Life on the Fringe

Grand Theft Freedom

Welcome to the nanny nation.

by Patrick King

There's been a lot of buzz in the news lately regarding the "Hot Coffee" hack for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. For the record, it is a hack. The content was clearly created by the development crew, but it is only accessible via code modification for the PC version and the use of cheating devices (which also modify the game's execution environment) and must be purposefully sought out in order to play.

Of course, GTA had been at the nexus of the fight over the presence of adult content in video games long before access to the nixed scenes was granted to the masses.

This war has been around for a while, and it is clearly still ongoing. It is one that has been waged over the battlefields of every sort of media, including books, magazines, television, movies and comics. Content discrimination has likely been a component of human behavior as long as we've had stories to tell. In the days of the first Pharaohs of Egypt, people were persecuted for the tales they passed along as a part of their religious beliefs, and while GTA may not be regarded as highly as the sacred word of God, its popularity is hard to deny.

Within the relatively young domain of electronic entertainment, it became particularly heated over titles such as Conker's Bad Fur Day, Primal Rage, Doom, and of course, the game that raised the issue to far more prominence than any other before it, Mortal Kombat.

Even before Mortal Kombat began tossing bloody spinal cords in the laps of the gaming public, simple shoot 'em ups (think Gotcha and Duck Hunt) were accused of teaching inappropriate behavior to children.

I'm an avid gamer, yet I've never actually played much of the Grand Theft Auto series; it's just not my type of game. During the times that I did play it, I drove various cars around, jumped some motorcycles off of a few buildings, and promptly got tired of it all. Don't get me wrong -- it's a brilliant concept. It's true that the game's designers granted players the ability to kill people -- regardless of the target's innocence. It's also possible to steal cars (as the title suggests), destroy property, encounter prostitutes (though standard in-game interaction is not nearly as sensual as what is presented in the "Hot Coffee" hack) and disregard the authorities.

On the other hand, it's just as easy to run around and enjoy the scenery, marvel at the technical design of the game, have fun interacting with random non-player characters and avoid drawing the attention of the police.

Despite the suggestive title, the game offers something that all games strive to provide: freedom. It grants its players the ability to exercise their free will in any way they desire within the confines of the title's electronic world.

With minimal exceptions, the purpose of every video game ever crafted is to allow the player to do something that would be impossible in real life. I'll never own a Ferrari, but I can drive one in a video game. I can't fly, but games like NiGHTS make me feel otherwise for a brief period of time. I have no desire to own a gun (I can protect myself well enough without one, thank you), but it's a heck of a lot of fun to fight a team-based death match in Halo 2.

The beauty of games is that they go even further beyond simulating realistic experiences -- they can offer activities that would be impossible to reproduce in reality. Think about the whimsical Mario games, or more abstract titles such as Rez, Elecktroplankton, or Tetris. These titles offer not only an escape from the drudgery of daily life, they offer a new way of looking at life altogether.

Some people claim that games cause violent behavior, but I've known a lot of gamers in my life, and none of them exhibit abnormal traits. Sane people, I believe, have the ability to discern the difference between reality and images on an electronic box, no matter how realistic the imagery may be. This is an argument that I can't possibly put to rest here, as there are members on both sides who have their own interests at heart, and they will likely believe whatever they want to believe. It's awfully hard to conclusively prove anything about human behavior, and as far as I'm concerned, no study has done much to sway me into thinking that games are harmful.

What truly baffles me is the fact that some people are outraged to find out that the raunchy sequence is in the game, however convoluted the method to unlock it may be. This is a game that was rated M for Mature audiences due to extreme violence, blood and gore, bad language and sexual situations. Is it really that surprising that a game which allows players to run over innocent bystanders with a tank includes a sub-par sex scene, as well? What did people think when they saw the "M 17+" rating on the box? Magical fairies? Mickey Mouse? Musical?

The first major lawsuit to be filed against the game was on behalf of a grandmother who allegedly believes that the game was inappropriately and deceptively mismarketed to her 14-year-old grandson. No offense, but what exactly did you think you were doing when you bought a game clearly rated for Mature audiences only for your barely teenaged grandson? Did you notice that the game was called "Grand Theft Auto?" That's a felony, you know. If you hadn't heard about it, and you didn't bother asking any person in the store that you bought it from what the game was about (I guarantee SOMEONE could have told you what you apparently couldn't read on the box, concerning the content of the game), and you went ahead and got it for your grandson anyway, how exactly is this Rockstar's fault?

Notice how I'm writing this to her, as if she'll ever see this column. I figure if she's ever been online to a site like this, she has to know ALL ABOUT Grand Theft Auto. For the next release of the game, they apparently need to put a disclaimer akin to the one flashed before every South Park episode, because some people are exceedingly stupid.

The reason I'm talking about this here is that anime and manga are in the same boat as video games. Maybe twenty years from now, they'll be regarded as legitimate works of creative expression, but right now, they're a scapegoat for lazy people who want to shirk off their own responsibilities to their children. There's a lot of stuff out there -- including books, movies, video games and comics -- that are not appropriate for children. Now that everyone's heard about Grand Theft Auto, this fact should not come as a shock to people. However, it should never be the responsibility of retail workers -- many of whom are too young to buy mature-rated games -- to decide who gets to buy what kind of media.

This kind of close-minded foolishness is what's inspiring timid manga publishers to censor books deemed inappropriate by some subjective self-appointed and misguided authority on content, and it's ruining the integrity of artwork in all creative fields, not just the realm of video games. I look back at movies filmed thirty years ago and find that we've taken huge steps backwards in terms of freedom of expression. It's rather depressing, actually.

The only thing that I can suggest is that gamers go out of their way to buy the Adults Only version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas -- show Rockstar your support regardless of the arbitrary distinction that has been made to appease the clueless masses. I never bought Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas because I didn't like the game very much, but now, I think I will -- so long as I can get an uncensored copy. This kind of restrictive, backwater outrage is something I can't help but fight against. I only wish that gamers had a stronger voice than we do today. Things will get particularly ugly if Rockstar is forced to refund gamers for the purchase price of the game, for that will prove to those who caused the uproar that they were right. They'll interpret it as the American public rejecting indecency, when in reality, it will just be the American public wanting some money back.

Perhaps the best solution that Rockstar could come up with would be to offer a twenty dollar credit -- towards the purchase of the next Grand Theft Auto game. After all, its release is just around the corner, and something tells me that it's going to sell very, very well. It'd make me even happier if they just went ahead and made two versions of it -- a Mature rated version and an Adults Only edition, such as Leisure Suit Larry, but only more fun. Valve showed that direct sales can work if the game is worth buying. Perhaps Rockstar can even things up with the strong armed tactics of retailers such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy by simply circumventing them altogether when Liberty City goes gold. Mandatory use of a credit card to order would ensure the age of the purchasers, and there would be no worries of massive recalls in case some hidden content leaked its way out. Now that would be true freedom.

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