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The case against 'Grand Theft Auto'

Community shame can be a powerful motivator in keeping dodgy titles out of kids' hands, says's Michael Kanellos.

For those of you who worry about the future of U.S. competitiveness, I give you "Prison Tycoon."

The game from ValuSoft teaches kids how to build and manage a private incarceration facility, one of the few growth industries in America that has yet to be offshored to India or Mexico.

"Begin with a low security prison and build it up to a maximum security facility for the world's most dangerous criminals," the game publisher says in a description on its Web site. "But beware! Too harsh a prison will create a dangerous environment and could spark prisoner riots. Too lenient an approach will result in rampant gang activity."

I wanted to go out and buy a copy for my daughter, then realized she doesn't know how to use a keyboard yet.

The game industry has been mired in controversy in the past few weeks with the news that a downloadable piece of code will unlock pornographic scenes--secret, until recently--in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."

Putting an "Adults Only" rating on a game is the kiss of death for sales.

Parents groups and a diverse array of politicians requested tighter controls on sales of video games, particularly to minors. Australia . Additionally, the Entertainment Software Rating Board can impose sanctions on Grand Theft Auto series publisher Rockstar Games for failing to disclose content. The organization, which puts the ratings on games, has no control over retailers who sell titles rated "Mature" or "Adults Only" to minors.

The game industry and fans, meanwhile, claimed that passing legislation to control the sale or content of game software would infringe the First Amendment right to free speech. Kids would get restricted titles anyway. They also argue that since the secret sex scenes required a download that Rockstar didn't invent, the company can't be blamed for the problems.

While both sides have taken their arguments to the extreme, I have to admit I side with the regulators. I would like to see a law that required that "Mature" and "Adults Only" games could be sold only to people over a certain age.

Why? It engenders a slight social stigma. One of the main complaints (from the gamers) is that adults really don't pay attention to the games kids are playing. Under a strict rule that would require an adult to buy the game, not just give a nagging 12-year-old permission to get it, they would study the package first. They'd also think, "Do I really want 'Shell Shock Nam '67' on my credit card?"

Shame on them
You won't hear this from someone in my profession much, but I'm sort of a fan of community shame. History shows it works. No, I don't think retailers who sell games to kids should get their eyes poked out and forced to wander the Earth as Oedipus was. But cities like Venice and Athens thrived because people knew each other's business intimately, and the snooping didn't turn the places into moralistic enclaves.

Venice and Athens thrived because people knew each other's business intimately, and the snooping didn't turn the places into moralistic enclaves.

If a retailer got a fine or two for selling inappropriate video games, eyebrows would go up. Granted, some kids would still get their hands on the software, but some kids also chew Skoal. Overall, sales and access to violent or inappropriate titles would likely decline.

Additionally, the fears of a crackdown on the right to free expression are vastly overblown. The First Amendment allows reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. Kids can't buy pornography, but the companies that make it seem to be thriving.

Some will argue that violent games are actually good for society. In a recent article, Steven Johnson, the author of "Everything Bad is Good for You," argues fatuously that a decline in carjacking could conceivably be tied to games like "Grand Theft Auto" because they let kids act out these fantasies.

This argument rests on the assumption that suburban teen lads, the principal buyers of game systems, constitute a collective power keg of violence defused by PlayStation2. To test the thesis, I asked my nephew about "Grand Theft Auto." His parents won't let him have it, but he claims he hasn't had the urge to pistol whip anyone either. (Although he did talk his sister into getting inside a garbage can, then rolled it down a hill, in the name of science.)

Interestingly enough, game publishers seem to understand the impact of public opinion on their business. Commentators to sites like Gamasutra point out that putting an "Adults Only" rating on a game is the kiss of death for sales.

I admit I'm not a huge fan of video games. Even as a kid I really couldn't get fired up about "Pac-Man." I also believe that they can suck up inordinate amounts of time and contribute to the obesity problem.

But I'm also very impressed with the creativity of the industry. Seriously. The vast majority of games are actually more interesting than critics allow. If anyone knows of any that let you run anachronistic scenarios--such as "What if the Aztecs had cars?"--let me know. And the titles--"Destroy All Humans," "Solar Boy Django," "Escape of Bipeds"--beat anything coming out of Hollywood. There's a certain level of weirdness that is very engaging.

"Grand Theft Auto," however, is not your Rubicon.