CHRISTMAS shopping for your standard-issue 8- to 14-year-old boy is done primarily in a video-game store.
Most parents are strangers in this strange land, where a slim plastic case with a sci-fi cover and a CD inside can set you back half a hundred bucks.
They are called video "games" and computer "games," but this )) term is deceptive. These are not games you play -- and that is especially true of parents -- but rather worlds you enter, peopled with characters pretty much waiting to kill or be killed.
In the corner of that slim, plastic CD case is a letter code: E, K-A, T or M. But it is a code that parents can't seem to break, so they ignore it.
Sales clerks ignore it, too. After all, we're not talking about liquor or cigarettes or Playboy magazines. We're talking games. You can't go to jail for selling this stuff to little kids.
But if more parents knew what was inside these slim, plastic cases, if they saw what goes on in these violent video worlds, they might want to send somebody to jail.
"There is a segment of the market that shouldn't be called 'games.' They should be called 'kill-for-fun murder simulations,' " says David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and Family in Minneapolis.
For the fourth year, just in time for holiday shopping, Walsh's think tank has released a report card on video and computer games. It evaluated the content of 51 video and computer games for age appropriateness, violence, language, nudity and sexual content. (You can find the results on the Internet at www.mediafamily.org. Or call 1-888-672-5437 and the institute will mail you a copy.)
But Media and Family also surveyed families, arcades, retail stores and rental outlets and the Internet, and the results are disturbing. These games are subject to a ratings system to protect kids from inappropriate material, but nobody -- not parents and not sales people -- is paying any attention to it.
"Parents are clueless," says Walsh. "There is a technical barrier that parents can't cross. The games aren't accessible. You have to practice. So the technical barrier becomes an interest barrier and parents stop paying attention."
According to the survey, most parents do not know what their children's games contain and they don't understand the rating system. Many didn't know there was one.
Sales clerks don't enforce it, though they were candid enough with Media and Family interviewers to say that they can't believe the stuff parents are buying for young kids.
Clerks in video rental stores are even less likely to enforce the ratings code. The survey found that most clerks don't understand the ratings system and that few stores offer any training in what the codes mean.
As the result of an agreement with a coalition of trade organizations in September, video arcades will rate their games, too. But you have to wonder what good that will do.
Media and Family also found that producers and distributors offer game samples that can be downloaded off the Internet and discovered that CyberPatrol, a top Internet software filter, blocked only one site that had games with mature themes.
Parents know the Internet is an untamed wilderness, but they have turned a blind eye to the games their kids are playing on Sony Playstation or Nintendo 64. These games are more than shoot-'em-ups, they are murder and mayhem. With advertisements like these, what can the games be like?
For "Carmageddon" (rated M, for mature): "As easy as killing babies with axes."
For "Subspace" (an online game rated K-A, acceptable for everyone): "Meet people from all over the world, then kill them."
For "Point Blank" (rated T, acceptable for teens): "More fun than shooting your neighbor's cat."
And for a new joystick system produced by Gravis: "Great. You get better accuracy and control but what are you going to do with all the extra bodies? Be the first on your block to make your neighbors say, 'What's that smell?' "
What's next?: "You, too, can pick off teachers and classmates with high-powered rifles after trapping them on the playground with a false fire alarm."
It doesn't take a techno-genius to see how dreadful murder-simulation games can be for children. But it does take time and video-game skills to unlock the sexual content and the violence inside. Most parents have little of one and none of the other.
But it is easy to look on that slim plastic case for the code. An M means you've been warned. There is bad stuff there.
Even a T rating, for teens, might indicate something you don't want for your child. NFL Blitz sounds safe enough and it is rated E, for everyone. But in this football game, piling on, late hits and other dirty play are rewarded.
"What surprised us was the knowledge gap," says Walsh. "It is as if the ratings system exists in a vacuum. It is a tool that must be used."
The games reviewed on the Media and Family Web site are perhaps 10 percent of the 500 or more titles that are on the shelf at any one time. They were chosen for Media and Family by Steven Kent, a nationally syndicated gaming columnist, as the games likely to be hot this holiday season.
They were reviewed by parents for Media and Family and in very few cases was the industry rating found to be inappropriate.
Even if you can't play the game, you are not out of the game. Check the box. There is a rating there. Use it.
Pub Date: 12/15/98