Violence is a staple in the adolescent world of video games while sex traditionally has been taboo.
But a decade after Acclaim Entertainment Inc. rattled parents with the hyper-violent "Mortal Kombat" series, the publisher is again pushing the boundaries of taste and propriety -- this time by spicing up its "BMX XXX" with topless female bicycle riders, a racy script and video clips of strippers.
As the popularity of video games grows beyond children and teen-agers, publishers are beginning to saturate their games with more mature themes and images. More than half the players of Sony's PlayStation 2 are over 18, and the kids who grew up on squeaky clean Mario want more adult fare.
"The Mature-rated games category is far and away the fastest growing in terms of sales," said Michael Pachter, analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles.
Pachter said sales of Mature, or M-rated, games in the United States are expected to double this year from 7 percent of overall sales to 14 percent, thanks to titles such as "BMX XXX," "The Getaway," and "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," the sequel to "Grand Theft Auto 3." That game featured interactive prostitutes whose services players could purchase to boost their health points.
Scantily clad women of impossible proportions have populated games for years, but overt sexuality largely has been avoided. Crossing the frontier to sexier content turns off some in the industry.
BMX athlete Dave Mirra pulled his name from "BMX XXX" this summer. Redwood City, Calif.-based Electronic Arts Inc., the world's largest independent game publisher, attempts to steer clear of M-rated games altogether. And game developers often go out of their way to tone down violent or suggestive themes to win the more commercially palatable "Teen" rating.
"We're trying to be a leader for the industry and protect the industry from heat," said Bing Gordon, a founder and chief creative officer of EA. "With the strip bar stuff, it's just too easy to open up the industry to potshots."
But Acclaim Chief Executive Greg Fischbach said he welcomes the controversy generated by "BMX XXX," which prompted the game industry's ratings board to introduce new descriptors to warn parents of sexual content. Fischbach -- whose career has included stints as a manager of the Steve Miller Band, an assistant U.S. attorney and the president of RCA Records -- said the debate will help expose what he considers a double standard for popular entertainment.
"If we were film producers, this wouldn't be at all controversial," Fischbach said. "It would just boil down to whether we're creating a good film or a bad film. This should be no different. Our goal is to create an entertainment experience, a video game version of 'American Pie' and Howard Stern."
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