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 “Grand Theft Auto” video game are raising fresh concerns.
And gamers can’t wait to play.
The release of “Grand Theft Auto IV” is such a big deal that, as with the Harry Potter books, retailers will hold midnight release parties Monday to mark the title’s arrival.
But the firestorm of controversy surrounding the phenomenally successful game series already has struck. Facing renewed complaints that the game’s violence is inappropriate, the Chicago Transit Authority late last week removed advertisements promoting the release from its buses and trains.
The tussle over “Grand Theft Auto” is partly a debate over its value and partly a discussion about how to keep children away from a title that everyone agrees contains subject matter they should not see.
“People think video games 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 percent of parents don’t understand game ratings. Worse, 37 percent of parents said they rarely used those ratings when buying a game.
Some critics want to ban stores from selling games like “Grand Theft Auto” 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.
Jeff Smith, a 30-year-old information-technology professional, said games like “Grand Theft Auto” are an adult form of entertainment, an elaborate, increasingly sophisticated, action-packed fantasy world.
“As gamers get older, into their 30s and 40s, they want more adult games,” he said. “Gaming is a good way to blow off steam. It’s almost a type of voyeurism, a peek into the lives you see in film. Mobster movies (like “The Godfather”) are big because it’s a peek into that 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 “Grand Theft Auto,” offers the same mobster movie comparisons, arguing that they are creating a fictional universe for adults such as those seen in “GoodFellas” or “The Sopranos.” But because the venue is a video game, perceived as a child’s toy by some, they get pilloried.
“If this was a movie or TV show and was the best in its field, you’d give it loads of awards and put those awards shows on television,” Rockstar Vice President Dan Houser said in an interview published by Variety magazine. “What is it about the medium you don’t like? Because maybe we should challenge those ideas. ... To us, it’s way of experimenting with non-linear interactive story lines.”
Rockstar has provided only minimal details of “Grand Theft Auto IV,” but here’s the story line, according to an early review by the Times of London online: 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 have access to 15 different weapons, from a simple brick to a military-grade rocket.
“Firing a rocket at a car and seeing the smoke trail with a spectacular explosion is very cool,” Imran Sarwar, a developer with Rockstar Games, told GameSpot.com. “And when a (police) chopper has you cornered, seeing the rotors come off, the tail snap off, and the (chopper) fall to the ground in a massive explosion is pretty cool too. ... It’s all really cinematic.”
The technical prowess is partly why DePaul’s Burke requires his students play the “Grand Theft Auto” games for his Introduction to Game Design course.
“`Grand Theft Auto 3’ had a huge impact on what could be done, technically, with video games,” he said. But because the game was filled with violence, including killing cops, those technical aspects that appeal to developers and gamers excited by the increasing realism have been overlooked.
Burke, who won’t allow his 12-year-old son to play, completely understands the controversy. With a game like “Halo,” another violent and popular video game, the enemies are space aliens.
“When people who are not players look at a screen shot of `Halo,’ they see immediately that it’s a fantasy,” he said. “Then they look at a screen shot of `Grand Theft Auto’ and see a snapshot of the violence we have on our streets. That can bother people.”
The debate about violent video games reappears with each new generation of video players, because each edition is that much more realistic.
Violence in video games can lead to more aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors, according to data cited by the National Institute on Media and the Family.
That is particularly true for children with more exposure to media violence, including television shows. One effect: Children will view violence as an acceptable way to settle conflicts, according to a 2000 congressional report that cites data from six medical associations.
The “Grand Theft” series has faced criticism in Washington and accusations that it has incited real-life violence.
The Chicago Transit Authority pulled ads for the new game because a previous game, “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” drew complaints from Gov. Rod Blagojevich. That was in 2004, and the CTA has a new ad agency that handles advertising on buses and trains. A representative said the agency was unaware of previous complaints.
Backed by Blagojevich, Illinois enacted a law that banned selling violent video games to minors, punishable by a year in jail, but the courts in 2005 ruled it unconstitutional.
Jonathan Timm, a 19-year old student, is a big fan of “Grand Theft Auto” and is anxious to get his hands on the new game. He started playing when he was 15.
“It’s pretty easy for kids to get it,” he said. “I didn’t have any stumbling blocks when I wanted to play the game. My parents trusted me.”
Avid gamer Dan Rubin, 22, said the violence in “Grand Theft Auto” is over the top, but don’t blame kids for wanting to play.
“Parents are not aware of how violent these games are,” he said, noting that salespeople have a responsibility to better inform parents. He sold video games for two big-box retailers when the “Grand Theft” games started getting popular.
“People buy what the salespeople say is good,” Rubin said. “If someone tells you a game is amazing, you’re going to buy it. And if they tell you it’s too violent and not for your kids, people won’t buy it.
“That’s the responsibility of the salesman.”
The 2007 study from MediaWise found that one in three retailers fail to educate customers about ratings on video games.
“It’s hard to completely blame parents for not understanding the rating system when retailers come up short on their commitment to educate the public,” the report stated.
“Grand Theft Auto IV” is rated M, intended for mature audiences over 17, because of blood, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language and use of drugs and alcohol.
It will sell for $60 and plays on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
“There are industry projections that `Grand Theft Auto IV’ will do more than $400 million in sales” in its first week, said Wes Sand, senior vice president for retailer Game Crazy. It will go on sale there and at other retailers at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
“Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” is the best-selling game of all time for Sony’s PlayStation 2 video-game console, with 7.2 million units sold.