New video game challenges taboos with child violence theme

Steve Adams

A Quincy company's much-anticipated video game is testing the limits of the ultraviolent gaming genre with a strategy that enables players to kill characters resembling young girls.

2K Boston's BioShock game ranked first worldwide in interest among gamers as it launched Tuesday, according to industry analyst IGN GamerMetrics. The company tracks web buzz about video games.

BioShock is set in an underwater city called Rapture. BioShock imagines a futuristic dystopia where genetic modification is common, and players enhance their powers by collecting and recycling genetic material from their victims.

One strategy enables players to attack "Little Sisters," characters who resemble young girls. The Little Sisters contain vast quantities of a life-enhancing serum which players can drain to make themselves stronger.

Players also have the option of rescuing the Little Sisters characters, but obtain only half as much of the serum.

BioShock's taboo-breaking content rekindles the debate about the correlation between blood-spattered games and real-life violence.

The goal was to present players with difficult choices, 2K Boston President Kenneth Levine said.

"As a piece of art, we want to deal with challenging moral issues and if you want to do that, you have to go to some dark places," Levine said. "And BioShock certainly does go to some dark places."

In a gamers' forum this week, members debated whether or not they would kill the characters.

"I can understand how some people would be against doing certain things in video games even though they're not real," one poster commented on GameSpot. "For example, if there was a game out there that allowed you to play as a pedophile and you had to do stuff, I would never play it even though 'it's just a game.' "

Another suggested games like BioShock provide a harmless outlet for violent impulses. "Maybe allowing people to simulate repulsive things is keeping some folks from doing it for real. I say long live video games that push the envelope."

The true identity of the characters was purposely made ambiguous, Levine said.

"They are something that appears to be some genetically modified model of a child, but it's not," he said.

Some players have suggested that saving, rather than killing, the Little Sisters may grant players rewards later in the game.

Jeanne Funk, a psychology professor at the University of Toledo, has conducted research indicating that video games desensitize young people to violence.

In five studies involving more than 300 youths ages 12 and under, those who played violent video games had lower feelings of empathy and stronger "pro-violence attitudes," Funk said.

Middlesex County prosecutors have suggested that video games played a role in the stabbing death of a Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School student in January.

John Odgren, a 16-year-old student, allegedly played a video game in which a character stabs and shoots a series of victims on the morning he stabbed to death 15-year-old freshman James Alensen with a 13-inch carving knife. The two students did not know each other.

On his Myspace page, Odgren had blogged that he might "channel Tommy Vercetti," referring to a character in the "Grand Theft Auto" video game. Grand Theft Auto is published by Take-Two Interactive, which acquired 2K Boston in 2005.

Levine said BioShock's M rating, for mature audiences, reflects that the game is intended for adults. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board is a voluntary group that rates the content of video games. Games with M ratings may contain violence, sexual content and strong language and may not be suitable for those under 17, according to the board.

Courts have consistently struck down laws attempting to block the sale of violent games to minors, citing protection of free speech.

Steve Adams of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at sadams@ledger.com.