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Stay Clear of Video-Game Conflicts, Researcher Warns School

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The current wave of discussion about video games, including rumors of the suspected--but as yet unproven--evils they cause, is creating a ''a River City Syndrome" for school administrators, says a former principal who is studying the phenomenon.

That is to say, "'We've got trouble!"' he explains.

But his observations thus far, adds B. David Brooks, who is now a private Long Beach, Calif., consultant on juvenile-crime prevention, have led him to conclude that the "trouble" is exaggerated, at least in suburban areas. As a consequence, he cautions against involvement by school officials in drives for ordinances to ban or restrict commercial video games, which have sprung up in stores and "video-game parlors'' in communities across the country over the last few years. Such activities by school officials needlessly promote ill feeling between the schools and segments of the business community, he believes.

"It's just not good public relations," he says. "The schools are in enough trouble." According to the consultant, school boards sometimes join in moves for such ordinances "on the basis of quick reaction without any study."

"My strongest recommendation to schools is to conduct a thorough investigation before making a public recommendation [for an ordinance]," he says.

The rationale for the ordinances, according to Mr. Brooks, includes several common assumptions: that video games draw students from school; that students spend their lunch money playing them; that students will borrow and steal to play them; that they will loiter in or near stores that sell liquor; and that the loitering fosters alcohol consumption, drug sales, and shoplifting among the youths.

To assess the validity of these as-sumptions, Mr. Brooks spent 30 hours recently observing and interviewing children who play video games, the clerks and proprietors of convenience and liquor stores that house them, and adult patrons of these stores.

During the next six months he will conduct a larger study examining the age, habits, expenditures, and success in school of more than 2,000 youths who play video games.

His first survey produced, he says, no evidence of increased truancy, some evidence that lunch money is being used to pay for the games, and no evidence that the games promote theft or alcohol consumption. "My observations indicate," he notes, "that the regulation of electronic video games or anything else that is attractive to youth will not substantially change the fact that kids find places to 'hang out."'

Location a Factor

But other evidence indicates that the amount of "trouble" associated with video games may depend on the location. For example, in New York City, officials from the state division of substance abuse services, using undercover staff observers, surveyed 102 amusement arcades and businesses, each of which contained four or more machines.

According to the study, the sale and use of drugs took place in 66 percent of the observed sites. Use or sale of drugs inside or directly in front of the sites ranged from marijuana (at 66 percent of the sites) to heroin (at 25 percent). Cocaine was seen at 40 percent of the sites.

"What characterized the places where we saw drug use," says Douglas S. Lipton, director of research and evaluation for the division, "was poor supervision. Places with good lighting and adult supervision did not have it. This [drug use] has nothing to do with the machines or the nature of the games," he says. "But any time youngsters with disposable income gather in a place, people will come along and try to sell things to them."

The survey, conducted over a one-month period, also found that about 40 percent of those playing video games during school hours appeared to be of school age.

Suburban and Rural

Mr. Brooks, however, argues that the situations observed in New York City may very well not apply to communities elsewhere. "I don't think you can base what you do in suburban and rural America on what happens in downtown America," he says.

But negative perceptions of the games, along with general concern over the physical effects of the games, have resulted in a spate of ordinances that in some way restrict their use by children or the commercial owners' ability to have them in the first place.

Moreover, occasional horror stories about the use of video games have also contributed to efforts to restrict them. For example, a case in Omaha involved a three-member gang consisting of a 13-year-old and two subteens who robbed other youngsters for money to pay for the video games.

Such ordinances have been passed in cities in every state in the country, with the possible exception of Hawaii, according to Stephen K. Cook. Mr. Cook is senior vice president at Daniel J. Edelman, a public-relations firm that represents the Amusement Device Manufacturers Association, the Amusement and Vending Machine Distributors Association, and the Amusement Music and Operators Association.

Mr. Cook noted four basic types of restrictions on the games: age restrictions on users, laws limiting the number of machines permitted in a given space, "exorbitant" license fees, and outright bans.

A Mesquite, Tex., ordinance barring individuals under 17 years of age from playing coin-operated pin-ball or video games has prompted the most publicized court challenge to date.

The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case regarding the constitutionality of that ordinance back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, which had earlier declared the age restriction unconstitutional. The appeals court said the age restriction was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.

Rufus King, an attorney who represents members of the coin-operated game industry and is special counsel for the Amusement Device Manufacturers Association, thinks the number of cases will increase following the Supreme Court move.

"This reaction [to pass ordinances] has become a general one in many town councils and local communities," he says. Cases are pending in the Boston and Atlanta areas but, according to Mr. Jones, "Most [ordinances] have not proceeded into litigation because people were waiting for Mesquite." The number is now likely to increase, he believes.

For example, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union is preparing to issue a court challenge to an ordinance restricting game use in Durham, N.H. "The only reason we have to do it is because the Supreme Court ducked the issue," says Randall P. Ment, executive director of the civil-liberties group.

Mr. Ment, for one, has not noticed much school involvement in the cases he has observed in the state. "Schools are staying out. A lot of the ordinances in New Hampshire towns come because the city council members tend to be parents themselves, and they try to extend their parental authority over the entire town."

Advisory Committee

Meanwhile, Mr. Brooks is in the process of contacting several national organizations, such as the parent-teachers association, the Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, national teachers' associations, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, to form an advisory committee for his project.

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