Are there 'virtual' sins?

It has been a few weeks since the kids ripped off the Christmas wrappings and, after plugging in a few cables, soared off into the private universes inside their new video games.

Since then, most of them have been slaying armies of evil aliens, orcs, zombies or Nazis. Then again, they may -- with pounding pulses and razor-sharp reflexes -- have slaughtered innocent bystanders, bedded prostitutes, sold hard drugs to children and used stolen vehicles to flatten cops.

"Gamer" Jeff Hooten is worried that most parents have no idea what is going on in the digital domains behind those closed doors.

"Parents probably know that some researchers say these games are bad and that other researchers say they're OK. ... Also, these games aren't in the news because no one has walked into a school lately and shot the place up," said Hooten, author of a first-person Citizen Magazine essay entitled "Point. Click. Kill. A Father's Confession."

"But these games have changed and matured so much. It's a whole new world and parents need to know that."

The statistics describing the video-game industry are both stunning and almost irrelevant, since it is growing so fast. But when it comes to media sales, the gaming industry is poised to overtake music and movies in the next decade. The Entertainment Software Association claims that half of all Americans have played video games and a 2003 Gallup survey found that 70 percent of teen-aged boys had played one of the "Grand Theft Auto" games, which are rated "mature" or even "adults only."

Hooten wanted to explore this world, so he mastered "Halo 2," "Doom 3," Resident Evil," "Vice City" and other popular games intended for players 17 and older. He got used to the profanity and the sight of dismembered bodies. He felt no major pangs of guilt, until his young son walked in and asked: "Daddy, can I watch you play the bad game?"

One hard question leads to another. Is "virtual sin" real? Should parents forbid their children to play video games or, like television and movies, teach them to make wise choices? Should religious leaders and politicians seek tighter controls on the most violent and lurid games?

While researchers have focused on how these games affect the lives and habits of children, Christine Rosen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center is convinced that it's time to ask about their impact on our culture as a whole.

For millions of people, video games are the "new playgrounds of the self" in which players create imaginary identities that let them do things that they would never do in the real world, noted Rosen, in the journal "The New Atlantis." Digital technology allows a person to morph from one imaginary personality to another -- from chatty teen to midnight cyber assassin, from high-tech entrepreneur to lonely spouse seeking solace from online lovers. The interactive game world combines all of this.

A study called "Got Game" quoted one enthusiast saying: ?Games give us freedom to be, think, do, create, destroy. They let us change the answer to the question, 'Who am I?' in ways never before possible. Games let us reach the highest highs and the lowest lows, let us play with reality and reshape it to our own ends. They give us hope and meaning, show us that our journey through life is not pointless."

For real? At some point, argues Rosen, someone must ask: "Are we becoming so immersed in virtual reality that we end up devoting more time to the care and tending of our multiple, virtual identities than to the things in the real world that contribute to the formation of healthy identity?"

Hooten isn't ready to go that far, in part because he believes many of the games are creative and fun. But parents must wake up and pay attention.

"I'm not saying that video games are the devil's playground," said Hooten, who currently works as an Internet editor at Focus on the Family. "What I'm trying to say is, 'This is what I did. This is what it felt like. This is what these games are all about.' ...

"It is like entering another world. I guess that I had fun, if that's the right word for it. You really get immersed in these games and it's hard to stop."