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Why don't game developers get it?

Trash the alibis, says CNET's Charles Cooper. It's time for the industry to take a long look in the mirror.

One defining truth about contemporary America is how little people listen.

We've embraced "Get out of my face" as the new national mantra. Right-wing nut jobs, left-wing loonies--it doesn't matter. We shout and shoot first, ask questions later.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the cacophonous debate over sex and violence in computer and video games. The problem is that the opponents have so caricatured each other that it's increasingly hard to envision a realistic way to break the impasse.

In the absence of any meaningful conversation, the politicos and morality poseurs know how to fill the resulting vacuum. So it was that California's legislature sent a bill to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, prohibiting the sale to minors of games that "depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious or cruel."

You have to appreciate the irony: A guy who blew away on-screen enemies for a living becomes the guardian of public morality. Oh well, it's California, and we're great at reinventing ourselves out here.

Surely, the best creative minds of this generation can do better.

Besides, it's part of a bigger trend. Michigan passed a bill similar to California's, which becomes law on Dec. 1. Elsewhere, Illinois will outlaw the sale or rental of violent or sexually explicit games to minors starting next year.

Lawmakers in Oklahoma and other states say they intend to introduce similar bills in the near future. On the national level, a collection of Democratic and Republican senators wants the National Institutes of Health to carry out a $90 million study to examine how violent media, including video games, affects the development of children. (And who says bipartisanship is a thing of the past? Harrumph!)

This is going to lead to an inevitable power confrontation. With some $25 billion at stake, the global video game industry will fight back. It has enlisted allies in Washington to make sure that nothing so drastic ever makes it to the floor of Congress. And the Entertainment Software Association has gone to court in Michigan and Illinois to block the laws, arguing that they amount to censorship.

But has the industry underestimated the national zeitgeist? Listening to various spokesmen yammer away, I get the feeling that these folks just don't get it. Earlier this year, Doug Lowenstein, president of the ESA, told CNET that this was all part of a "cold, calculating political effort."

His logic? "(The bills have) come from people who have aspirations for national office," he said. "They come from people who are interpreting the 2004 election as a values election, and the Democrats lost on values. One way to recapture values is to attack violent entertainment, especially video games."

He may be right about the political hypocrisy that infects national politics. He also has a tin ear. Games that feature garden-variety prostitutes and knuckle-dragging cop killers qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment. That's about the best you can say for them.

The American Psychological Association in August came out in favor of a reduction in video game violence. It found that "exposure to violence in video games increases aggressive thoughts, aggressive behavior and angry feelings among youth."

Critics say the APA relied on a flawed methodology and that it is just more evidence that the video game industry is being unfairly singled out. Maybe that's true, but it also ignores the unease most middle-of-the-road types feel about the horrid content found in some of the games marketed by the industry.

You can hide behind the protections offered by the Constitution--which is every American's right--and maybe a smart lawyer will win the case. That still doesn't explain why the common denominator of quality has to begin in the gutter--and work down from there. Not that it's lurid but that it's simply lousy.

Surely the best creative minds of this generation can do better.