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SEATTLE — Can games desensitize children and teach them how to kill? Video and computer game violence is such a hot topic in the United States that the U.S. Senate has held two sets of hearings on the matter, and several senior senators each year host a conference in which they discuss problems with games.

And the U.S. isn’t the only country with fears that violent games may lead to aggressive behavior. Japanese officials, having seen a shocking rise in youth violence over the past few years, are also rethinking the impact of games.

The first violent arcade game was released in the U.S. less than five years after the 1972 introduction of “Pong.”

In 1976, the company Exidy released an arcade game called “Death Race,” in which players ran over stick figures of people. Except that they weren’t supposed to be people. According to “Death Race” creator Pete Kauffman, the stick figures represented gremlins and skeletons. But that didn’t stop the CBS news show “60 Minutes” from running a story about parents protesting the game.

” ‘Death Race’ did very well, but nobody wanted to be associated with it publicly because of the accusations from the press,” remembers Kauffman. “It seemed like the more (the) controversy . . . the more our sales increased.”

Concerns about game violence became headline news in 1993 when a U.S. company called Acclaim Entertainment released home versions of the arcade martial arts game “Mortal Kombat” for Super Nintendo (marketed in Japan as Super Famicom) and Sega Genesis (marketed in Japan as MegaDrive). “I was startled,” says Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the highly respected Connecticut legislator who recently ran as Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate. “It was very violent, and as you know, rewarded violence. And at the end, if you really did well, you’d get to decide whether to decapitate . . . . how to kill the other guy, how to pull his head off. And there was all sorts of blood flying around.”

Lieberman conducted Senate hearings that led to the creation of a system for rating the content of games and the Interactive Digital Software Association, a U.S. trade organization that represents the entertainment software industry.

In 1995, Lieberman, working with Sen. Herb Kohl, began sponsoring an annual news conference in which he discusses the contents of recently released games and game-industry adherence to the rating system.

Starting in 1997, Americans were mortified by a series of tragic school shootings in which students committed mass murders, the most lethal of which occurred in April 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Activist groups had already begun drawing correlations between game and movie violence and the earlier shootings when the Colorado police revealed details of a videotape created by the two Columbine teenagers who murdered 13 people at the school and injured 23 more before killing themselves. In the video, 18-year-old Eric Harris described the massacre they were planning by comparing it to the computer game “Doom.” “It’s going to be like f***ing Doom. Tick, tick, tick, tick . . . Haa! That f***ing shotgun is straight from ‘Doom.’ “

U.S. politicians, rocked by the shootings and stunned by the video, reopened their discussions about game violence. President Bill Clinton even held a news conference that illustrated abuses in video game marketing by showing an advertisement for a Namco game called “Point Blank” (marketed in Japan as “Gun Barrel”). According to Clinton, the ad, which featured the phrase “More fun than shooting your neighbor’s cat,” trivialized violence.

So far, however, the only results of the 1999 hearings have been an FCC study looking into the effects of violent games on aggressive behavior and a pledge from large retailers to enforce the ratings and not allow youngsters to purchase adult games.

Angered by the rating system, young U.S. game enthusiasts have long pointed out that Japanese video games and cartoons are more violent than those in the U.S., and that Japan does not have problems with youth violence. But what most Americans do not know is that Japan has had recent problems in that area.

According to the National Police Agency, the number of violent crimes committed by Japan’s youth has nearly doubled over last year. Just as they have in the U.S., many Japanese officials are taking a look at violent forms of entertainment and wondering what impact they have on young people.

Like their counterparts in the U.S., Japanese game makers have a trade organization — the Computer Entertainment Software Association.

What Japan lacks is a rating system.

“No rating system has been created in Japan, and there are no guidelines,” says Keiji Inafune, creator of Capcom’s hugely successful “Mega Man” games (marketed in Japan as “Rockman”). “My challenge is trying to make my own definition about what you can put in a family oriented game and what kind of material is strictly for mature players.”

In recent interviews, Inafune and other top designers have expressed concerns about making sure that family-friendly games are available to all audiences while reserving adult-oriented games for adults.

“When I create adult-only games, my target is to make a game that is enjoyable for adults. There is a line between these two [kinds of] games that I never cross,” says Inafune, who is currently finishing “Onimusha: Warlords,” a supernatural samurai game for PlayStation 2.

According to Namco’s director of consumer sales, Yoichi Haraguchi, who is currently serving a one-year term as chairman of CESA’s morality committee, “CESA has its own controlling system on issues such as violence and sexual expression.” CESA will likely adopt a rating system in the near future, says Haraguchi.

In the meantime, small pockets of Japanese game designers have decided to concentrate on making nonviolent, child-friendly games.

“I hate guns,” says Sega’s Tetsuya Mizaguchi, father of two young boys and creator of such hits as “Sega Rally.” “The desire to destroy is very deep in human nature. It’s sad. Shooting guns in games is not fantasy, it’s real; so I promised never to make gun games.”