Just A Game

`Grand Theft Auto' has stirred debate over violent video fare's effect on kids.

March 06, 2003|By James A. Fussell | James A. Fussell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Electronic ecstasy or digital depravity?

By all accounts, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City by Rockstar Games - one of the best-selling video games in the world - is a bit of both. As its sales continue to skyrocket, so might the controversy surrounding it.

On the one hand, fans will tell you, the game is brilliant - a lush and wild adrenaline-fueled, shoot-'em-up role-playing game that is surely one of the most ambitious pieces of interactive entertainment ever made.

You can go anywhere, do anything, drive dozens of cars, motorcycles, buses and speedboats, fly planes or deliver pizzas, all while listening to humorous DJ banter and classic '80s music. The freedom and creativity of the game, combined with the breathtaking size of its richly detailed environment, is absolutely mesmerizing.

On the other hand, it is absolutely not for children younger than 17, many of whom play it anyway. Glamorous, hedonistic and mind-numbingly violent, the PlayStation 2 sequel to the best-selling Grand Theft Auto 3 glorifies mayhem. If it moves, steal it, shoot it, kick it or kill it. Critics, including parents groups and U.S. senators, worry openly about the effects of such a vicious pastime.

Murder and mayhem

The game is neither hard nor too challenging. You play Tommy Vercetti, a criminal just released from jail who's loosed on a coastal city in Florida in 1986 with more ammo than a well-armed militia. At its core, the game involves yanking drivers out of their seats, throwing them onto the pavement, then driving off in their cars.

But that's just the beginning. You can pay a prostitute for sex, then kick her to death and get your money back. You can kill policemen, blow up their cars, burn people with a flame thrower and hear their screams, chuck Molotov cocktails in the street, commit drive-by shootings, blow people's heads off with a sniper rifle and watch blood spew from their necks, kill people with Gatling guns and chain saws and screwdrivers and meat cleavers, distribute porn and traffic cocaine.

Cool, say its players.

Wait a minute, say its many critics.

Michael Wilbon, a Washington Post columnist, said the developers of the game should be stoned in the street. One California parent even picketed in front of an electronics retailer.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said in a statement: "Games like Grand Theft Auto are particularly troubling because they go beyond celebrating violence generally and actually reward players for engaging in organized crime, murdering innocent people and other forms of perverse, anti-social behavior."

Lighten up. It's only a game. You can see far worse on TV and in the movies, gamers say.

All of which frames the ethical question: Is Vice City a reprehensible example for children that could cause harm and should be avoided at all costs? Or is it just a game, a violent but ultimately harmless fantasy that never leeches into the real world? Depends on whom you ask.

The developers of Vice City say the game was never intended for children. It's the video game equivalent of an R-rated movie, designed for older players who have outgrown the foofy characters of their youth.

Still, young children are playing it. Although the game is rated "mature" (for 17 and above), many parents simply disregard the rating or don't understand it.

Worse, critics say, stores such as Best Buy have no age restriction regarding who can buy mature-rated games. And some parents use video games as electronic baby-sitters, with virtually no knowledge of what they contain.

One thing is clear: America's youth are spending more time with video games than ever before. The video game industry, which expects to take in more than $10 billion this year, generates more money than the movies.

Differing parental views

Like many parents, Lorene Jarrett of Lee's Summit, Mo., said she didn't realize what the game was all about.

"Shooting policemen? Kicking prostitutes to death?" she asked while shopping in a Best Buy store with her 12-year-old son, Ryan. "He won't be getting that."

She shook her head.

"What's happened to our world? I can't believe they're putting things like that into games these days. That's not a game. That's sick. And to think I might have let him buy it."

Other parents think differently.

"Both my kids play it," said Melva Winters, a mother from Kansas City, whose sons are 11 and 15. "They haven't killed anybody yet. And until they do, I figure, let 'em have some fun."

Tyler Burrows, 14, from Lenexa, Kan., plays the game all the time.

His father, Mark Burrows, isn't concerned about the violence.

"It doesn't bother me as long as I think Tyler knows right from wrong," he said.

Tyler said he does.

"I understand it's a bad game and all," he said. "... But it's fun."

And even therapeutic, he said.

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