Has the violence in computer games gone too far? Executives at CompUSA, the nation's largest high-tech retail chain, have decided not to carry "Phantasmagoria," a new horror adventure game from Sierra On-Line.
If CompUSA executives are concerned about the violence in "Phantasmagoria," they are not alone. Other retailers continue to sell the game, but some have expressed anxiety about its content.
A CompUSA spokesman said only: "Software comes out all the time. Some we buy, some we don't. This one we chose not to."
One particularly violent scene in the game depicts a woman being raped by her husband. The game also has death sequences in which, for example, a pendulum slices the female protagonist's head in half or a demon pulls her face apart.
These are not the most violent acts ever seen in a computer game. But most games feature cartoon-like computer animations. "Phantasmagoria," however, is a live-action game with video clips and real actors. These gory scenes might be overlooked in other games, but live-action depictions of violence elicit a stronger emotional response.
If CompUSA has pulled "Phantasmagoria" based on its violence, it has made a bold statement about retailer responsibility. While I admire this decision, "Phantasmagoria" may not be the right product to cut.
Though the game is exceptionally graphic, Sierra On-Line, a company that publishes many products for children, has worked hard to prevent children from viewing the game.
"We've tried to do everything we can," says Dennis Cloutier, Sierra On-Line vice president of sales. "We're not running from it, we're kind of censoring ourselves, so to speak."
Not only has Sierra On-Line complied with a new rating system by marking the product with the symbol "M," for Mature Audiences, the company created a "Censorship" switch that blocks the most violent scenes from the player's view.
When you play the censored version of the game, the screen blurs during the most violent sections so you hear the action but can't see it.
"We are proponents of the rating system," Cloutier says. "We're very conscious of the influence that we have as an entertainment medium on the social scene. We want to have a company that appeals as a legitimate good corporate citizen."
"I'm disappointed that they decided to make a stand with my product," says "Phantasmagoria" creator Roberta Williams.
Best known for her family-oriented "King's Quest" games, Williams believes Sierra has been very responsible. "I don't like excessive violence and games like "Doom" and "Mortal Kombat," where you're going out and just shooting people and they're just splattering apart. To me that's unnecessary. Sierra has never published a game like that."
"I don't put `Phantasmagoria' in that same category," she says. "It's horror, and you expect it to be about mature subject matter. But what sets `Phantasmagoria' apart is that you play the good guy. You're not going around shooting up people. You're trying to prevent evil from taking over. That's a big difference. I wish they had looked into the product further before they made their decision."
According to Williams, computer games are subject to harsher standards than movies and television. "If this were a movie, no one would blink an eye. But the fact that it's a computer game, people are suddenly saying that we can't do that. `Phantasmagoria' is being unfairly picked on because it's a game."
The electronic game industry has endured considerable scrutiny. Williams says many people think of computer games as children's entertainment and don't understand that her game was created for an adult audience. "It's like saying you can't rent R-rated movies because your child might find it and put it in your VCR."