Every day at the store I have customers asking whether or not I have Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in stock. Monday I fielded a phone call–the guy wanted to buy ten copies of the XBox version of the game for a quick turnaround on eBay, he said.
Unfortunately, since every other retailer on the planet except the one for which I work has pulled GTA: San Andreas from the shelf our copies have long since been sold. I would have loved to sell the guy his ten copies, but I didn’t have them to sell. The game’s notorious now for the sexual content that a mod to the game activates, receiving condemnation from Senator Hillary Clinton, parents groups, and a new rating–Adults Only–from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
Were I a cynical person I’d think that Rockstar, the creators of San Andreas, had planned everything that’s happened with their game in the last month.
I’ve described the Grand Theft Auto games like this to parents who don’t know what game it is their child wants. These are games in which every sociopathic desire a person has ever held can be indulged. If you’ve wanted to beat someone to death, you can. If you’ve wanted to shoot cops, you can. If you want to run over grandmothers in a stolen car, this is your game.
But that’s just it. They’re games. Games for adults, true, but still games. No one is actually being killed. No one is actually having sex. It’s all a fantasy. I find it absolutely hypocritical for outlets like Wal-Mart to pull San Andreas from their shelves. Wal-Mart sells condoms. Wal-Mart sells guns and ammunition. Wal-Mart wants their consumers to have sex and shoot things, but they don’t want their customers to pretend to have sex or shoot things. So, it’s okay to do something in reality that it’s not okay to do in a fantasy world. What am I missing here?
Which is why I find the first outcry on Rockstar’s next game, Bully, somewhat interesting. The idea behind this game–you’re a juvenille delinquent sent to an English boarding school, and you get to shake down the kids on the playground for money, run little extortion rackets, and wail on your fellow students. Frankly, I find myself oddly intrigued by this game. But criticizing the game now, months before its release, is nothing but overkill, especially when there’s the thought that it will set a poor example for kids.
First, we can expect Bully to be played by adults, not children. Rockstar’s games are generally rated Mature–they pull no punches with their content, and I’d expect no less here. Second, it’s a game. If I were to play the game and shake down a kid for his lunch money in the game, does this mean that I’m going to find a kid in the grocery store in real life, deliver a sucker punch, and rifle his pockets for coins? Not something I would do as a functioning member of society. There are things people can do in a fantasy world, personality quirks they in which they might indulge, that simple would never fly in the real world.
Critics of video games don’t get that, and likely as not it’s because of the medium. Society thinks of video games as a kid’s medium, because when I was growing up two decades ago video games were a kid thing, not an adult thing. (Comic books are the same way, but that’s for another day.) Never mind the statistics that the average age of a video game console–PlayStation 2, XBox, or GameCube–is in his mid-twenties. Mid-twenties. This is a person post-college. Not a kid.
Video games have grown up. The genie’s out of the bottle. But society is trying to shove the genie into a bottle that doesn’t even exist any more. So when games like Grand Theft Auto or the upcoming Bully come under fire, it’s because those criticizing them don’t know or don’t understand where the video game market is.