The Parent’s Television Council has decided that they need to get on their soapbox and has issued an alert about the upcoming game Grand Theft Auto IV. After reading it I decided to do as they asked at the end, and share this with every concerned parent I know.
This probably isn’t going to be quite what they had in mind, though.
Just to make sure you know what I’m talking about, here’s a little background. Grand Theft Auto is a series of games that depict the life of a street gangster or hood. They’ve been compared most often to the R-rated movie “Scarface”. The fourth one, unsurprisingly called “Grand Theft Auto IV”, is coming out on April 29th. The ESRB already rated this next one as “M”, with an even stronger set of descriptors than it’s predecessor. Here is where you can find a list of all the games in the series and their ratings and descriptors.
That said, back to the PTC alert. The list of misconceptions and out-and-out errors in the second paragraph alone is long and displays a complete misunderstanding of the game and the situation.
For one thing, this list of concerning issues isn’t for the game coming out. As they briefly point out, the objections they’re listing are from the last game. I have no doubt this sort of thing is involved in the new game considering the descriptors for “Strong Sexual Content” that are in the ESRB rating. I just want to make it clear that none of these people have actually played the game that is coming out, and neither have I. I did play several hours worth of the last one to confirm it’s content. These answers come from that.
- You do not “reenact having sex with a prostitute”. You get in a car with her, the car bounces for a bit, and then you get out. That’s like saying jumping on the bed is reenacting pornography.
- You can hit her and run her over or steal her money like they say. Just like you can hit or run over or steal money from everything else in the game. There’s no special “hit the hooker” or “steal the hooker’s money” command. Why aren’t they even talking about the little old ladies you can run over?
- You don’t HAVE to do any of this when you’re playing. You can complete the entire game with flying colors and never once solicit a hooker, or do any of the rest of it. Most gamers didn’t even know it was possible until someone advertised it and people started jumping up and down about it. Many people I talked to didn’t find it in the game themselves; they learned about it from press releases just like this PTC advisory.
- There is no “simple code” to display Hot Coffee. And it isn’t exactly easy. There are two ways to see it, depending on if you have it on a console, or on a PC. For the PC you have to hack the game in a specific manner using a list of technical instructions, and then play it in a specific manner. For the console, you have to buy a piece of hacking hardware called a Gameshark, then program the Gameshark, and then play the game in a specific manner.
- What is available on the web and easy to find in many places is the footage itself. Kids don’t have to play the game to see it. Just Google “Hot Coffee Video”. I’m not going to link here, but I recommend Gametrailers version for clarity.
- It’s not a game mod. It’s a hack of the game program that uncovered some orphan code. A handy list of terms and definitions can be found here. The reason this matters is modding is somewhat of a legal gray area thanks to the copyright concept called “derivative works”, and most game developers don’t mind if you acknowledge it as such and build the mod in a manner respectful of their rights. Hacking of this sort is breaking a legal contract and the person doing it committing a crime that is punishable by law. A discussion about that sort of orphaned or buried code can be found here.
The PTC’s suggested remedies aren’t much better than their statement of the problem.
- Suggest your retailer not carry the game: A) it’s too late; this thing hit the shipping channels over a month ago, B) your game store is under contract to carry it via agreements with the game’s publisher and has been for at least two years. If you’re going to be using this as a tactic, you might want to pay attention to game development announcements rather than shipping dates and start your letter-writing earlier. Oh, and don’t bother your local store because they have no control over what corporate decides they carry – go to the store’s parent company and the game’s publisher.
- Insist the ESRB review the entire game: Again, you’re a little late to the party. The game was rated some time ago. It was given the highest rating and strongest warnings possible for just what content is plainly viewable on the surface during their regular review process. What good will dragging them through the whole game do? Even if there’s a new Hot Coffee in there, the “Strong Sexual Content” descriptor the game already has covers it.
- A written guarantee to retailers that there is no hidden or modifiable content in the game: What? Any code can be modified. There is no way to write code that can’t be. They take the best precautions out there, but there is no way to perfectly protect code. Once that first disk gets picked up at midnight on the 28th, the clock is ticking. If it takes an hour for the first person to get into this code, it’s because he stopped at 7-11 on the way home and maybe had some trouble getting the shrink wrap off the box. And what would Rockstar writing a letter do, precisely?
- Colonel Grossman’s comments: His work is controversial, and using him to support their objection is a warning sign to me. I have some better sources. For some in depth studies on youth violence that have been properly conducted and paid for by neutral third parties, I recommend the book Grand Theft Childhood. If you want to read more, Gamerdad has put together a great reading list. It also includes some of Grossman’s work, but it has some context for reading it that will help.
- Retailers shouldn’t sell the game to kids: Many retailers already have policies to not sell any M rated game to a minor and you should make sure your favorite shop has them and enforces them. My local store won’t even run the demonstration videos for M rated games before 9pm. But also understand how many parents are buying this game for their kids even after the store personnel have pointed out the M rating. The parents have that right and it not the PTC’s or anyone else’s right to stop them from doing that. And what do they suggest parents do about little Johnny’s 17-year-old brother who just bought GTAIV and brings it on home? Or what about their brother’s buddy who lends it to him? These suggestions don’t address either one of these scenarios, and they are both major paths for kids to get a hold of rating-inappropriate games even without the enforcement problems.
Here’s my take on the whole affair.
Every game in that series is aimed at adults, just like an R-rated film. There are issues in the game that make it completely unsuited for children. This is not in any way hidden. It is plainly rated M, with a laundry list of ESRB descriptors that make it even more plain this isn’t a borderline case. That M rating means it should not to be played by anyone under 17. It’s a game for adults to play, just as rated R movies are for adults to watch.
Anyone who paid attention to even the mainstream news during the Hot Coffee debacle (see Gamerdad’s take and the Momgamer’s take on the this) knows this and has for over two years. The industry has done everything short of having armed guards by the shelves to make it abundantly clear to parents that this game should be nowhere near their children.
I agree with the PTC on one point. I also want people who are concerned about this to take action to keep this game out of the hands of their children. Those people are called parents. If you as a parent don’t want your children exposed to this type of content, then don’t buy the game for your children. Talk to your kids about how you feel and make it clear you don’t want them playing it anywhere else either. Make certain that it doesn’t end up in your house by paying attention to what your kids play. Watch out for the many ways this sort of thing gets into hands it shouldn’t after it’s been purchased.
But you should be doing those things anyways. You shouldn’t need this game to suddenly inspire you to watch what your kids are watching and to make decisions about the media they consume. And you certainly don’t need the PTC’s ill-informed fearmongering to do it.