That Game

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has been occupying a hefty chunk of my free time for the past several weeks; it’s been great fun—the best game I’ve played on the Xbox since Halo 2. Now, as video games go, it’s rated M for Mature—the equivalent of a movie ‘R’ rating. The protagonist of the game, the guy who’s actions you’re controlling, is a criminal. Still, there’s something a little off in our society, when I can say “I like Goodfellas” or “I read Elmore Leonard novels” and few would bat an eye, but “I like Grand Theft Auto” garners the all-too-frequent response: “You play that game?”

Chalk it up to the age of video games as a medium—in the greater scheme of things, they’re still pretty young. Once any medium has been around for a while, individual works tend to be judged on individual merits: “That was a great film!” “That book sucked.” You’ll be hard pressed to find someone nowadays who would make a sweeping statement like “novels are bad for you,” but of course that’s exactly what lots of people said when novels first became popular. Video games are currently plagued with plenty of similar generalizations and misconceptions.

One particularly troublesome one is that “video games are for kids!” Well, no, video games are for whoever the individual games are made for. Saying so is just as silly as saying “fiction is for kids!” or “comic books are for kids!”—that latter one we’ve just about grown out of, though you still come across lapses from time to time. It isn’t even the case (and hasn’t been for many years) that “most video games are made for kids” or even that “kids play video games more than adults.”

Such misconceptions underlie a big part of the controversy over the “Hot Coffee” mod for GTA: San Andreas—a downloadable hack to the original game that unlocks sexually explicit content. Rockstar, the game’s publisher, didn’t create the mod, nor did they ever suggest that anything in the game was remotely appropriate for children. And yet we get statements like this one from Congressman Fred Upton:

It appears that the publisher has blatantly circumvented the rules in order to peddle sexually explicit material to our youth, and they should be held accountable. A company cannot be allowed to profit from deceit.

Rockstar, the publisher, is guilty of stupidity and immaturity. They created the explicit content in the first place, and when they decided not to include it in the game (probably fearing it would get an Adults Only rating instead of an M), they simply cut off the content from the rest of the game, but left the code on the disc. There’s no way they can feign surprise that someone found the content and figured out a way to unlock it—the modding community for the Grand Theft Auto series of games is huge, and Rockstar has even gone out of the way in the past to place hidden surprises in their games for those who hack them. So they had to know that the cordoned-off content would be found, and probably assumed it would create some buzz, but underestimated the response. Stupid.

Still, even if you grant that they should be held responsible for content not present in the actual version of the game (and also considering that any hacked version, while not uncommon, is technically in violation of the Terms of Service)—a shaky case at best—there simply oughtn’t be a controversy about adult content in a game for adults. The kicker is that the content in question is nowhere near as racy or explicit as plenty of scenes that you could find in rated R movies—and, given its pixellated nature, the titillation factor is nonexistent. Nevertheless, the ESRB has re-rated San Andreas with an Adults Only rating, which means that it’s been yanked off the shelves of Walmart, Best Buy, and plenty of other chains. Sales will take a big hit, needless to say.

Let’s pause here for a moment and consider what it says about our society, when a game that’s chock full of bloody and completely superfluous violence barely raises an eyebrow, but the inclusion of scenes depicting consensual sex creates a kerfluffle to the highest levels of government. That is very screwed up.

The ESRB’s move is questionable, but Rockstar dug their own grave on this one, so maybe they got their just desserts. But any further action, especially in the way of a political response, would be a big mistake.

Further reading: Greg Costikyan laid into Rockstar a while back, and recently laid into the “twits in Washington.” Both worth reading. Also see this incisive rant, via Boing Boing.

(Incidentally, unlike, say, Goodfellas, the violence in San Andreas is thoroughly superfluous and does nothing to enhance the artistic merits of the work. Those merits have to do with the incredible range of activities available in the game, the immersive, huge, continuous setting, and the designers’ meticulous attention to detail. When playing the game, there is a certain guilty thrill the first time you steal a car and start driving around like a maniac. But ultimately, it’s a great game in spite of the things that garnered it an M rating, not because of them.)