“My son just shot an innocent old lady in the head!” the blond woman shrieked as she flung the store’s only door wide open. It was her second visit to the store that day, although in her previous visit she bore no resemblance to the beast that stood before me now. Where once there was a friendly smile, a well-groomed haircut and a pleasant inflection, there was now a snarling grimace, a tangled mane and a shrill, contemptuous tone. Then came the accusations: I had forced an awful, violent product on her innocent little boy. I was a corruptor of youth. Maybe even a criminal.
I can’t begin to tell you how often parents storm back into my store to give my coworkers and me all manner of hell for selling them a violent videogame like Grand Theft Auto. We try our best to impress upon them that some games are lucky to only get an M rating. Blasting helpless elderly folks into oblivion? Stealing police cars? We should be ashamed, we’re told, for not warning them about this horrible violence! But more often than not, parents complain about precisely the aspects we caution them most about.
Earlier that hot afternoon back in July 2005, a respectable-looking woman and her young son came into my store looking for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I asked if she had an older child; surely she wouldn’t buy San Andreas for the kid she had with her, who couldn’t have been older than 10.
“Nope. It’s for him,” she said, smiling at her young son who boiled over with excitement at the thought of cutting his teeth on the newest murder simulator.
Company policy mandated that I had to tell a customer about anything in a game that would net it an M rating. A few weeks earlier, San Andreas fell under that category, until modders developed ways to access the infamous “Hot Coffee” sex minigame. Rockstar North put Hot Coffee on the San Andreas disc, but removed a way for players to access it through regular gameplay, effectively (or so they thought) locking it out of the game without actually removing it.
San Andreas, like so many of its predecessors in the Grand Theft Auto series, faced intense criticism for its overwhelming emphasis on violence, but the Hot Coffee minigame whipped the media into a frenzy. The ESRB was forced to re-evaluate San Andreas and give it a new rating: AO (“adults only”).
My store, like many others, had to take San Andreas off the shelves when the rating change became official, but unlike many other retailers, we could still sell copies. We had to check the ID of everyone – no matter how old they looked – who bought a copy and log their information in our computer system. Hiding merchandise behind the counter and strictly enforcing our ID policy, we began to feel like we were selling porn, not videogames – a sentiment that only grew when we shared stories with one of our regular customers, who just happened to work at the porn store across the parking lot.
Taking all this into consideration, I gave the woman standing before me the standard spiel about all the violent and degenerate behavior – killing with impunity, stealing cars and having sex with prostitutes – in which her son could indulge if he played San Andreas, but none of that deterred her. She kept saying he was mature enough to handle it – after all, he’d seen worse on the evening news.
There might be some truth in her logic, though she’d probably be the last to admit it in her angered state when she returned to my store. Dr. Margaret Sutko, a neuropsychologist at Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, says that realistic violence is potentially more harmful than fantasy violence because the latter is “obviously fake.” When “most of what the news consists of is murder stories, kidnappings, rapes and arson,” says Dr. Sutko, a fantasy simulation doesn’t seem so harsh. But parents are also influenced by the news. Dr. David Willis, Director of the Northwest Early Childhood Institute, has “seen parents who say they do not let their children out to play for fear that they will be abducted.” When has anyone ever heard of a parent keeping their son or daughter indoors for fear of the child being abducted by a fire-spitting Italian plumber?
Neither outrage nor paranoia is a particularly productive response for parents who’ve discovered objectionable content in their children’s media, however. Instead of ripping the disc from the console and storming back to the retailer, parents can use the game to address deeper concerns about media consumption with their children. “Environments where children and parents have a free exchange of ideas encourage children to question and think critically about their experiences,” says Dr. Willis, “which makes children more likely to question the idea that violence is the norm put forth by the media.”
Unfortunately, few parents worry about videogame content, because most don’t play videogames or watch their children play them, says Rick Seifert, Treasurer and founding board member of Media Think (formerly the Northwest Media Literacy Center). Sometimes, parents think that letting their children play videogames will help keep them in line. “In general, parents have learned from the time their children were very young to use ‘screens’ as pacifiers. It is ironic to use the word ‘pacifier’ to describe Grand Theft Auto, I know. But the function from the parents’ perspective is to keep the child out of trouble,” Seifert said. “They never stop to think that the pacifier could be the cause of trouble.”
Benjamin Asbury is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.