Games without guns

The video game industry’s splashiest event, the ElectronicEntertainment Expo, is taking place this week in Los Angeles.

The results may echo like gunshots from a bad dream.

E3, as the Expo is commonly known, is partially a convention forthe game world’s insiders. But mostly, it’s a publicity binge. Theimpression it leaves will tint the industry’s image at leastthrough the rest of the year.

That could be a good thing. More likely, it will be a bad thing.Here’s why:

The family value of video games will be obscured and almostblotted out by an intense environment of fighting, warfare, sword,gun, mayhem, horror and crime games. A balanced perspective neverseems to emerge, but the reality is that there’s also a multitudeof compelling, imaginative and sophisticated non-violent games.

It’s impossible to dispute, however, the pre-eminence of “actiongames,” a very loose heading for most of the fare involving weaponsand destruction. A survey of E3 exhibitors indicated thataction-adventure games, including pure “shooters” and fight-basedtitles, represent the dominant genre: about 26 percent of all games(no other category got above 16 percent).

And quantity is just part of the issue. There’s also the matterof hype and buzz. There will be plenty of excitement surroundingnon-controversial games – Electronic Arts’ sports games and Sony’supcoming “Gran Turismo 4” jump to mind – but the ooh-aah needlewill go off the meter for “Doom 3,” “Halo 2” and “Half-Life 2,”which will all be exceptionally violent.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with most mature-rated andeven gory games (although I can think of some exploitativeexceptions). Some are among the most sophisticated games everproduced, at least in terms of graphics, artificial intelligenceand interactive challenge.

The ultimate problem is that the industry’s history, teen-boydollars, editorially juvenile magazines and Web sites, uninformedmainstream media and sensationalistic marketing are relentlesslynegative forces. They reinforce all the clich�s about videogames, while the breadth and cleverness of each year’s inventory golargely unappreciated.

Consider this range of material:

*Konami has “Karaoke Revolution Volume 2” scheduled forJuly. This is a follow-up to last year’s ingenious PlayStation2singing game, and – although this is a cute line about youroff-pitch friends – people’s voices can’t really be weapons. Thisis all-ages fun.

Sports games and driving games are industry staples; moreover,the best of them are remarkable examples of computer simulation andvirtual reality. EA games such as the John Madden football andTiger Woods golf series are good for months of immersion, and “GranTurismo 4” will be an experience that transcends game fans – it’sfor anyone who loves cars. Another suggestion: “RallisportChallenge 2” for Xbox, in stores this week.

*Gadgets and music, separately and in combination, are fuelingsome trends. Sony’s ingenuity in integrating its Eye Toy camerawith PS2 games – putting you, the game player, on the TV screen -opens the door to new levels of interactive innovation. “Eye Toy:Groove” is a new rhythm-movement-music game, and Nintendo is goingto get in on the act later this year with “Donkey Konga,” whichuses bongo drums as the game controllers. There will bemulti-player modes and more than 30 songs, including kids tunes andclassical music.

*There is a respectable variety of high-end games aimed at orwell-suited to young children. The “Backyard Sports” series fromAtari is ideal, and THQ recently found a robust market for the”Finding Nemo” game that capitalized on the popularity of thePixar-Disney movie.

*If none of that appeals to you, how about EA’s “Sims” games,which basically give you a chance to live an alternative life as acomputer character? “The Sims 2” is scheduled for later this year,and yes, there’s some adult behavior involved. But its essence isintelligence. And if not the Sims franchise, then perhaps arailroad-building simulator? Or a roller-coaster-building game? Youcan get nauseated from the coaster, but there’s no gunfire.

In other words, you have options. Even on TV, when you have 70channels or more through cable or satellite, there are large blocksof time when a diversity of quality programming seems scarce.

Just the opposite is always true of video game entertainment,yet the knee-jerk assessment of the industry remains prevalent:Games mean blood and guns.

It would be great if this year’s E3 changed that notion. Morelikely, it will help support the stereotype.