Video Game, Reset Thyself
Michael Ubaldi, July 21, 2005.
Have you heard the news? Perhaps not. One week ago New York Senator Hillary Clinton assumed the classic, forward political position: standing straight in smart clothes, brow furrowed, flanked by fellows, she read from a podium fixed between herself and the cameras an ultimatum to video game vendors who market sex and violence for American youth. "I believe that the ability of our children to access pornographic and outrageously violent material on video games rated for adults is spiraling out of control," she said, as part of her announcement of legislation and a Federal Trade Commission invitation to "make sure that parents have a line of defense against violent and graphic video games and other content that go against the values they are trying to instill in their children."
Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman actually submitted the bill, with Mrs. Clinton, two other Democrats and three Republicans as cosignatories. Entitled "The CAMRA Act," the draft would as law entrust the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development with $90 million to deliver to Congress elucidation on all things entertaining and electronic by 2011. As for the FTC, Clinton bid them place the video game industry under a microscope.
The junior senator from New York was motivated by a video game called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, third of a series by Take-Two Interactive Software subsidiary Rockstar Games. Part Scarface, part Goodfellas, part Taxi Driver, the game allows players to assume the role of antihero in a modern urban underworld; language is poor, gameplay is both brutal and tawdry, objectives are morally suspect and Rockstar's commercial success from it is undisputed. Officially confined for sales to customers seventeen years of age and older, with the corresponding success rate of R-rated movies, Grand Theft Auto was hardly more controversial than its literary and cinematic influences until a Dutch hacker excavated program code responsible for a sexually explicit game sequence known colloquially as "Hot Coffee" — previously unknown to consumers and the industry — and globally distributed instructions on how to activate it.
Hackers have been altering their favorite (or most despised) games since delivery systems, especially the personal computer, supported the insertion, saving and execution of new code — resulting in programs designers never intended. Rockstar's initial public response to "Hot Coffee" was recriminatory, the company classifying the Dutchman's work as vandalism. Fair enough; the sex scene first showed up on the personal computer version. But then independent groups found it on Microsoft's Xbox, and then — poleaxing Rockstar's argument — a console whose applications cannot be modified, Sony's PlayStation 2. Deduction: well-hidden, but accessible, code that left the factory. Rockstar and Take-Two's responsibility.
I dug a little and found footage. The sequence is, unequivocally, pornographic. Those exposed to it will not only discover how illegitimate video game characters are made but understand, at least by sight, how the act can be corporeally accomplished. For the quibblers, what is contained in "Hot Coffee" would not be found on an American broadcast network, a billboard, a mainstream website, a standard cable arrangement, or the pages of any periodical not carried out of the store in a brown paper bag. Of course all of this tender is legal, so the judiciary tells us, and for every state legislature calling to regulate the sale of relatively violent or lascivious games there has been a state court interrupting No, not while the First Amendment still stands.
So, three questions. First, have the coarsest of video games coarsened in three decades? Second, how might that affect players who are in their teens or younger? Third, what might be done about Grand Theft Auto and "Hot Coffee"?
The first question is answered simply: yes, with a few qualifications. Study gaming history and you will find errant titles from as far back as two decades ago that are still offensive by their malicious intent. What about retailed titles? A casual computer player myself, I played in the early Nineties the action game Doom, wielding a variety of weapons to bloodily kill Martian-bound hellspawn; and a few years later the real-time strategy game Syndicate, directing the financial, scientific and tactical resources of an insidious, paramilitary European conglomerate to control the dystopia once known as Earth, law and human life be damned. For the sake of balance, the 1985 adventure game King's Quest II would strike down a player's character if he laid a hand on a certain kneeling, praying monk; and today's Star Wars-based Knights of the Old Republic sells because of its interactive moral scale, committing players to the consequences of their good or evil actions. But realism, aided by technology, has raised the potential for offensive content, finally, to that of film — and the public has noticed.
What has been the effect? Here the matter fragments and otherwise disparate politics connect. I would consider myself unscathed; Syndicate was more enjoyable to play than Doom but both games could be wearying for my heart. Games involving more violence than a lighter action movie or mandatory subversive themes do not interest me. We know that criminals are often aficionados of the lurid, yet there is no airtight syllogism. Last year Glenn Reynolds wrote about a curious intersection: an increase in simulated sex and violence crossing a decrease in dangerous and disreputable behavior among American teens. Reynolds awarded more credit to a perceptive, sagacious and self-correcting American people for the improvement than government action like "Harsher sentences, community policing, laws making it easier for citizens to carry concealed weapons." Well, then, why the popularity of the bad stuff among good kids? Reynolds did not say, but he correctly pointed out that corrupting influences cannot possibly be of consistent effect, thanks mostly to stable families and community mores.
Free speech can solve the problem of "Hot Coffee" in Grand Theft Auto. Senator Clinton only briefly cited the rating system responsible for video games on the market. Acting on behalf of the non-governmental Entertainment Software Association, the Entertainment Software Rating Board forms, with the all-embracing Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association and the consumer public, a triumvirate obligating vendor products to a content standard for commercial viability. The ESRB scale is similar to the scale used by the Motion Picture Association of America: "Early Childhood," "Children," "Children Ten and Older," "Teen," "Mature" and "Adults Only." And like movies, although a game is submitted for ESRB review voluntarily the IEMA, representing every major retailer in America, refuses to sell unrated games or the one percent of games warranting an "Adults Only" rating. The system is imperfect — parents can buy for their children, and the "Mature" rating implies parity between Grand Theft Auto and Halo 2 which, cinematically, would qualify as PG-13. But then, cinematically, Schindler's List is just as R-rated as the original MPAA appraisal of Desperately Seeking Susan. And back to Reynolds, some minors are mature enough to play or watch. Finally, ratings are enforced — employees can be and have been tossed out for selling a "Mature" title to a minor — without a bureaucrat.
For this defense of industry regulation to work, the ESRB must act seriously and declare that any content native to a retail product can qualify for audit — or Grand Theft Auto will turn the examination into a con game, tearing a rent in the system just wide enough for Washington's pricey good intentions. Hillary Rodham Clinton is as we have always known her, broad in rhetorical appeal and resoundingly statist in policy: Rockstar's oeuvre is not worth what prohibitive harrassment may come. The "Hot Coffee" sideshow would convince any ESRB panel excluding Hugh Hefner that Grand Theft Auto as currently marketed is "Adults Only," and the title would be whisked from shelves faster than you can say "pixelated hanky-panky." If Rockstar and Take-Two Interactive protested, they could be encouraged to re-press and re-ship the game, saving us inappropriately precocious youth, about sixteen pounds of upstart chutzpah and ninety million taxpayer dollars.
WHILE WRITING: ESRB has taken corrective action.
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