How cultural crime pays

Posted: Feb 23, 2002 12:00 AM
Here are a couple of facts I bet you didn't know: Last year, the video-game industry generated $9.4 billion in sales, delivering more revenue than movies at the box office ($8.4 billion). And here's why you probably had no idea how massive this entertainment medium has become: According to the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF), 92 percent of those under 18 play electronic games, while only 26 percent of those 18 and older do so. While there's been increased public attention on more conventional entertainment media -- television, movies, music, and the like -- under the radar screen of public opinion has emerged what is arguably a far more offensive, far more destructive, and perhaps even more popular form of entertainment aimed at youngsters. And because video games are now marketed through the vast Internet galaxy, this industry is virtually impossible to monitor -- or control. Much of what one finds in video games is innocent entertainment; some of it is educational as well. But the rage for youngsters these days is the ultra-violent genre -- with devastating results. The NIMF notes that two scholars have examined almost three dozen studies and "identified a consistent pattern" therein, namely, that "exposure to violent video games increases physiological arousal, aggressive thoughts, aggressive emotions, and aggressive behavior, and decreases pro-social behavior." One gory video game, "Grand Theft Auto III," has sold two million copies, making it the best-selling video title of 2001 -- even though it wasn't released until October. What do children re-enact while playing this game? The National Organization for Women's Web site explains: "The player begins working for the Mafia, which involves killing people, including police officers and innocent bystanders, stealing cars, and doing drugs. (He) can pick up a prostitute on the street and, as indicated by the bouncing car, have sex with her ... Once the hooker exits the car, if the player wants his money back, he can dash after her, beat her to death, and recover the cash ... The beating is bloody and done with a baseball bat that you can feel in your hands through the ... controller." You'd think that as popular as this game has become, and as violent as it is, it would trigger outrage from the media. Think again. "A tad gruesome, it's true," writes William Schiffmann of the Associated Press. "But if you look past the violence ... you'll find an excellent game with some hilarious possibilities." David Thomas of the Denver Post gushes, "The humor may be black, but the joke does not wear thin ... If the point of a great game, like a book or a movie, is to transport you somewhere else, then 'GTA3' succeeds ... in creating a place worth going back to." "For some, (the game's) emphasis on realistic carnage directed at civilians and police, fire, and rescue officials will no doubt strike an uneasy chord ... as will its gleeful smashing of nearly every conceivable societal taboo," writes the Toronto Star's Ben Rayner. "For the rest of us, (it's) a bleak, subversive and frequently hilarious gaming masterpiece." It's that kind of fawning that has made "GTA3" acceptable, even mainstream, in today's popular culture. It's an understandable marriage of like-minded programs that it would be advertised heavily on the World Wrestling Federation's "Smackdown!" and "Raw" television sewage-fests, which boast millions of youngsters in the audience. And it's this kind of mainstream video that other video producers point to when defending their brand of violence.'s Christine Hall reports that the Anti-Defamation League is up in arms about a slew of new video games, with titles like "Ethnic Cleansing" and "Shoot the Blacks," that feature violence against Jews, blacks and Hispanics. The advertising promo for "Ethnic Cleansing" pretty much says it all: "Run through the ghetto blasting away various blacks and spics in an attempt to gain entrance to the subway system ... where the jews (sic) have hidden to avoid the carnage ... Then if your (sic) lucky, you can blow away jews (sic) as they scream, 'Oy Vey!' on your way to their command center." "Ethnic Cleansing" is produced by the publishing arm of the neo-Nazi group National Alliance. William Pierce, who runs this outfit, defends his game thusly: "It's a violent game ... But it's not atypical of video games generally, which tend to involve a lot of combat situations, a lot of shooting." Like it or not, he has a point. Pierce also could probably find people to call "Ethnic Cleansing" "a bleak, subversive and frequently hilarious gaming masterpiece." But swastikaed skinheads praising his work isn't good public relations. Pierce needs a couple of journalists to say, "If you look past the violence ... you'll find an excellent game." Then he'll be OK.