Commentary > Game Over
Weed, speed and LSD - in a video game?
If you thought Janet Jackson's breast was shocking, wait'll you see N.A.R.C.
March 12, 2004: 12:21 PM EST

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Every few years, a game comes along that goes out of its way to court controversy.

In 1997, it was "Carmageddon" (in which you earned points by plowing down pedestrians with your car) and "Postal" (a kill-'em-all shooter) that ruffled feathers. 2002 saw "BMX XXX", which featured video footage of strippers as part of the game. And, of course, there's the ongoing "Grand Theft Auto" franchise, which has been the focus for gaming industry opponents since its breakthrough into the mainstream in 2001.

Later this year, struggling publisher Midway will attempt to shock and awe with its remake of the 1990 arcade classic "N.A.R.C." Its timing, though, couldn't be worse and could have long-term ramifications on the industry.

N.A.R.C. in 1990...  
N.A.R.C. in 1990...

The original "N.A.R.C." cast you as a futuristic cop, shooting (and occasionally arresting) the bad guys. When dealers dropped dime bags or wads of cash, you'd navigate your character over the contraband and earn points. It wouldn't ping the radar today, but was edgy stuff for the time.

The basic premise of the game hasn't changed. You're still a cop and you're still looking to take out the dealers and suppliers. And, odds are you'll pick up the cash and drugs scattered about once again. The hook is: In the new "N.A.R.C.", your character can and is, in fact, encouraged to ingest those drugs.

...and N.A.R.C. today.  
...and N.A.R.C. today.

Looking to slow time around you a la "The Matrix" or "Max Payne"? Take a toke. Marijuana puts you into "weed time." Not sure who the bad guys are? Drop some LSD and enemies will appear to have giant devil heads. Moving too slow? A little speed will take care of that, letting you zip around and fight at an incredibly fast pace.

Those sounds you're hearing right now, by the way, are members of Congress hopping onto a bandwagon while gaming industry spokespersons guzzle Pepcid.

Seeing as very few people have seen "N.A.R.C." in person, it's much too early for anyone to condemn it. Tom Hall, a very accomplished game developer, is overseeing the project. And using the drugs too many times will lose you the game. You could, as Midway does, view these simply as power-ups, the same sort of thing you come across in pretty much any game, only in a different wrapper. (That view, though, seems a little too lenient.)

Sure, testing the limits worked for Rockstar and Take Two Interactive (TTWO: Research, Estimates) with "GTA". And given Midway's perilous financial situation, it's no surprise the company tried to copy that formula. "GTA" was lightning in a bottle, though. Recapturing it is an uphill battle.

While controversy might attract a few buyers, it could also bring some migraine-level headaches to the company and the industry. With the ongoing fallout over the Super Bowl halftime show, anyone pushing any sort of envelope these days is being hammered into submission. If certain parties couldn't handle being exposed to Janet Jackson's breast for two seconds, imagine how they're going to feel about a game that encourages you to light a doobie.

And releasing a game that's bound to be this controversial in an election year? What the heck is Midway (MWY: Research, Estimates) thinking?

"Entertainment is growing up," said Midway spokesperson Reilly Brennan. "I know this is a sensitive topic these days, but this is what people want to see. Look at TV: People love The Sopranos, The Shield, Nip/Tuck. That's what people are watching. ... We're not trying to glamorize drugs in any way and we're not trying to promote the use of them."

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Obviously, the company expects a "M" rating for this title, meaning it's inappropriate for anyone under 17. But it's pretty obvious that parents either remain ignorant of the games rating system or tend to ignore it. The industry is already facing attempts to regulate game sales in California, Florida and Washington State. And the U.S. House of Representatives last week referred a bill, which would make it illegal to sell or rent "adult video games" to minors, to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. (A similar bill died in that same committee last year.)

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Right now, both sides are in a holding pattern, as a federal judge decides the legality of the Washington state law restricting the sale of violent games to minors. The case is currently scheduled to begin June 7. The big question is: If sales of "N.A.R.C." and similar games begin to take off, will that prompt further regulation efforts, regardless of the outcome of the trial?

The gaming industry trade group doesn't think so.

"The ESA's view is that we do not believe video game regulation will be an issue in the national election," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association. "At a time when our nation is at war ... we believe Americans will have little tolerance for public officials who grandstand on media violence."

That's certainly possible but with "N.A.R.C." and the latest "Grand Theft Auto" title coming out within weeks of each other, I wouldn't count on it.  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an e-mail.

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