CARACAS, Venezuela — At a video arcade in the center of Venezuela’s capital, the sound of tapping buttons and the rattle of virtual gunfire fills the room as young boys battle mercenaries and zombies on games such as "Target: Terror Gold" and "House of the Dead 2."
But in a few months this busy arcade will likely stand silent and empty, thanks to a new law here that would ban the sale and playing of violent video games and toys.
The law is an attempt to tackle the epidemic levels of violence that plague this South American country. Homicides have reached record levels in recent years. Caracas — with 2,710 murders, or 130 per 100,000 citizens in 2007 — has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
The law was based on several studies in the United States and Japan that conclude violent video games increase aggressive tendencies in children, said National Assembly lawmaker Wilmer Iglesias of Fatherland For All, a party allied with President Hugo Chavez. (The assembly has approved the law but it may be altered before being signed by the president.)
But many dispute the link between the games and actual violence, saying the law will do little to address the real roots of crime. And they say the law goes too far in banning even adults from playing.
In addition, critics point to some discrepancies in the law: a potential three- to five-year prison sentence for selling or distributing violent video games is a harsher punishment than the sentence for selling real guns to children, which currently stands at one to five years.
Venezueala's game development industry is small so most of the games are imported from abroad.
Popular online games here include "Counter-Strike" and "World of Warcraft," a multiplayer role-playing game set in the fictional world of Azeroth, where avatars kill monsters and complete quests. For consoles there is "The Legend of Zelda" and "Super Smash Bros," where players choose from various Nintendo characters such as Mario and Pokemon and try to knock out their opponent.
In addition to video games, toys that include any kind of weapon or that imitate the armed force or state security apparatus would be banned. Toys that don't promote a situation of war, but still "establish a type of game that stimulates aggression and violence" would also fall under the ban.
“We’re not saying that this law pretends to solve the problem of violence but we believe that there are great problems and their solution is complex, cultural and multifaceted, and if that is true we need to attack it from all points of view that can influence it,” Iglesias said.
But other studies say that there is no evidence of a connection between adolescent violence and video games. Cheryl K. Olson, co-author of "Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do," said that in her study of the influences on "school shooters" in the United States, the only commonality was male gender and a tendency toward depression.
“The more closely you look at the problem, the more it crumbles,” she said. A lot of politicians may be sincere, she said, but concentrating on violent video games “takes attention away from things we know can really make a difference.”
Violent video games can even be beneficial because they can have a cathartic influence by allowing children to release aggression in a safe environment, she added.
Venezuelan lawmakers were aggrieved by a 2006 video game developed by Los Angeles-based game developer Pandemic Studios. “Mercenaries 2: World in Flames” featured a plot in which “a power hungry tyrant uses Venezuela’s oil supply to overthrow the government and turns the country into a war-zone.” Venezuelan authorities said the game was a barbed reference to the controversial Chavez and that it was a coded plot to stir up support for an invasion of Venezuela.
Game developers in Venezuela say they agree that children should be protected from some violent video games but that the law is excessive in banning even adults from playing. Ciro Duran, coordinator of the National Industry of Video Games, Entertainment and Digital Arts, said the wording of the law would open interpretation for banning even apparently innocent video games.
“As video game developers, we are basically going to have to go to the government and ask them ‘what is a violent video game?’” he said. “We’re talking about a much more profound problem here. The kids who turn violent from playing violent games are kids who are already violent. There is a very real problem which is, 'What is the true cause of child violence?'”
Venezuela does not have a classification system like the one in the U.S. that ranks video games from "E" for everyone to "A" for adults only.
Iglesias said they considered that route but decided an outright ban was more appropriate because of Venezuela’s extensive network of pirate vendors. “I’d like to see someone protest about their right to kill virtually,” he said. “We hope this law will provoke an awareness and debate in society on the subject of violence.”
At the video arcade in Sabana Grande, the principal shopping street in Caracas, the manager, who requested not to be named for fear of reprisal by the government, said the premises would close down by February, leaving its five employees jobless.
He complained that the government was doing little to control real violence outside the arcade when police officers abandon the area to criminals after eight in the evening and over weekends. Criminals broke into the arcade and stole televisions and a cash register a month ago, he said.
Video game player Eduard Reina, 19, thought video games did not make him aggressive. “If they close down places like this one, I’ll play video games at home on my X-Box,” he said, while shooting at computer-generated mercenaries with a virtual gun.