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Seeking New Twists on Violence

Designers Hesitate to Take Games to Further Extremes

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A01

TUCSON -- In the original Postal video game, you play a man gone berserk, beating up innocent bystanders just because you've had a bad day. In the second version, you attack a Middle Eastern shop owner, dancers at a gay club and a marching band. In the latest iteration, due out this spring, you mistakenly set off a nuclear explosion, killing everyone in town.

Four men -- software developers, artists and producers -- are sitting around a dining room table here in the city's foothills debating where to take the game next.

Steve Wik, from left, Vince Desiderio, Andrew Hall, J.B. Gore, Mike Jaret and Bill Kunkel are game designers. (Ariana Eunjung Cha -- The Washington Post)

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Violence has always been key to the game's success, turning it into a profitable franchise for the company behind it, Running With Scissors Inc. That success bred lots of imitators and helped establish a genre, but like many in their industry, the game's developers are confronting a new question. Is it wise -- or even feasible -- to push the scenarios to further extremes?

Steve Wik, 39, the company's lead creative director, says too many games have become dependent on violence for violence's sake and that has made violence boring. His colleague Bill Kunkel, 54, adds that some games are too dark for even his taste. He's seen one scene in which the main character is "chopping people up with a butter knife in an alley." Mike Jaret, 23, points out that game-review sites on the Web recently have become filled with similar criticism about games from the people you'd least expect -- fans.

"So many people these days are obsessed with vulgarity. Sure you have a gun and sure you can kill, but that shouldn't be the point," adds Vince Desiderio, 51, the company's co-founder.

Such sentiment was not always the case at Running With Scissors. Condemned by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and the U.S. Postal Service, the game has the distinction of being one of the first violent video games that allowed a player to be the bad guy. Postal, which first came out in 1997 , has been denounced by some game reviewers as a "murder simulator" and has been outlawed by the governments of at least 14 countries.

That notoriety, however, put the company in the right place at the right time. Sales of video games overall climbed to record highs last year, reaching $7.3 billion. Sixteen percent of all games sold rated "M" for mature audiences versus 12 percent in 2003 and 13 percent in 2002, according NPD Group, a research firm.

But it's one thing to be condemned by the establishment and another to become a pariah to the masses, a failure in the marketplace. In the gross-out world that characterizes many of today's video games, the Scissors team knows it is walking a fine line.

The developers decide that they are not comfortable with putting children in the game. Mixing sex with violence is also out of the question. No recreation of the Columbine massacre or the Twin Towers falling. Plus no singling out a single racial or ethnic group or gender for violence. Postal is an equal opportunity world Everyone has an equal opportunity to fight -- and be killed. Almost everything else, they conclude, has been done.

"There's a reason why they say there are only seven scripts in Hollywood," Desiderio said.

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