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Video games + the end of Western Civilization

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To the surprise of no one, the release this week of Grand Theft Auto IV has inspired much media hand-wringing.

Yesterday, AG Patrick Lynch put out the obligatory "consumer advisory" about the pending sale of GTA IV:

“As video games become more realistic and in many cases, more violent, parents must become more vigilant before buying them or letting their children use them,” said Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch. “Also, retailers and salespeople have a responsibility to better inform parents how violent these games actually are. Grand Theft Auto IV is obviously rated M for a reason, and parents need to keep a game like this away from their kids.”

Lynch is advising adults purchasing video games to check the rating symbols on the front of virtually every game package sold at retail. Each package bears one of the following age recommendations, which have been developed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB): EC (Early Childhood 3+), E (Everyone 6+), E10+ (Everyone 10 and up), T (Teen 13+), and M (Mature 17+). The rating also is printed on the back of each package, along with content descriptors providing information about content that may have triggered the rating or that may be of interest or concern to parents.

Not unreasonable, eh? Yet this became the basis for a prominent story on Channel 10's 11 pm newscast last night, faintly suggesting that this video game is a serious menace to all that is well and good, the denials of the one young person interviewed notwithstanding.

Such coverage hardly hurts Lynch's gubernatorial aspirations, since it caters to the fears of the state's suburban demographic. Yet Lynch, in his mild approach, compares favorably with the most zealous self-styled video watchdogs, as Mitch Krpata wrote in last week's Phoenix:

Florida attorney Jack Thompson, one of the most strident anti-games voices around, described the newest GTA installment as “a murder simulator for violence against women, cops, and innocent bystanders” and promised to bring legal action against the game’s publisher, Rockstar Games, and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive, if any copies of the game were sold to minors.

Similarly, in a move reminsicent of how she tried to stoke fears about school violence here in RI, there's this:

In 2005, Democratic New York Senator Hillary Clinton, along with co-sponsors Independent Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman, Democratic Indiana senator Evan Bayh, and Democratic South Dakota senator Tim Johnson, introduced a bill to the United States Senate that would have made the sale of M-rated (Mature) games to minors a federal offense. Although the proposed Family Entertainment Protection Act died in committee, it’s telling that the legislation contained no similar provision for R-rated movies. There seemed to be no doubt in the senators’ minds that games didn’t fall under the aegis of the First Amendment — that it wasn’t up to retailers to decide what they wanted to sell.

Krpata knows about what he speaks in his thoughtful essay on video games, which treats the subject with the complexity that it deserves, as with this:

The government shouldn’t impose limits on what software parents can buy for their kids. But just because they’re wrong doesn’t mean that anything we do in response is right.

Violence is overblown in some games. Non-whites are underrepresented among video-game heroes. Ironically, Grand Theft Auto is on surer footing than most games in both these regards. It’s true that GTA empowers players to commit violent crimes, but doing so attracts the attention of the police, which in turn makes the game world more perilous for the player. It’s an elegant risk-versus-reward mechanic that makes it much more than a brainless crime simulator. And GTA protagonists since the Vice City installment have been, serially, an Italian-American, an African-American, and now an immigrant from an unspecified Eastern European country. Far from trying to gloss over the diversity issue, Rockstar has embraced it. More developers should be taking this approach.

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