Word has been out for a few weeks now about a hidden feature in the hyperviolent videogame Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Probably you’ve heard about this. By way of a certain “unlock” code, since published online, players can participate in an interactive sex scene that is otherwise not accessible in the commercial build of the game. Subsequent media reports have duly chronicled the inevitable uproar from parents groups, moral gatekeepers, and a certain ambitious senator from New York.
There’s so much weird irony and cheerful stupidity here that’s it’s hard to know where to begin. The temptation, as always, is to move to the mountains of Switzerland, unplug entirely, and check back in 50 years to see if anyone wised up. Having been advised once again that this is an untenable solution (“That’s your answer to everything,” my wife says), we may as well proceed.
The obvious complaint, sensibly registered by many commentators, is that relative to the content of the rest of the game, the sex scenes should maybe crack a two or three on the Base-10 Universal Moral Objection Scale. Grand Theft Auto is notorious for its bloody depictions of cop-killing, drive-by shooting, drug-dealing, pimping and general gangbanging (a term now pleasantly multivalent since the new scenes have been unlocked.) The sexual content is so overtly ridiculous such an obvious teen-boy playa fantasy that it should play as funny in context. In what mixed-up culture is the presence of consensual (albeit skeevy) sex, amongst all the violent carnage, the real outrage?
Well, American culture, of course. The US movie business has long paced the entertainment industry on this issue. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) the governing board responsible for assigning ratings to films distributed domestically regularly gives a pass to scenes of incredible violence while balking at nudity and sex. To my mind, this is just so terminally goofy that it seems amateurish to even comment on it. If I were a more serious-minded individual, I might say something like: What an embarrassing indictment of American moral priorities that the vicarious killing-for-the-fun-of-it in Grand Theft Auto is not the objectionable part! Luckily I am not that serious-minded individual, so I spend my time instead watching Monty Python re-runs and browsing Swiss real-estate ads.
Of course, all of this bitching proceeds from a very important assumption: that everyone agrees Grand Theft Auto is a game for adults only. By all accounts, it’s a very fun game. Not my thing, particularly, and certainly not for kids, but the game is ostensibly made for and marketed to grown-ups—the game carries an “M” rating, the equivalent of an “R” movie rating. Grand Theft Auto is an urban crime fantasy, and if that’s what you’re into, knock yourself out. Personally, I like piloting spaceships, raiding orc encampments, and playing insanely complex card games (not all at the same time, although if there’s a game for that, let me know).
Obviously, with something like Grand Theft Auto, the question of age-appropriateness is significant. It’s like The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy says: “Won’t someone please think of the children?” The various ratings systems, whether for movies, CDs or videogames, are there to help parents make decisions and enforce the rules of the home team. They’re useful for keeping these issues where they belong—within the family unit. What’s interesting here (and by interesting, I mean depressing) is that after the disclosure of the Grand Theft Auto hidden sex scenes, the Entertainment Software Rating Board has changed the game’s rating from an “M” to an “AO” (Adults Only)—the equivalent of an X-rated movie.
That is to say, the sex not the realistic and wanton violence is what pushed this game into the land of the verboten within the governing rating system. If that’s what we’re really talking about here where to draw the line for kids this distinction will be interesting for future historians to note. Perhaps I shall note it myself, from my cabin in the Alps.
By the way, Rockstar Games, the company behind Grand Theft Auto, is claiming the sex scenes are an accidental leftover from a pre-release build. The conspiracy-minded among those in the gaming community have suggested this was no accident; that it was in essence a publicity stunt with a delayed fuse. I kind of doubt that’s the case, but either way, Rockstar is seriously bumming right about now. The “AO” rating means many retailers will pull the game from shelves entirely, and Rockstar is going to bleed away a lot of revenue in the long haul.
What’s more, Rockstar has damaged the videogame industry generally with this gaffe, whether it was intentional or not. All questions of ratings and violence aside, the impression has been made that videogame makers are entirely capable of sneaking around and putting in stupid sex scenes that the kids can unlock on the sly. Never mind that such sneakiness will inevitably come to light, as it has here. The damage has been done. If I were a parent, I’d be pissed.
And I am a parent, and I am pissed, but luckily my boy is preoccupied with two-year-old stuff like Elmo and puddle-splashing and the aerodynamic qualities of the cats, so I get to be pissed for snobby reasons. The Grand Theft Auto debacle is going to make it that much more difficult to talk about the artfulness of videogames with the uninitiated. I’m a fan; I want to see this medium fulfill its aesthetic and narrative potential. A bullshit stunt like this puts videogame advocates in the frustrating position of defending crap we don’t necessarily like in the first place. It’s like espousing cinema to people who’ve only seen the Michael Bay oeuvre.
The bright side for everyone concerned is that maybe this starts a discussion, long simmering in the film industry, about exactly where we’re drawing the lines in our content ratings systems.
P.S. to Eidos: If you want to bury a Lara Croft sex sequence in the next Tomb Raider game, forget everything I just said here and go for it.