Outrage comes easy at the sight of 15-year-old Disney Channel billion-dollar phenomenon Miley Cyrus -- known to screaming 8-year-old girls as Hannah Montana -- appearing barebacked with a come-hither smile in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair. Did no one understand how the slinky satin-sheet photo would be greeted by the eyes of teenage boys -- or men twice her age? Parents are covering the eyes of their Disney-drenched little girls while their role model has a train wreck. Do we need another Britney Spears Show?
But teenage boys are going wilder this week over a more dangerous cultural low: "Grand Theft Auto IV." The new video game from Rockstar Games is flying off the shelves, and all the early reviews are glowing. GamePro magazine calls it "the pinnacle of interactive entertainment and game design." Why is it so good? "It never makes concessions in the name of being politically correct, living up to its M-rating with gusto -- there's tons of swearing, violence and sexual innuendo."
Yes, young lads, you can visit strip clubs and get lap dances, pick up prostitutes, go on assassination missions and conduct gangland-style executions. The New York Times applauded the game's "winsome procession of grifters, hustlers, drug peddlers and other gloriously unrepentant lowlifes."
Game-lovers can protest that just because a game encourages you to kill cops and exploit prostitutes, it doesn't mean you become violent. But that argument isn't helped by the news report that a San Diego man doused video-game store employees with mace to steal the game. Or that a man standing in line in London was stabbed in the head and neck. As the Times of London reported, "Onlookers thought initially that the stabbing was part of a stunt by the store to whip up excitement" about the game. The victim went to get his own knife for a revenge attack, but collapsed and was taken to the hospital. "It was a scene straight from the game itself," gushed one witness.
In 2004, Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, co-founders of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, undertook a $1.5 million study funded by the Department of Justice on the effects of video games on young teenagers. "Grand Theft Auto" is the most popular video game series among young teens. In their surveys of seventh- and eighth-grade kids, 44 percent of boys reported playing a "Grand Theft Auto" game "a lot in the past six months" -- far more than the next most popular game series, Madden NFL. Even among girls, it was second only to "The Sims." One in five girls routinely played it.
WhatTheyPlay.com is a resource site for parents, and interviews with children find they like the series for its wide-open play, particularly the vicarious experience of the thug life. "I'm never going to be a car-jacking, whore-murdering gang member," said one, "so I guess it's very interesting to see what your life could be like, if you chose that path. It's amazing to become so immersed in the game experience and really be able to feel like a criminal."
I don't know the answer to this, but out of curiosity, I have a question: What percentage of car-jacking murdering gang members were committed to this life as children?
The violent content also attracts children as a way to vent anger or stress. One boy explained: "Last week, I missed homework and my teacher yelled at me. When I went home, I started playing [Grand Theft Auto] Vice City, and got a tank. I ran over everybody. And I smashed a lot of cars and blew them up."
So it's a good thing Rockstar Games hasn't invented the game yet where children get a tank and drive it back to school and blow up teachers.
There's something odd about our culture when we try to prevent children under 17 from seeing violent or sexually overt material in a two-hour R-rated movie, but we're cavalier about selling the same experience -- actually, a more offensive experience since it's entirely non-judgmental -- in an M-rated video game that will be played every night for months.
There's only one word to describe parents who would buy this game for their children: Disgraceful. But retailers, too, must be pressed to check ID before selling the game to children who most assuredly will seek to purchase it. Legally, stores cannot sell children pornographic magazines or handguns -- but they can legally sell video games to children that contain pornographic content or that teach children how to gun down cops.
They can choose to line their pockets with the proceeds of the sale of this cultural poison to youngsters. They can join the chorus of consequential deniability, too. All they have to worry about is their conscience, in the dead of night, something the P.R. wizards can't touch.