Monday, July 18, 2005

Blame Rockstar!

I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut with my grandmother when it came out years ago. A kindly old lady from the Midwest, I was visitting her when the movie openned, and in search for common ground, she announced that she wanted to go see this movie with me. Her reasoning was simple: it was "hip," and the critics had reviewed it glowingly (indeed, the New York Times and the San Fransisco Chronicle, the newspapers whose movie reviews I most trust, gave it a hearty reccomendation). I warned her that this might not be wise - that she might not be ready for the levels of profanity that my generation has becomed accustomed to. But she insisted. And how could I say not to my sweet old grandmother?

About thirty seconds into the movie's famously crude "Uncle Fucker" song, I glanced at her, to see that her already imperfect posture was being slammed into her seat by shock. By the time the song was over, her face was blank, her mind no doubt blown by the sheer level of crudeness, her body shrunk to a size so small that she was almost invisible. And, as is so often the case in this sort of transformative experience, she passed through the gauntlet and emerged on the other side a new person.

Well, not really. She was still the same person. But being an intelligent person, she "got" what the movie was about: namely, that the tolerance we have for violence in this culture is totally disproportionate for our appetite for violence. The movie's message about America's views on censorship can be summed by with one quote, said by the movie's chief zealous mother as part of the "Blame Canada" platform:

"Remember what the MPAA says: Horrific and deplorable violence is ok as long as you don't say any naughty words."

Which brings us to the debacle over Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The game has been universally acclaimed by the game industry and players alike, but universally deplored by those who feel a need to be the country's conscience. Let us review the facts:

1. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a third-person perspective mission-oriented game by Rockstar Games, in which the main character is a gangbanger in the early 90s, cruising through an enormous Los Angeles-like game world and advancing a plot of criminal accomplishment which includes (but is not limited to) murder, carjacking, home invasion, drug dealing, pimping, vandalism, and basically every other imaginable crime described in the Gangsta-Rap of the period. Gameplay is open-ended (in that the player is free to explore and do things in any way he/she desires), but requires criminal activity to achieve any level of success.

2. Fans who modify games for their own entertainment (known collectively as "modders") often scrounge around inside the source code for games in order to find stuff that wasn't included in the game, allowing them to re-insert it into gameplay. Usually, this allows them to add their own content (such as new clothes to wear). Modders are usually motivated by two desires: the extend the game's value by adding their own touches, and to earn the respect of other modders for their contributions.

3. A group of modders discovered a mini-game in the sourcecode that was not implemented in the published version of the game. Known as "hot coffee," the game allowed the player to woo several women throughout the game world, and "have coffee" with them. Having coffee, in this case, means having sex. The game can now be played after installing a modification, and involves interactively making love to women, controlling position, thrust speed, and camera angle.

4. Watchdogs have expressed total outrage at the game's graphic and uncensored depiction of sex, and have called for the game to receive the highest ESRB rating available: Adults Only. These watchdogs include possible presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Democrat's own closet Republican Joseph Lieberman, as well as the more traditional vanguard of conservative talking heads.

5. Rockstar Games, makers of the Grand Theft Auto games, have that (a) the minigame was not only never intended to be played, but never even really developed, with most of the elbow grease of development done by modders who, in changing the source code, have violated their end-user agreements. Thus, Rockstar asserts, they are no more to blame for the presence of the game than any other game publisher, because nothing (in principle) is preventing people from modding sex mini-games into a whole slew of other games.

Realistically, it's likely that Rockstar did, in fact, develop the mini-game, but pulled it out when they realized the reaction it would get, making their claims a little suspect. But frankly, what surprises me is the extent to which people have genuinely missed the point. By making GTA: SA an "adults only" game, the lesson will be the following: it's less impotant to shield our kids from playing a game that glorifies senseless murder than a game that allows consensual sex.

Sure, games are violent. So are a lot of movies. But the GTA games have really, REALLY raised the bar over the years. San andreas' predecessor, Vice City, was banned from sale in Switzerland for its violence, and Rockstar games was sued by the Hatian government over a mission entitled "Kill the Hatians." In general, the games encourage a near-total disregard for human life, and reward "impulse crimes." The only crimes the GTA games haven't glorified are (thankfully) rape crimes. On the other hand, the games have been hailed for their design and depth. Various family-acceptable games (such as the Tony Hawk games and the PS2 Spiderman 2 game) have been fundamentally influenced by the design sensibilities Rockstar innovated. Vice City was one of the most successful games of all time, topping many movies in raw profits. San Andreas was billed from day one as "Everything Vice City, Only More So," but despite the occasional angry outburst, San Andreas has been without controversy. Until now.

Are we really such puritans in this country that we are only horrified by sex? Not rape (which is one of the few crimes that has the potential heinousness of murder), but mutually consensual sex. Vice City certainly had sex by the barrel (including a guest appearance by porn star Jenna Jameson), but always off screen, as did San Andreas (when using a prostitute to refill your health bar, for example, all the player sees is the car rocking while some ambiguous sound effects are played). Parents have been buying San Andreas for their kids happily enough, if the huge windfall Rockstar saw from the holiday season was any indication. I'm not saying that San Andreas is a good game for kids. It's not. I'm saying that a sex minigame is NOT the reason it should be an adults-only game. In fact, in my opinion, a game with a sex minigame need not be an adults-only game. Our attitudes toward sex are unhealthy enough as it is. But wanton violence and crime on the level Rockstar has implemented should offend America more than a sex game Rockstar didn't even enable for gameplay.

So why hasn't it?

ADDENDUM: So Rockstar did have the game intact in the source code after all. Well, they'll suffer for it.


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