Hot Coffee and the recognition of a new dominant media
"Can a videogame lead to murder?"
-Ed Bradley, 60 Minutes
"All videogames are violent."
–Donny Deutsch, The Big Idea
"Mmm ... Coffee."
-Me, Things I've Said
Here we go again, fanning the flames of an already on-the-edge media culture. Rockstar Games, developer of infamous titles such as Manhunt, Midnight Club, and, most notably, Grand Theft Auto, has been the target of a media blitz unlike any since the days of Mortal Kombat's rise to general acknowledgement. The above quotes clearly illustrate how a couple of the mainstream media outlets covered the recent "scandal," and the comments have clearly helped shape public opinion. But consider the matter from my point of view.
The recent controversy stems from a user-created patch called "hot coffee" that unlocks a game segment in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas not available otherwise. Players with the PC, Xbox or PlayStation 2 version of the game can access this sequence by downloading files from the internet and hacking the game by using a cheating device known as "Action Replay." Once patched, players can meet up with a female character, take her on a date, and return home for some "hot coffee."
Out of the package, the game does not show what happens when the player is granted entry to the house, nor does it make the sequence available to gamers. However, the user-modified version grants access to a somewhat explicit (and entirely ill-logical) sex mini-game. According to Rockstar, the sequence was deemed too explicit and was removed from the playable game. Think of it as a deleted scene that never made it to the special features menu. This is not uncommon in film, especially when the content is under MPAA scrutiny.
However, Senator Clinton could not have been more outraged. Joe Lieberman, a long time opponent of violent or otherwise smutty game content, jumped up right beside her. It was as if neither remembered the "Tipper Rocks!" campaign during the early 90's which resulted in parental warning stickers being plopped on music CD's by the millions. Did content change then? No. It only became increasingly crass. Or perhaps both forgot about the September 2002 Federal Trade Commission report which stated, "There is much in the game industry's rating disclosure requirements that merits duplication by others."
I do not think a scene of topless nudity in any piece of media rated for adults should cause such uproar. Are politicians holding press conferences to discuss the impact of films like Scarface or Eyes Wide Shut? The game already allows players to ransack an entire city, killing and maiming all the way. If there was to be a controversy, let it be on the game's already fringe content, not on a scene of nudity that was actually taken out of the game. Ultimately, any controversy is only going to make the game more popular.
But all this is beside the point. GTA is clearly rated for adults, and carries the descriptor, "MATURE (Ages 17+) - Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs." Unless the U.S. Government intends to censor all forms of appropriately rated media, the moral bastions of the Senate should sit down and take a few notes.
If playing video games does anything, it provides players with the chance to do something they would never do normally: save a princess, win the Indy 500, score a touchdown at the super bowl, or wreak untold levels of destruction. The medium is unique in that it creates a world where the player is free to act out. Many games even tout the morality of a player's actions, forcing decisions of good and evil which, depending on the choice, will ultimately affect the outcome of the game. But seriously, who among us has not wanted to go all Burnout 3 (a high-speed racing game, for you non-gamers) on rush-hour traffic? I smile at the thought every day, but reserve my lust for highway mayhem until I am planted safely on the couch.
You can push a button in the real world and watch an animated character pick up a high-powered rifle on your television, but this is no "murder training." Its organized pixels on a monitor, arranged to look and move like whatever. Watching the talking heads go on about video games is painful for anyone who understands the industry. What the anchors did not say is perhaps the most telling fact of all: For the last two years, video games have out-grossed books, music, television and movies. The interactive segment has finally got the news-ie suits all uptight, and it is not really because of boobies or fake guns.
Major television networks have been losing a lot of viewers to alternative sources of news and entertainment. A large portion of today's media culture is turning to DVD's (a format popularized by the PlayStation 2), the internet and video games to get their fill. The corporate flicker-boxers have taken notice. I consider the most recent volley of attacks on the game industry nothing more than the mainstream press sensationalizing remarks made by overly-zealous politicians in order to attract a larger portion of the non-gaming population. With audiences dwindling, what else can the likes of Donny Deutsch and Ed Bradley say to keep the opinion-less from spending their time elsewhere? Scare the audience into thinking that games are a new means of hypnotizing a generation! "We are turning [the youth] into a league of super predators," said one incensed anchor. Nonsense, says I.
But now the sounding boards have mostly quieted. Recently, News Corporation, the owner of FOX and FOX News, DirecTV, countless newspapers, radio stations and websites, announced plans to purchase IGN, the world's largest game-industry news network. With Bush hawk Rupert Murdoch moving in on the gaming industry, fellow tele-mogul, capi-vangelists have shut their yaps about the evils of our past-time altogether. Corporate America has given the nod, and games are now, officially, the most popular form of entertainment in the world.
Parents, I’m talking to you. In the future, look at the game you are purchasing for your child. If you find sex and violence reprehensible, do not pay for it. Read the content descriptors. Games are not just for kids anymore. The average age of today's game player is 35, and nearly half of America's gamers are female. Only 12 percent of last year's games achieved a "Mature" rating, yet that small group garnered the most mainstream headlines. There is enough genre variety available to appease all ages. If you feel you must block your child's exposure to "alternative" media, simply glance at the bottom-right corner of any game case.
And let the politicians continue to demonize games. As an industry, we know their base does not want to recognize their own negligence for not reading the on-package content disclosure. Gripes go up, not down. And when these officials are only listening to a collection of the fearful, their public statements ultimately betray their ignorance of the issue.
As for me, I'll keep feeding on media untouched by Murdoch and crew, games included. And when I am not in the need to know, I'll make sure to spend some quality time in the "No Spin Zone" ... where all that matters is a little Italian plumber and a pink-clad princess in distress.
Stephen Webster is the author of "Electronic Horizons", a popular column published in The News Connection, a weekly community newspaper in North Texas. Republished with permission.