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Random Musings
Vol.1, No. 8: Grand Theft Auto: An Editorial Comment

The content of this editorial comment is solely the responsibility of the author. The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by or its Administrators, Moderators, Review Team, or any other member.


A raging controversy has arisen in the gaming world concerning Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and explicit sex scenes in the game. The "Hot Coffee" mod unlocked interactive explicit sexual content and was made available for download on the internet. Almost instantly a firestorm arose, with many individuals and groups calling for tighter regulation of gaming. Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton and Republican Representative John Upton have led the charge in Congress for tougher controls. It did not help that Rockstar Games, makers of GTA, first denied that the code for the scenes was present in the original game, but later admitted that it manufactured the scenes but continued to claim they were inadvertently left behind when the final version was released. The calls for regulation have been met with reactions ranging from amusement to outrage. Arguments on all sides miss many of the key points of the issue.

Before going further, I must admit that I am not a gamer. A person does not need to be involved in the gaming world, however, to know that game makers fall all over themselves in the race to produce a game more violent than the last, with more sexual overtones if not explicitness, racial and gender stereotypes, and other unsavory content. Many argue that we are talking about "just games," but I am hard pressed to see how losing oneself in the glory of gore, sexism, racism, and other general mayhem, even in the fantasy world of games, can be classified as harmless fun. Surely whatever mental or physical challenges making up any truly positive rewards in gaming could be achieved in less violent and stereotypical avenues.

Be that as it may, violence, sexism, racism and other less than uplifting features of gaming appear to be here to stay, as they unfortunately are in real life society. The major issue is, and has been, how to ensure that those who do not wish to be exposed, or have their children exposed to these things can be protected. The industry's answer has been the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a largely self-policing effort to rate games in an age-appropriate manner. ESRB originally gave GTA: SA a Mature rating, indicating it was suitable only for those 17 and older. After the availability of the Hot Coffee mod, the rating was changed to Adults Only, suitable only for those over 18. ESRB's website has a listing and description of its ratings.

Probably the most prevalent response to those calling for more stringent regulation has been that it is the responsibility of parents to oversee their children's activities and if a child has access to an improper game it is merely the result of bad parenting. Certainly parents have that responsibility, but even the most diligent parent cannot be in constant physical supervision of an eight, ten, or twelve year old. Ratings and labeling are meaningless if there is not truth in packaging, which is one of the points often missed by both sides of this controversy. Parents also have the responsibility to protect the physical well being of their children. Would those who are so vehemently opposed to external regulation be so forgiving of a packaged food manufacturer who purposely or inadvertently left peanut oil out of their list of ingredients, resulting in the deaths of several allergic children? Dishonest or otherwise inaccurate labeling is worse than no labeling at all in its invidious result of actively misleading the unwary but trusting consumer.

Assuming that Rockstar is now being honest in asserting the code for the sex scenes was accidentally left behind in the production, that does not absolve Rockstar of responsibility. Companies that pander to and profit from the penchant of those who, for whatever reasons, find entertainment in violence and sex and the often unhealthy juxtaposition of the two, have an increased responsibility to ensure that their products are no more violent and sexist than they purport to be. Considering the profitability of the venture, I am particularly unmoved by Rockstar's bemoaning of the fact that it stands to lose $60 million dollars from lost sales in this fiasco, as several vendors decline to carry games with the AO rating.

Equally unconvincing is the argument that this is all just a tempest in a teapot that is unfairly being used as an excuse to regulate where no regulation is needed or appropriate. This argument hinges on the fact that the differences between the Mature and Adults Only ratings are so slight as to make the separate ratings ridiculous. I agree with this point. The main difference seems to be that the AO rating is earned by "prolonged" scenes of sex and gore. Short scenes are apparently okay for the M rating. This distinction is indeed contrived. Adding to the lunacy is the fact that it is highly unlikely that anyone goes through some magical transformation of maturity between their seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays. I have already expressed my questioning of whether the desire to play these games indicates maturity in any event, regardless of physical age.

This argument ignores the reality of the situation, a reality that is exacerbated by Rockstar's waffling excuses. It may very well be that the difference between an M rating and an AO rating is so miniscule as to be meaningless, but what does this say to the conscientious parent or others about the reliability of the self-regulating system to begin with? If game makers and the system are so obviously negligent or worse that errors such as this can occur, how confident can the parent or others be that other ratings indicating suitability for much younger children are accurate? Do we overlook as inadvertent the exposure to an eight year old of sexist and gory violence or do we hold the producer accountable the same way we would hold the food producer accountable for the failure to list peanuts in the list of ingredients? To me, the answer is obvious. When self-regulation fails, external regulation is required.

The bottom line answer to the "Big Brother" argument is that it is and always has been one of the functions of any government to protect its citizens. When self-regulation fails, whether in the gaming industry or in situations in which a manufacturer dumps toxic waste into a community's drinking water, governmental intervention is both permissible and mandated. The gaming industry and gamers have only themselves to blame for what I believe is the less than ominous specter of the potential loss of some of their "fun."