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Putting Grand Theft Auto IV Into Perspective


I tried as hard as I could to hold out on writing an article about Grand Theft Auto IV in my column. My two primary reasons for my reluctance is first, every media outlet has weighed in on the pros and cons of this game, and second, I really didn't want to contribute an additional web site to the search keywords this game has already secured on the Internet.


But, as I continue reading points of view about violence in video games and how "grand" GTA IV will be, I must repeat a few things I have said in years past on this topic.


When you have a product as prominent as this title, it moves far beyond normal consumer logic. Instead, it becomes a religion. It's what every marketing department dreams of -- a populous that is so determined to defend and support a product, they begin evangelizing its features, creating a volunteer sales and promotion force that no bank account could afford.


Rockstar Games has achieved gamer deity status, and no matter how hard we try, the GTA franchise won't go away until the mobs themselves decide to move on to something new. And, I suspect, the more we push against GTA the more attention the game will get. It's that maddening "don't push the red button" syndrome. Just tell people something isn't good for them, and sizable portion of the population won't be able to stand not discovering it for themselves.


Don't think for a moment I'm telling you to not teach your children about the pitfalls of spending dozens of hours picking up prostitutes and shooting up the 'hood. But recognize this game is going to be the button that your teens are dying to push -- at least once -- just so they can belong to the popular group that will be driving the streets of an imaginary New York City this weekend.


That means it's in your hands to have a valid argument that will hopefully allow your kids to understand your concerns and help them understand how they are being marketed to.


Many of the media who are covering the game are suggesting the evidence validating a direct relationship between playing violent video games and actually carrying out a violent act just isn't there. This is a half-truth -- perhaps even better said as a half-lie.


Researchers need very solid evidence before they can even suggest a "casual" relationship exists between two activities. While I'm only moderately able to interpret all of the information I have read on this topic over the past fifteen years, I do know there are many studies that have produced conclusions showing possible relationships between violent media consumption and real life effects. But there is some evidence there, and a handful has concluded there is a casual link.


A while ago, I wrote about the spinach scare, where a few people fell ill after eating contaminated spinach. Immediately all spinach was pulled from store shelves until the problem was identified and resolved. No one wanted to take the risk, no matter how remote, that more people would become ill.


As a parent, you need to determine how great of a risk it is for your teen (or perhaps child) to immerse him or herself into this virtual world of glorified crime.


Before you believe the words of the "experts" who say this is a non-issue, look at a paragraph a writer authored in my local newspaper (The Calgary Herald) yesterday about the effects of playing violent video games like Grand Theft Auto IV. It's typical of what I'm seeing in many news sources:


"There's little evidence to back up those claims [that violent video games cause children to behave violently]. A U.S. Secret Service study from May 2002 found that only 12 per cent of those involved in school shootings were attracted to violent video games, while 24 per cent read violent books and 27 per cent were attracted to violent films. An Australian study from March 2007 found that only children already predisposed to violence were affected by violent games."


Now let's look at these statements -- only 12 percent of those involved in school shootings were attracted to violent video games. Gosh, if my child had been gunned down by one of those 12 percent, I would gladly consider that perhaps he shouldn't have spent so much time playing violent games. That leads to the next sentences:


...24 per cent read violent books and 27 per cent were attracted to violent films...


The video game industry's favorite inside game is Pass The Buck. They always point out that other violent media contributes just as much, if not more, to real world violent acts. I agree with these numbers and have never suggested video games were the only source of violence that could lead a person to become aggressive.


Yet, is the game industry's low percentage of responsibility not just simply due to its lesser share of the recreational media market? The media is full of reports that games will soon become the new "mainstream" activity. Grand Theft Auto IV is hoping to make an incredible $400 million this weekend, with some suggesting it will even dent Hollywood's box office. If and when gaming truly does replace television, movies and even reading as a predominant recreational pastime, I doubt the industry will still be able to hide behind these "it's not just us" statistics.


Finally, take note of the Australian March 2007 study. First, many other studies have also concluded that children (and even adults) predisposed to committing violent acts are more likely to be affected by violent games. But lets word this sentence in a different way: "An Australian study from March 2007 found children who are already violent, become even more aggressive when playing violent games."


Isn't this a concern? I'm not surprised a passive teen isn't motivated to go and beat on someone after playing GTA, but it still seems to be a relevant risk that aggressive players will become even more prone to act out violent behavior after spending time with a violent game.


Second, a key fact was left out of that Australian study (as is often the case). The sample of 120 children (a relatively small group) played a violent game for 20 minutes. How many game playing teens do you know that play for only 20 minutes? (One journalist who was "fortunate" enough to get his hands on GTA IV early said he played it for three straight days.)


Over the upcoming weeks, there is bound to be more real life violence that will be pegged to Grand Theft Auto. The game will become the poor, pathetic innocent bystander, held up as "a convenient enemy for people," quoting Rockstar Games founder Dan Houser.


The zealots who love this game will continue to defend it, tying it into freedom of speech debates, while quoting university studies most of them have never read. The rest of us will likely hope the whole thing will blow over and our kids will want to spend their hard earned money and precious brain cells on something else.


But before you wave the white flag in your home, I must hearken back to the very first column I wrote for the PTC many years ago. It was titled Helping Parents Avoid Heart Attack and it encouraged parents to follow their hearts.  It may sound corny and shallow, but if you think Grand Theft Auto IV isn't the best thing your teen can be playing, then let them know that. Tell them why you feel that way, and don't be ashamed of your opinion. Perhaps you are confident your teen is okay with the game. That's fine too, but let them know why you feel that way.


Considering the amount of time your game-playing youth is likely to invest in this title (and the many more he or she has already acquired) my heart tells me there will be some affect on him or her. Don't give up your opportunity to let your kids know how you feel about these issues. Heaven knows thousands of others will be happy to tell your kids what to think, so make sure you are in on the game.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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