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Marketing Violence to Our Children

From the May 2001 Newsletter

(excerpted from an August 2000 article that appeared in the WASHINGTON POST and used with the permission of the author)

by Daphne White, the mother of a 12-year-old boy and the executive director of the Lion and Lamb Project, a Bethesda, MD organization seeking to stop the marketing of violence to children.



The action figure your preschooler is clamoring for looks innocent enough, as these things go: "Primagen" is a green creature with five tentacles plus one lobster-like claw and one three-fingered hand. Its blue face--a cross between that of a turtle and ET--looks a bit sad. The label on the package says Primagen is a Turok character--not that you know what Turok is--suitable for "ages 4 and up."


So maybe you buy one.


If you do, you will be bringing home a Trojan horse. For inside Primagen's box is a "game code," or tip sheet, for Turok 2: Seeds of Evil--which is, in fact, an explicitly gory, frighteningly violent video game that is industry-rated "M"--for "mature" players at least 17 years old.


Certainly there is a significant distance between the plastic doll in the toy store and the adrenaline-pumping interaction of the video game. But there is no question that the cross-marketing of brands--in this case, the video game developer Acclaim licensing its Turok characters to the kiddie-toy maker Playmates--is a way to get 4-year-olds to bridge that distance, to make friends at an early age with characters most parents wouldn't want them to know.


Turok is far from the only super-bloodthirsty game with a kiddie connection: Quake, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat and others have related action figures or hand-held electronic games for small children. None of these products carry any warnings that they are based on M-rated games. Like most toys, the only warning they might bear refers to possible choking hazards, as mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.


As for "suitable for ages . . . " ratings, they are in many ways meaningless. Take the Duke Nukem action figure, based on an M-rated game that takes the player into porn theaters and strip bars (among other places), killing all the way. The action figure is labeled "for ages 10 and up." The reality is that today's pre-teens don't play with action figures. Little boys do.


"We're seeing kids going from Teletubbies to Sesame Street to Barney to Power Rangers," Michael Tabakin, director of sales promotion at Toys R Us, told the trade publication Kidscreen. "There is a natural progression. But from Teletubbies to Power Rangers, there isn't an awful lot of years there."


From Power Rangers to Seeds of Evil is also a quick jump. Marketers have a shorthand expression for the fast-forward nature of modern childhood: KAGOY, as in "kids are getting older younger." In a KAGOY world, no child is too tiny to be targeted: I've heard marketers talk about aiming products at children beginning at "age zero." By the age of 6--according to Kidscreen, as well as many toy marketers--children begin moving away from action figures and into hand-held electronic games such as Game Boy. By the time they are 8 or 10, the kids consider themselves ready for games rated Teen--supposedly aimed at ages 13 and older. And 12-year-olds get into Mature-rated computer games, the forbidden fruit that has been advertised to them since kindergarten.


There are few safeguards to prevent children from buying or downloading these games. (Several experts who have studied them say we shouldn't even use the word "games," but should call them what they are: "murder simulations." In fact, the U.S. military has increasingly been using simulation games to train soldiers. There is even a version of the M-rated game "Doom" that has been adapted for military training--it's called "Marine Doom"). Most parents don't even know that video games have a rating system.


Like most mothers, I have no idea how to actually play video games. So to find out just what lurks inside Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, I rented it. Then I borrowed some experienced players of M-rated games--Mike, 13, and his brother Jeff, 15. Several girls were visiting, making up a sort of a peanut gallery. This is what we saw.


Turok is a "first-person shooter" game--in other words, the player sees the world through Turok's eyes and wields his weapon, which is visible at all times at the bottom of the screen. At first the weapon is a talon. The player uses it to rip up the Primagens, who gush bright red blood copiously onto the screen. After successfully disemboweling a few, the player is rewarded with an upgraded weapon: a pistol.


The visuals are darkly Gothic, the music ominous. One of the 15-year-old girls, who is not accustomed to playing video games, screamed whenever one of the Primagens burst onto the screen. "It's so dark and scary," she said, covering her eyes and hugging her knees to her chin. After a while, she left the room.


As more enemies are gruesomely killed, the player earns more weapons: a flying razor-blade disc, a grenade launcher, eventually a hand-held nuclear weapon. The grenade launcher leaves gaping holes in the victims' chests, and the ribs protrude. There is "cerebral bore," which drills into the enemies' skulls, sending their brains spewing out in a glutinous red mass.


"The whole point is to kill everybody," Mike explained, saying the game didn't really have enough of a plot for him. Jeff said it gave him a headache.


Toys and other products promoting adult-rated video games and movies to children need to be clearly labeled as such. Requiring a warning label in the style of the health warning label that appears on cigarettes would be a good start.


There's an obvious problem with these solutions: Any Internet-savvy kid can go online and download demo versions of truly violent games. If they're really savvy, kids can figure out how to get whole games. The way the Internet works, I don't see any practical way for government to keep them from doing that. But Congress and the FTC, which already have sought to limit children's access to online pornography, should at least seek the same limits on their access to violent video games.


(Excerpted from an August, 2000 article that appeared in the WASHINGTON POST and used with the permission of the author.)


THE LION & LAMB PROJECT, 4300 Montgomery Ave., Ste. 104, Bethesda, MD 20814, 301-654-3091.   A wonderful resource, its mission is to stop the marketing of violence to children. They do this by helping parents, industry and government officials recognize that violence is not child's play and by galvanizing concerned adults to take action. They have a parent action kit, lists of negative and positive toys, a wonderful toy trade-in project, ideas for high schoolers, and a new AGENDA FOR ACTION, geared at prodding government action. A must-read resource for parents raising peaceful children.