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7/18/2005
10:35 AM
Mike Elgan
Mike Elgan
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Opinion: Sex Isn't The Problem With Grand Theft Auto

Everyone is up in arms about the "Hot Coffee" modification for the game "Grand Theft Auto." The mod adds a sex scene. But does that make the game--where the main character is an urban criminal sociopath running through town, stealing cars, killing cops, beating up innocent bystanders and engaging in gang warfare--suddenly "innappropriate" for children?

The Rockstar Games Inc. hit "Grand Theft Auto," a.k.a. GTA, is in the news lately because two U.S. senators, Joseph Lieberman and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have expressed disapproval over what they characterize as "hidden" sexual content in the game. This comes after California assemblyman Leland Yee criticized the content, and the subsequent launching of an investigation by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) on the issue.

The grandstanding politicians are talking about the "Hot Coffee" modification, something gamers and geeks have known about for a long time. Players can find the mod after a three-second Google search and download it on any of hundreds of sites.

Critics say the "Hot Coffee" modification "unlocks" pre-existing code written by Rockstar that enables the main character to have sex with a woman. Rockstar spokespeople deny this, and say the download "re-writes" Rockstar code, and in the process adds the sex scenes.

Regardless of whether "Hot Coffee" is an "unlock" or a "re-write," this whole thing really disturbs me for three reasons.

1. It's Not Sex That Makes GTA Inappropriate

The idea that GTA was appropriate for kids until the addition of a short, PG-13 sex scene is, well, obscene.

Grand Theft Auto is a game where you fantasize about being an urban criminal sociopath running through town, stealing cars, killing cops, beating up innocent bystanders and engaging in gang warfare. Famously, players can visit a prostitute (the encounter is not shown graphically), and are rewarded for murdering her afterwards so they don't have to pay.

There's no way in the game to learn anything constructive, help other people, create or build anything or benefit society in any way. You're turned loose in an urban sprawl world where the only option is to callously commit one violent crime after another.

I can't say this any more plainly: This was an inappropriate game for children and teens before the addition of sex.

2. Ratings Are Irrelevant

Ratings are a joke. All this "outrage" by politicians is ultimately about whether or not the game should get a sticker that says "Parental Advisory." Those stickers actually increase the appeal of games (and music CDs) to kids -- it's a sought-after symbol to teens of the adult and the forbidden. The stickers mean nothing to parents, who are still left with no real idea of what the content is going to do to their kids.

3. Sex And Violence Are The Wrong Metrics

Our whole system for determining what's appropriate or inappropriate for children is broken because it's based on sex and violence.

Our current system means violence in one game, where you're saving the world from Nazis, and another game, where you're killing a prostitute so you don't have to pay her, are equally appropriate for children. Or, more relevant to the example of GTA, one game, where you're a policeman trying to arrest a gang member who killed a woman while stealing her car, and another game, where you're a gang member trying to kill a policeman so you don't have to do time for killing a woman while stealing her car, are equal. Violence is violence, right?

Here's the ugly reality we're not dealing with: A majority of teenage boys in the United States spend several hours every day in media-driven daydreams fanaticizing about, learning about, and becoming comfortable with criminal, sociopathic, misogynist and profoundly unethical behavior. Have you seen MTV lately? Have you looked up the lyrics to popular hip hop lyrics? The main audience for this stuff is the same audience for "Grand Theft Auto": teenage boys.

What's needed is a system for ranking content based on the treatment of sociopathic and criminal content rather than just sex and violence. Instead of a game label that tells parents, in effect, "This content includes sex or violence of some kind in an unknown context," it should say very clearly: "This game is all about your child pretending to be a sociopathic criminal who steals cars and assaults and murders innocent people for entertainment."

What do you think?: mikeptp@elgan.com

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