The Multinational Monitor


G L O B A L   N E W S W A T C H

Video Games Under Fire

Malaysia Bans Arcade Games

The video game industry is under attack in East Asia.

Heeding the call of a local consumer group, the government of Malaysia on October 5 imposed an immediate ban on the import of arcade video machines and gave operators of the arcades one year to close up shop.

In so doing, the Malaysian government joins Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines on the list of countries who have outlawed the games this year.

"Many students and even adults have become addicted to video games, such that it affected their performance at school and at work," said Datuk Musa Hitam, acting prime minister and home affairs minister, in announcing the decision. Datuk Musa particularly objected to the games' "undesirable effect on children."

At the time of the ban, which made front page news in Malaysia, the country had 1,614 game machines, most of which were located in shopping centers.

The government move came only two months after Malaysia's leading consumer organization, the Consumer Association of Penang, delivered a six-page memorandum to the government calling for a nationwide ban.

The consumer group, while recognizing the "unprecedented popularity" of the games, spelled out a number of "strong negative influences" the machines exercise.

  • Violence

    "These games glorify violence, destruction, space war, killing and racing," the memo states. "Such themes are detrimental to the mental, social and cultural development of children as well as adults."

    The report mentioned as an example a game "where the player is required to drive a car speeding down a road crowded with pedestrians. The object is to knock down as many people as possible with each kill marked by the appearance of a cross."

  • Monetary loss

    "Most games cost 40 cents per play. The game takes only a few minutes. Further, these games are addictive and habitforming, causing a lot of money to be lost," the report argues.

    According to a study by the consumer association, "children spend up to $10.00 in a few hours" just playing the games.

  • Nutritional drain

    "Children take their pocket money meant for food in school to 'feed' the video games," the memorandum states. So addicting are the games, says the consumer group, that "some children go hungry to save up the money" to play.

  • Immoral influence

    The video craze has caught on with such intensity that the consumer group found a high incidence of immoral behavior correlated with the desire to play, "When their money runs out," school children hooked on the games get desperate, the report explains. "A teacher interviewed by CAP said that one of his pupils stole his parents' $12.00 to play the video games."

    This problem is not endemic to Malaysia, the group says, stating that "in Hong Kong, in the first half of 1979, 1,656 minors under the age of 19 were taken into police custody for stealing money to play video games.

    In addition, the games have created an incentive for gambling among youth, the consumer group says, as children "bid against one another and go on doing so until one has lost all his money."

  • Asocial behavior

    The memo also claims that playing video games makes a person less sensitive to others. In one instance in Malaysia this year, according to the document, "two children were concentrating so hard on the game that they did not even notice that their baby brother had fallen down the stairs!"

    "The game isolates players, hinders communication and interaction and thus creates `loners' in a society," the report says.

  • Distraction from school

    "The passion for video games," says the Penang organization, "has caused children to ignore homework." A number of teachers, in testimony to the group, related "declining enthusiasm" in school work to pupils' interest in playing the arcades.

  • Cultural imposition

    "With the present rate of growth of video games, our traditional games may be lost forever," lamented the consumer association. "It is a pity that our once enjoyable traditional games are now dying. These games had been, beyond a doubt, culturally, socially, and mentally superior."

The chief manufacturers of arcade video games are Atari, which is a subsidiary of Warner Communications: Bally/Midway, and Williams, the latter two being Chicago-based firms. The three companies refused to comment on Malaysia's ban and would not provide information on their overseas operations.

Surgeon General Cites Hazards, Then Retracts Under Pressure

Concerns about the health effects of video games extend to the United States. Ronald Reagan's own appointee, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, said on November 9 that video games produce "aberrations in childhood behavior." In many of the games, "everything is eliminate, kill, destroy," Koop said, adding that the violence on the screen may induce children to mimic it in real life.

"We are appalled at the Surgeon General's perception of the video games," said Raymond Kassar, chief executive officer of Atari, a unit of Warner Communications that pulls down about 70% of the home video market. Other company officials and industry organizations wired in their complaints about Koop as soon as they heard of his remarks.

The following day, Koop fully retracted his statement. It was an "off-the-cuff comment" that "represented my purely personal judgment," Koop said. He added that his opinion "is not based on any accumulated scientific evidence, nor does it represent the official view of the Public Health Service."

The video game industry was delighted with Koop's humiliation. His "intemperate" comments were "on balance very helpful," says Allan Schlosser of the Electronics Industries Association, becuase they gave the industry a chance to "clear the air."

The video game industry has taken off dramatically in the United States. According to the Electronics Industries Association, only 400,000 home video games were sold to dealers in 1979; the next year the figures skyrocketed to 2.2 million; by 1981 the total had doubled again, and in 1982 the sum reached 8 million units - a 20-fold increase over a four year period.

Video games are particularly popular among a specific segment of the population. "Young males between the ages of 8-18" take "the lion's share of the market," says Chris Kirby, investment analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein, a brokerage house in New York.

U.S. Army Adopts the Games

While the debate rages over the militaristic nature of video games, there is one organization enthusiastically supporting the devices: the U.S. army.

"Video games are fun, exciting, and challenging," says an article called "PAC-MAN Meets GI Joe?", which appeared in the September issue of the official U.S. army magazine Soldiers. "Crowds of GIs" can be seen "around video games in any snack bar, club, recreation center, laundry or dayroom" on the base, the article notes.

But the army embraces the games not only for their entertainment value. It also adapts the games as "training simulators," the Soldiers story says. "Many commercial games" have the "potential for military training applications," including Atari's popular "Battle Zone" tank game, claims the article. A variation on the Atari game "requires all the correct actions needed to engage and destroy the enemy," Soldiers reports proudly. Such games may refine "those skills needed by the gunner on actual equipment"- and with live targets.

Since the devices may "fill some vital training gaps," Soldiers concludes that "video games have a future in the Army."

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