Kids in Grand Theft Auto Online, or The Good Kind of Censorship

7 07 2014

Though I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto V for a little while, I hadn’t delved into the online component yet, as I was waiting for my usual online coconspirator to get his hands on the game. He’s finally doing so, so I fired up the online mode to see what was what. After the mandatory intro and first race, I briefly heard snippets of conversation from other players, and (as is pretty much always the case), it was awful. The voices sounded 12 at the absolute oldest, and the most prominent voice was doing his level best to sound “gangsta,” mainly by peppering everything he said with “nigga.” To his credit, I think he was trying to use it in the hip-hop sense, indicating camaraderie rather than derogation, but that didn’t make it any less wrong.

When we wring our hands about games and think of the children, we always seem to leave something out in the zero-sum talk of censorship v. freedom of speech – some, perhaps even many games are not for children. Full stop. I’m pretty certain the good people at Rockstar would agree that they did not make a game for the wee ones. On the simplest level, the content is too violent and vulgar. On a more complex level, the themes that the game explores aren’t accessible to kids. The hollowness of “success,” the difficulty of moving beyond a lower-income upbringing, especially in a bad economy, how hard it can be to deal with old friends who are stagnant while you are trying to change for the better – these are adult experiences. While the gameplay is the usual open-world, no-consequences mayhem, it’s wrapped (as usual) around satisfyingly complex, thoughtful, and mature stories (with “mature” meaning more than violent and vulgar here). Most kids won’t get that. They won’t understand the pointed satire in all of the ads and news snippets on the radio. They probably won’t catch the sense of futility and gloom that surrounds the main characters through every step of the story.

What’s worse, these kids were in the online mode, which is (as far as I can tell) devoid of any deep story. Instead of a criminal approaching middle age and finding himself completely lost in his success, a smart and driven young man trying to move beyond the strictures of his neighborhood and largely dead-end friends, and a… uh… complete lunatic, you’re just some guy (or gal) dropped in the middle of the city, trying to make money and buy stuff. None of the violence and consumption is cast in the light of its meaning (or lack thereof) for the protagonists. It’s just mayhem.

How is that worse than level-grinding in any online shooter? In those games (for the most part), the story is inherent in the setting, and the engagements are limited – one-off battles within a larger war, constrained to a single location devoid of civilians. What’s more, they have an implied purpose. The teams represent nations and ideologies, and even though that context is usually far in the back of the player’s mind, it still exists. In GTA Online, you have a living city full of civilians and no major restrictions on mowing them down en masse. You’re set free in a world without right and wrong with accumulation of wealth and goods as your only pole star, and that just doesn’t seem like a place for kids.

I told my online buddy about the experience, and he said “I’d like to enroll them in a scared straight program that involves beating up their parents.” Extreme, sure, but the blame here is clearly on the parents. I can only surmise that they have no idea what their kids are playing. Little Dependent says “I want Grand Theft Auto!” and the parent doesn’t take the time to do the grueling research – you know, flipping the game’s box over and reading the detailed list of exactly why Little Dependent shouldn’t be playing the thing. As a result, Little Dependent gets a heaping helping of bleak, nihilist satire that he can’t possibly grasp, along with all the violence, racism, misogyny, vulgarity, and depravity made to seem cool that he can possibly absorb.

Whenever this stuff gets covered in the media, there’s no adequately loud voice declaring that if your kid is playing this stuff, you’re doing a shit job as a parent. Yes, it requires a lot of effort, and yes, I’m saying this as the proud father of a two week old (so I have no direct experience of media selection), but my parents did a pretty good job, and that was with a lot less information than is provided by the ESRB ratings. Yes, I found ways around their bans – going to the house of a friend whose parents weren’t as vigilant, for example – but the existence of the ban made it clear that circumventing it was wrong, and my exposure to the offending content came in giddy little snippets, not an all I could stomach buffet. I caught glimpses rather than steeping in the taboo subjects, which meant that experiencing transgressive content meant committing a transgression. While I’m loath to suggest any direct causal link between exposure to video game violence and real world violence, I think it’s less of a leap to assume such a link between exposure to GTA‘s nihilist world and a general coarsening of one’s outlook and self-expression. So again, kids should not be playing this game, and their parents should be ashamed of themselves if they are.

Years ago, I wanted to start a game store based on great record and book stores, with smart, well-informed staff in it for the love of games and an environment that fostered hanging out and discussing games, rather than ducking in, grabbing what you wanted, and getting out with the absolute bare minimum of interaction. One of my favorite plans for the store was a regular parents’ night, where parents could ask questions and get a rundown of the games their kids were likely to want. The potentially objectionable content would be explained, along with any potentially mitigating considerations – Assassin’s Creed is all about killing and is often bloody, but the series also does a great job of presenting moral complexities in an accessible way. Depending on the kid, the blood might be an acceptable price for the understanding the games could foster. These sessions would avoid absolutes as much as possible – less “Your child should not play this” and more “Here’s why it might not be a good idea for your child to play this, and here are some things that might convince you otherwise – make an informed choice.”

I still think sessions like that would be terrific, and coming up with the pros and cons of each game would probably be a lot of fun for me, but I understand now that the sessions would almost certainly fail to reach the parents who really need them. Someone who decides to go to something like that is already showing some concern for the media their kid is consuming, and in many cases, the kids who are playing these clearly adult-oriented games have parents who think that all video games are for children and are therefore appropriate for kids. They’re not taking the time to learn otherwise, so why would they elect to attend an event all about learning more?

Maybe it’s a matter of presentation. If each mature game purchase came with a flier reminding them of the sessions, they might start to wonder why such sessions are necessary, and that might lead them to investigate the content of the game a bit more. I don’t know. Like so many problems in the world these days, this one seems intractable – you can only reach the people who are in less dire need of being reached. I’ve got a few other ideas, like notifying parents of any complaints lodged against their child’s Xbox Live or PSN account and providing them with an inventory of their kid’s user created content (hopefully leading to a marked decrease in the number of penis emblems and the like), but even that requires an involved parent and only works if the kid is signed up with an account requiring parental control. It’s a pretty safe bet that plenty of kids would maneuver their parents into signing them up for uncontrolled accounts, and at least a few parents would choose that option just to avoid the extra effort that control requires.

I really don’t know how to end this rant. I have a few concrete suggestions, like the ones mentioned above, but they’re not going to magically fix the problem. There are a lot of threads tied up in this issue – parental involvement, the perception of games as a medium exclusively for kids, the media’s love of scapegoats and easy (but unrealistic and/or ineffective) answers… I don’t know how to fix it, but I know for damn sure that the kids I heard should not have access to GTA.

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