As an avid gamer, there has been hot topic in the news that I've been paying attention to lately. Grand Theft Auto is a series of games by Rockstar Games that has the player ravaging a town as a gangster, stealing cars, murdering, robbing, and creating general mayhem. The game has always been one of the first weapons politicians use in argueing for enforced rating systems and censoring of content. I've been playing it GTA III lately, and it is pretty violent. At the same time, it is incredibly fun to just terrorize throughout the town. It's all pretend, and it's great stress relief.
At the same time, there is an age where stuff like this just isn't appropriate. I'm not going to draw the line in the sand and say when you are can handle it, but suffice to say that there is a level of maturity necessary to understand that what you do in the game is absolutely not acceptable in real life. I can see how someone who was fairly impressionable could play the game and get the impression that it is cool to act like the main character in the game. And for that reason, I can understand a call to rate games according to content. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is an industry created panel to do just that. But their ratings don't really have much teeth, much like the movie rating system. Sure, they have a children's rating, everyone rating, 10+, teen, mature, and adults only, but the application of those ratings is fairly subjective, and hardly anyone takes notice.
The reason that this game is in the news is that, when the latest GTA game was released, it was given a Mature rating for graphic violence, sexual references, and adult situations. A mature rating means that the game should only be played by those 17 and over. In reality, I've never met a game store clerk who ever enforced that. Be that as it may, a intrepid game "modder" (someone who adds or modifies the content of a game), found that he could apply a particular patch to Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas and unlock a new set of missions. These missions, called the "Hot Coffee" missions, require the player to visit several girls around town and engage in a sex mini-game. Rocking the joystick in rhythm earns points until the character finishes, and he earns some cash. Well, this is enough to put the game into the Adults Only category, and it has touched off a firestorm of political rhetoric of the game ratings system.
I've seen a video fo the offending content from the game. Let's put this into perspective. First, the content is not at accessible without some effort on the part of the player. They must download a patch from the internet and install it if they run the PC version of the game. If they have a console version (Playstation 2 or XBox), they must then transfer it using a special piece of equipment. Then, once the patch is loaded, the player visits a house and starts the mini-game. If you've never seen this game, the character models aren't ultra-realistic. They are essentially boxes with wallpaper to make them look like people. In the mini-game, the female character is nude, and the male character remains fully clothed. The male character is not anatomically correct, so it is sort of like watching a tame episode of Sex and the City. The characters do their thing, and a minute later, you are back out the door, looking for your next mission. This type of activity has been in the series before, too. For instance, in the copy of GTA 3 I'm playing now, you can pick up a hooker and drive off to a secluded area. The car starts rocking, and your health starts going up while your cash funds get depleted. That made it by the ESRB with a Mature rating.
So what now? Should players and parents send back their copies for a sanitized version? Honestly, if you were letting your kid play before, and this is the straw that broke the camel's back, you seriously need to reevaluate the situation. Still, I see the point that some are making: the game was given an inappropriate rating because the producers effectively hid content from the ratings panel. It is an easy enough thing to do as a programmer. Rather than rip out all of the bad code, just comment out the ability to get to it.
This leads into other questions though. Should game ratings be enforced by retailers? What are the appropriate ratings and guidelines? Should game makers be help accountable for content created (or made available) by modders? I think this will be a tricky question for me in the coming years as Corbin grows up and wants to play games like this. Should I let him? When is he old / mature enough? Can I give him a go / no go decision based on a game rating alone? In our situation, I'll probably know as much about video games as Corbin, but what about other folks who don't share my penchant for games? And this brings on another level of questions too. Should games be rated under the same or different guidelines from movies? What about television? I know there are nights when you turn into the 6 o'clock news and see some pretty violent stuff. And daytime television content can be a lot worse than R rated films. Then again, I think an R rated film like Schindler's list is important for Corbin to watch.
Well, I've ranted on long enough (and managed to avoid taking a side, or even make a point for that matter). Have you even heard of this issue? What are your thoughts?