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Lets keep kids out of Vice City

With the cold winter months firmly entrenched, chances are someone in your household may be burning a few hours playing video games.

Two big-ticket items this recent holiday season were Microsoft's Xbox and Sony PlayStation 2. In researching these systems after they appeared high up on my kid's wish list, I found startling news. Many of the games compatible with these machines are anything but child's play.

No. 1 in popularity is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, compatible with Sony PlayStation 2.ÊThe previous version, called Grand Theft Auto III, sold between 6 million and 8 million copies last spring, according to University of Oregon Associate Professor Carl Bybee. He offers media studies courses and is the director of a media literacy project at the university.

'That number doesn't reflect the number of kids who may have burned CDs making their own versions,' Bybee says.

'If middle-schoolers haven't played it, they've heard of it,' Bybee says of the new game. 'Characters include Mafia hit men and prostitutes offering their services for energy boosts in the course of your virtual adventure.'

And, unlike watching a movie, the player is the main character, interacting with a community of unsavory players.ÊÊÊÊÊ

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is set in the underworld. The player becomes Tommy Vercetti, an ambitious lowlife criminal who's just made it back onto the streets of Liberty City after a long stint in the slammer. The game is about the struggle for power and knocking people off with your choice of a bat, pistol, Uzi submachine gun or AK-47 assault rifle, which can be used in drive-by shootings.

Testing the home front, I asked my 12-year-old son if he'd heard of the Grand Theft Auto series. 'I've heard they're really tight (cool),'Êhe said.

Although familiar with the game, to my relief he hadn't been exposed to it.Ê

But saying no in your own home doesn't ensure full protection. Chances are a friend's parents could have caved in to the pressure, with or without understanding of the contents.ÊÊ

The American Academy of Pediatrics reminds us that more than 1,000 studies confirm a link between media violence and aggressive behavior in children.Ê

Arming themselves with information helps parents make wiser choices for the many requests kids will have once they get their hands on a video game system. The games are rated by age and content with a symbol on the cover indicating the appropriateness for children. The symbols range from EC (suitable for ages 3 and older) to A (adult only). Grand Theft Auto III, for example is rated M (contents suitable for ages 17 and older).

Dawn Hall, an employee with Hollywood Video, explains how parents can protect their children from renting age- and content-inappropriate videos.

'When a family sets up an account, they can request restrictions,' she says. 'Our computer system automatically shows the real age of the child renting, and if the video they bring to the counter is rated beyond the age limit of that child, our policy is to say no, unless a parent comes in and rents it themselves.'

Parents also can set up their own standards to be put into Hollywood's system. 'Our policy is to ask children for picture ID, offering further assurance that we're matching the right child to that family's specific restrictions,' Hall says.ÊÊÊ

Blockbuster Video has a similar safeguard system. Others stores may as well; check to see if yours does.

You also can consult the Entertainment Software Rating Board at www.esrb.org or call 1-800-771-3772.

Diane Dennis-Crosland's radio show, 'Family Survival,' airs Sundays from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on KPAM (860 AM). Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..