeff Brown, a spokesman for EA. “Games and game players should have the same rights afforded to books, movies and television," he added. (An unmodified version rated instead by European advisory board PEGI will be available online to anyone in Europe, Brown said.)
Gaming advocates say that violent games like Bulletstorm are intended for adults who understand the humor -- and have the right to play such games according to the First Amendment.
“The primary difference why other countries can outright ban certain types of games, music, movies and even books is simply because they don’t have a First Amendment in place,” said Hal Halpin, the president of consumer advocacy group ECA. “Controlled substances such as alcohol and tobacco are merchandized differently primarily because they’re ingested or absorbed and the chemicals cross the blood-brain barrier. Movies, music and video game are First Amendment-protected free speech.”
Game industry reaction
FoxNews.com first exposed Bulletstorm on Feb. 8, warning that the game ties ugly, graphic violence into explicit sex acts: "topless" means cutting a player in half, while a "gang bang" means killing multiple enemies. And the experts FoxNews.com spoke with were nearly universally worried that video game violence may be reaching a fever pitch.
The gaming press reacted violently.
The site RockPaperShotgun.com contacted FoxNews.com sources and posted transcripts of interviews, exposing "the full story," they claimed. Some sources, including Scott Steinberg, the CEO of consultancy TechSavvy Global, shared private e-mail interviews with other websites.
After psychiatrist Carole Lieberman told FoxNews.com of a connection between violent games and rape, the site Destructoid ran the headline, 'Games cause rape' psychologist's book gets raped. The article described how Lieberman was "Amazonbombed" -- meaning gamers posted dozens of scathing and profane reviews of her books to the online retail site. Comments at Destructoid revealed mixed reactions:
“Idiots, don't write more! How do you think this makes gamers look?” wrote commenter Popyman.
“Since this woman's outright untruths will never be recognized or discussed on a platform as large as Fox News, people vent their frustration at the situation by publicly questioning her credibility,” wrote commenter timetheterrible.
Yet as the gaming industry defends the right to free speech, the right to access remains an open question. Despite warning labels and ratings here in the U.S., and the concerns of parents and psychiatrists, many children and teenagers will have access to the uncensored game across the country without any penalties.
Investigating violent video game sales
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), rates all video games as a guide for parents; each game carries a letter-label at retail (T for Teen, M for Mature) and an online-only summary. And many experts say it's useless, because it isn't enforced at retail.
Viewing and purchasing M-rated games, ostensibly for those 17 and older, like the gruesome shooter Bulletstorm, is relatively easy.
First, to see videos of the violent activity in a game, teens need only lie about their age to gain access to just about any gaming Web site. There are no additional verifications, such as an e-mail or phone number, to gain access. To purchase at an online shop such as EBgames.com, a minor can again lie about their age to gain access to the site, then use a gift card given to them by an adult to buy the game.
“Online retailers should be concerned about selling M-rated games to children under age 17,” said Claudia Bourne Farrell, an FTC spokesperson, noting that online retailers generally require only a credit card to purchase video games.
"Although valid credit card information does not guarantee that the purchaser is an adult, it is a reasonable proxy for the purchaser’s age,” she told FoxNews.com.
However, according to a report by the NPD Group, 90% of game purchases are made at “brick-and-mortar” stores like Wal-Mart. And the gaming industry feels the safeguards in place on those purchases are working just fine.
“Retailers have been doing an excellent job checking customers’ ID to make sure they are seventeen or older before selling them an M-rated game,” said Eliot Mizrachi, communications director at the ESRB. “Considering that both video games and movies are rated for age-appropriateness, why should they be treated differently in terms of how they are sold?”
Dan Hewitt, a spokesperson for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), says that a recent FTC study found that 96% of those surveyed were aware of the ESRB rating and what it means. Hewitt also said the average age of those who play video games is now 34, much higher than in past years.
So what is to become of Bulletstorm? So much has been written about the shooter prior to release that the actual game may end up being disappointing.
Indeed, FoxNews.com tested a widely available demo and found the game was gory and crude -- but hardly a creative tour-de-force.