Saturday, May 10, 2008

And the band plays on

One might think from the title, this is a post about Rock Band. One might be incorrect in that assumption, although that post will probably come soon. This is another one about the continuing fracas surrounding Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s a long one, so read at your own peril.

Wow, this is the story that doesn’t die. It’s not the first videogame issue that’s come up, but it has been one of the most widely touted, at least in recent memory. And it’s all about protecting the children. Think of the children!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Take Two Interactive sued the CTA for breach of contract when the CTA pulled GTA IV ads. I noticed Friday that the bus stop outside the Aon building has a GTA ad. Hooray for capitalism!

The rest of this post is inspired by this article in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. No, it’s not a paper I read regularly, but GamePolitics has been following the GTA thing extensively, and this was one of the articles they brought up. It’s a well-thought-through article, but wrong on a few points, and these are some points that have been bugging me for quite a while. And although the bulk of my regular readers have no real understanding of what I’m talking about, I’m still going to talk about it.

First, let me get this out of the way: this is a game kids should not play. Younger minds can be influenced by what they see and do, because they have yet to develop a thorough understanding of who they are, who they should be, and the difference between right and wrong. They have a less clearly defined separation between reality and fantasy. Which is why younger minds should not see R rated movies. This is why the term “adult themes” exists. And Grand Theft Auto IV, and many other quality games, are rated M, equivalent to an R rating in a movie.

But think of the children! You know they’re going to get their hands on it! Ask any 15 year old boy about whether his parents are the gatekeepers of their children’s play! And to that I agree, to some extent. In actuality, underage buyers of M-rated videogames have about a 20% success rate. Sounds like a lot, right? Not so much if you consider that an underage buyer can get an R-Rated DVD about 50% of the time, or get into an R-Rated movie 35% of the time. So in that sense, the videogame industry is clamping down pretty hard (at GameStop, the success rate is actually about 6%… makes me want to give them more business). And yes, parents sometime may get the game for their kids, not knowing about the content (that argument gets brought up all the time with games). Well then, I guess the parents are actually the gatekeepers of their children’s play. I could follow with a rant about good parenting, but I won’t.

But still, think of the children! They’re going to get their hands on it somehow! Think of the damage it can do to their fragile psyches! Yes, I agree, to some extent. And these children can also buy an R-Rated DVD, sneak into an R-Rated movie, look at things they shouldn’t on the internet, drink alcohol, smoke, possibly even get into drugs. I guess in the light of that, playing a videogame, even a very adult one like Grand Theft Auto IV, doesn’t seem as horrific. The idea that a game will influence them to do horrible things, when they have an almost limitless variety of other cultural influences, to say nothing of the influence of their peers, is foolish.

OK, well, think of the adults! These husbands and fathers can’t be any good if they spend their free time fantasizing about shooting hookers or running down pedestrians! And to that I agree. If someone spends their time fantasizing about these things, they have some pretty serious issues. However, not so many actually bring that away from the game. It has been my firm belief for a long time, that all of life is experienced through your own personal lenses. You bring out of any media that which is already inside you. I’ve known people who saw Star Wars, and they brought any number of things with them: some wanted to study film, others science, others music, others martial arts. Some parents refuse to let their children watch or read Harry Potter in case it influences them to get into witchcraft. That is more than a little ridiculous, and so is the concern about adults playing videogames.

I have seen myself be influenced by video games. After playing Burnout: Revenge, I find myself having to be careful while driving. After playing Katamari Damacy, I find myself influenced to clean up around the house, and thinking about what would roll up well wherever I go. I have gone to sleep and dreamt about matching gems after playing some games, and had music from other games floating through my head for days after. And I play Grand Theft Auto. In the game, I have driven a bus the wrong way down an expressway, plowing down cars as I see fit. I have stolen cars, mugged people, driven through crowded pedestrian areas, have gotten falling-down drunk (and once tried to drive that way… boy that didn’t last long), driven off "stunt ramps" so my car could fly dozens of yards, and done donuts on a baseball diamond and a beach. Am I influenced to do anything I have tried in game? No. Why? Because it is so far removed from who I am in real life that it's not a draw. At all. It is a game, not one in which I'm acting out my violent fantasies, but one in which I'm either trying to accomplish a goal or taking the opportunity to experiment and explore. And that right there is the kicker: games are blamed for corrupting people (much in the same way movies and television and comic books and rock & roll and cartoons and alcohol have in the past), while the truth is people don't need the help. Videogames have been blamed for the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings. Some tried to pin the blame on games for the NIU shooting before any evidence was in, and it turned out that the guy hadn’t played a game for years. It is my belief that these people were seriously messed up to begin with, and would have gotten the desire to kill others and themselves had they watched TV, played videogames, listened to music, or read the newspaper. It wasn’t in the media, it was in them.

Video games are the nation's current hysteria. It seems every decade or so, something has to be demonized. The most extreme example is prohibition in the 1930's. Alcohol was the evil “flavor of the month”, and a constitutional amendment was passed (yes, they changed the Constitution of the United States for this) declaring that this evil must be abolished from society. Fewer than ten years later, people realized how silly they were being, and repealed the amendment. Videogames have been the most recent perpetrators of evil in our culture; as they have become more mainstream they have attracted more attention, and those that don’t understand the influence fear the change, just like television, rock music, and the Internet.

Children: don’t play the game. Parents: communicate with your kids. Society: relax.

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