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Ready for violence

What happens when an adult fantasy world makes its way into the hands of children? Eric Benderoff & James A Fussell explore.

india Updated: May 04, 2008 22:15 IST

Even before Grand Theft Auto IV for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 released worldwide last Tuesday, analysts were predicting that it could be the most lucrative launch in entertainment history. (Bigger than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows even).

Some believe that by year’s end, the Mature-rated GTA IV will gross nearly $800 million — almost twice the amount of last year’s highest grossing movie, the third Pirates of the Caribbean.

Depending on your point of view, those figures are either impressive or depressing. The infamous series has a devoted fanbase, but the games themselves are hedonistic and unabashedly violent. If previous versions of the game are any indication, GTA IV, should be packed with more immorality and blood-soaked carnage than you can shake a joystick at.

The GTA world

In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, for example, players could pay a prostitute for sex, then kick her to death. You could kill policemen, distribute porn, mule cocaine for the mob and chuck Molotov cocktails into the street. You could murder characters with Gatling guns, chain saws, meat cleavers and screw drivers.

It’s enough to send the Mario Brothers running to the confessional.

In GTA IV, gamers play the role of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant lured to Liberty City (New York in disguise), who must “climb the greasy pole of the underworld.” Players will face choices, experience seaminess and sow mayhem with 15 different weapons.

So, there’s a problem?

From the rocket-propelled grenade that shoots down a police helicopter to the punch in the face delivered to a former friend, the depictions of realistic violence in the newest GTA are raising fresh concerns.

The tussle is partly a debate over the game’s value and partly a discussion about how to keep children away from a title that everyone agrees contains material they should not see.

“People think videogames equal kids, and that if it’s just a game, it should be fine,” said Robin Burke, a game-development professor at DePaul University. “But the idea that a game is made for a mature audience, we (as a society) don’t have our arms around that yet.”

Indeed, even though games have clear ratings, like movies, they often are ignored by parents and sometimes by retailers.

A study last year from MediaWise and Harris Interactive found that 72 per cent of parents don’t understand game ratings. What’s more, 37 per cent of parents said they rarely considered those ratings when buying a game.

Some critics want to ban stores from selling games like GTA to minors, though that approach was found unconstitutional. Others wonder what possible redeeming value there is for anyone to play a game in which a joystick is used to simulate murder.

Adults-only entertainment

Jeff Smith, a 30-year-old information technology professional, said games like GTA are an adult form of entertainment, an elaborate, increasingly sophisticated, action-packed fantasy world.

“GTA is like that, but it takes you an extra step,” he said, noting that gamers have unbelievable” control over what they can do. “In real life, if you had a bad day trying to catch a cab, there’s nothing you can do. But when you come home, you can punch a (GTA) taxi driver in the face and take his fare money.”

Rockstar Games, the maker of GTA offers the same mobster movie comparisons, arguing that they are creating a fictional universe for adults. But because the venue is a videogame, perceived by some as a child’s toy, they get pilloried.

Parents, watch out

Craig Anderson, distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University and an expert in violent video games, has not seen the new version of GTA, but if it holds true to form, he’s sure it has content many parents will find objectionable.

“Every month new studies come out on the violent video game effects on children,” he said. “The research base just gets stronger and stronger. In general violent video games have been shown to increase the likelihood of aggressive behaviour and aggressive thinking.”

Meanwhile, all fans care about is getting their hands on a copy. To them the GTA franchise is one of the most brilliant ever created, a lush, wild and adrenaline-fuelled fantasy world where their wildest dreams and naughtiest fantasies are fulfilled.

Beware, say the critics.

Bring it on, say the gamers.