Bowing to election-year political pressure to keep entertainment products "family friendly," two of the United States' largest retailers vowed Thursday to stop selling violent video games to children -- even as they acknowledged such games make up a tiny fraction of their overall software sales.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kmart Corp. follow the efforts of other mainstream retailers to block children under 17 from buying titles branded "mature" by a game industry ratings board. Sears, Montgomery Ward and Toys R Us have pulled such games from their shelves altogether.
Both Wal-Mart and Kmart said they will use a bar code scanner system that prompts cashiers to ask for identification from young people who try to purchase the so-called M-rated titles.
Politicians hailed the news as a victory for concerned parents, who will soon begin holiday shopping. But observers of the $6.1-billion video game industry said that, like movie theater restrictions, the retail bans are unlikely to keep inappropriate material from youngsters.
"It all comes down to enforcement," said James Lin, a senior analyst who tracks the entertainment industry for research firm Sutro & Co. "The movie industry still struggles with this problem. Tell any kid they can't go to an R-rated film, and they immediately want to see it."
Analysts said the hype surrounding violent video games -- fueled in part by tragedies such as the Columbine High School massacre -- encourages a misperception that this genre makes up the majority of video game software sales.
In fact, adult-oriented games comprise a small piece of the overall game software industry. Some 70 percent of the games sold are rated "E," or acceptable for consumers of all ages, according to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Of the 215 million units of game software sold in 1999, 3.9 percent were M-rated games.
Kmart and Wal-Mart executives acknowledged they sell few mature-rated games, which tend to be built for personal computers rather than stand-alone game consoles, such as Nintendo 64 or Sony PlayStation. Kmart, for instance, lists only 10 PC game titles in its inventory. Overall, M-rated titles account for just 3 percent of the company's video game sales.
"It doesn't matter if we only sell one or two," said Jessica Moser, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. "We feel this policy is the responsible thing to do."
The policy comes days before the Federal Trade Commission plans to release results of a year-long study on the marketing of entertainment violence to children, which could prompt congressional hearings. "The study will show that (the entertainment community) has targeted its marketing (of violent and adult-oriented content) to underage audiences," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. "We've been pleading with them for years not to do this, and yet they have."
In May, Brownback and eight other senators sent a letter to executives of Kmart and other major retailers encouraging them to pull the games off their shelves or prevent sales to anyone under 17. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic nominee for vice president, was among those who signed.
Speaking Thursday from the campaign trail, Lieberman dismissed concerns that retail bans will be difficult to enforce. "If people want to enforce a rating system, they can do it," he said. "It's like enforcing the age limit on drinking. ... If you ask for proof of age, that will work."
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