June 25, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

As maligned as gore games such as Doom, Quake, and Mortal Kombat have been — particularly in the aftermath of Littleton — fans have always fallen back on the defense that such titles tend to take place in hell-spawn dimensions and could never, ever be mistaken for reality. How, then, does one justify Kingpin: Life of Crime, a new first-person shooter that pushes the industry’s Mature rating to new limits?

Even the plot isn’t G-rated: You’re a bush-league urban gangster who must recruit bad guys of both sexes to join you in toppling rival gangs and, ultimately, the neighborhood don. To no one’s surprise, carnage ensues, but the difference here is in the details: You can shoot a character in 15 different places — the groin or head, for instance — with surgical precision.

We’ve seen realistic, depraved violence like this before: Grand Theft Auto, Carmageddon, and Redneck Rampage have all appeared on parental watchdog lists. But those are the videogame equivalents of B movies. Kingpin is far more ambitious, with realistic visuals that rival anything currently on PCs and a high-profile soundtrack by rap group Cypress Hill. Perhaps most noteworthy is the game’s liberal use of profanity. Goons call you ”pieces of crap” and threaten to ”kick your ass”; the F- and S-words also make extended appearances. With enough blue talk to make Samuel L. Jackson’s Pulp Fiction character blush, Kingpin makes you step back and say, ”Whoa! Kids shouldn’t be playing this.”

And herein lies the problem: It wasn’t made for kids, even if many people’s first inclination is to assume that anything made for this particular medium is. Unfortunately, videogames are stuck with the kiddie label, and everyone — parents, players, and store clerks alike — tends to drop their guard when letting the rough stuff find its way to the under-17 crowd. Even if Interplay has tattooed warning messages on its box and installation screens, the company still stands to take heat for releasing Kingpin into a post-Columbine universe.

In fact, the game has already drawn criticism for ads in gamer magazines like Next Generation that proclaim ”You’re Gonna Die” in large, comic-book-style red letters. On June 1, prompted in part by such mixed-media messages, President Clinton announced a federal probe into the marketing of violent entertainment to kids. Now whether game companies knowingly target children, a la Joe Camel, is open to debate. But like it or not, there’s a market out there for Kingpin‘s mindless chaos — an adult market. Whose fault is it if someone confuses the game with Pokemon? For kids: F For adults: B

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