Monthly Archives: July 2005

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Video game scandal creates a stir



The Grand Theft Auto series of video games has become a polarizing force in the discussion of video games and their role in the cultural marketplace. A perennial sales juggernaut for Rockstar Games and its publisher, Take 2 Interactive, the GTA series has been consistently applauded by game enthusiasts for its open-ended design, richly-detailed environments and choose-your-own-adventure style of game play. On the other hand, critics and media watchdog groups revile it for its glorification of violence and culture of moral depravity.


As with many cultural touchstones, the popularity of the Grand Theft Auto series reveals a hypocritical dichotomy among American consumers. Many polls have shown considerable disapproval of these types of ultra-violent games, yet they continue to rack up leading sales numbers. As a result, a growing number of people are speaking out, in both support of and opposition to the GTA games and other similar titles. The controversy continues to pit First Amendment apologists against parent advocacy groups in the battle to define how far is too far, a debate continually argued in the court of public opinion. As the conflict evolves, it spills over into the realms of criminal justice, legislation and political discourse.



A New Controversy


Now Rockstar Games is back in the spotlight with its latest entry: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. A Dutch programmer named Patrick Wildenborg recently discovered a way to, by editing one of the game files on his modified XBOX console, unlock a playable mini-game that depicts the protagonist having sex with his girlfriend. News of the euphemistically-named “hot coffee mod” (so-called because the tryst occurs after she invites him in for coffee) quickly spread over the Internet, sparking an inferno of controversy.


Several days after the discovery of the hot coffee mod, Rockstar Games issued a press release, implying that the scene’s content was created by “a determined group of hackers” who, in doing so, violated Rockstar’s software copyright restrictions. Wildenborg has maintained that he didn’t create any of the content, he merely unlocked what was already there. His claim was validated by staffers at GameSpot.com, who discovered the same content on the PlayStation 2 version of the same game. These developments have attracted the attention of California assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich who are backing legislation designed to restrict the retail sale of GTA: San Andreas and other similar titles to underage buyers.



A Checkered History


Yet this is not the first time the series has been publicly criticized by a public servant.


In December of 2003, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg publicly called for Rockstar Games to edit some of the dialogue from a particularly inflammatory scene in GTA: Vice City, after an outcry of protest from Haitian citizens and city officials. In January of 2003, anti-violence attorney Jack Thompson represented Devin Moore, then 17, who gunned down three police officers after being arrested on suspicion of auto theft. As part of Moore’s defense, Thompson asserted that several months of prolonged exposure to GTA: Vice City trained his client to commit murder. Consequently, Thompson claimed, Rockstar Games should share a portion of civil culpability for his client’s criminal activity. While the court has yet to rule in his favor, Thompson’s suit generated concern over the potential effects of such violent games on minors. With each GTA-related headline, the rule of thumb seems to be this: when it comes to Grand Theft Auto, any news is probably bad news.


Coffeegate: Unveiled


The Electronic Software Ratings Board originally rated GTA: San Andreas as “M for Mature,” a designation meaning the game is recommended for teens 17 and older. In the normal, unmodified version of the game, the hot coffee scene is disabled, with only a few suggestive moans depicting action off-screen.


Many speculate its last-minute omission was designed to avoid an “AO: Adults Only” rating. Rockstar has enormous financial incentive to avoid AO ratings for its games, because many retailers – including behemoths like Wal-Mart – refuse to stock AO titles. However, the controversy of the “hot coffee mod” prompted the ESRB to launch an investigation into whether or not Rockstar failed to properly disclose all relevant information to the advisory panel who rated the game.


Four weeks later, the ESRB rescinded the “M” rating from San Andreas, giving retailers the option of re-labeling existing stock with “AO” stickers or trading them in for an “M”-rated version that makes the hot coffee mod inoperable.



What Does it All Mean?


Ultimately, the board’s decision is good news.


It’s good for the ESRB, because when the heat was on to bring sanctions against Rockstar Games, the board responded. While the investigation crawled along, popular opinion was beginning to sway against the ESRB. It was starting to look like a toothless watchdog, all bark and no bite. This notion was undoubtedly fueled by the fact that the ESRB receives its funding from the Entertainment Software Assocation, a game company trade group. The fear was that when it came right down to it, the ratings board would only act in the best interests of the game companies involved, rather than the interests of the general public.


Skeptics can point to the imminent legislation and claim the board was forced into action to prevent even harsher federal penalties. They have a point, but it doesn’t change the verdict. We have no way of knowing how the ESRB would have responded without the media exposure and political pressure, but in this situation, it did the right thing.


It’s good news for parents, because they can be more assured that the ESRB will step up its game in trying to effectively monitor and evaluate game content. The discovery and subsequent media exposure of the hot coffee mod was a major embarrassment for the ratings board. Much like the TSA after Sept. 11, the ESRB will most likely overhaul its procedures to ensure that something like this never happens again.

Most importantly, it’s good news for gamers. While there will certainly be those in the gaming community who will defend GTA and Rockstar/Take 2 and their apparent proclivity toward depravity, these gamers are a vocal minority. On the other side of the philosophical spectrum, there are probably others whose beliefs compel them to completely shun any game that depicts any kind of violent, illegal, antisocial or supernatural activity. The rest of us probably reside in the middle, freely enjoying games that stimulate our senses and engage our minds, while choosing to reject titles that violate our convictions.


Sometimes games with objectionable content can serve a valuable purpose in helping us to grapple with important moral and ethical issues of the day. The Splinter Cell series by Ubisoft comes to mind. Inspired by the work of political-thriller novelist Tom Clancy, the games follow the work of Sam Fisher, a covert CIA operative who conducts critical intelligence-gathering missions in order to bolster national security. Killing is involved, but it’s part of the way the protagonist and his remote team navigate through the complicated layers of espionage and counter-terrorism. Playing a Splinter Cell mission can be a great way to stimulate conversation about the complex moral issues that beg for answers to important policy questions:


  • How do we balance our right to privacy with our desire for a safe homeland?

  • How can our foreign policy advance the cause of democracy without succumbing to terrorist tactics?

  • When does killing another human being constitute a legitimate means to achieving a political goal?


Knee-jerk reactionaries who cry foul over the “hot coffee” scandal might be tempted to lump all popular video games together. Those who do should take a healthy step back and look at the whole picture. Any game rated “M for Mature” should never fall into the hands of anyone under 17 to begin with. And clearly a video game can never substitute for a good civics class, but games like Splinter Cell (rated “T for Teen”) are nowhere near the digitized debauchery of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. To imply that they are would be ignorant, on the level of equating Bambi with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films because they both involve guns and killing.


Hopefully, the “hot coffee” scandal will help illuminate the public as to the difference between the two kinds of games, and maybe people will know not to associate the former with the latter. For gamers, that might be the best news of all.



[special thanks go to Dennis McCauley of GamePolitics.com for extended coverage of the scandal that contributed to this report.]





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For Christians, insults fall on us

We’ve missed it.

As a Christian, I’m becoming more and more convinced that, by and large, we’ve missed it.

Who is the ‘we’ in question? Christians.

And if you’re reading this right now wondering, does this have any thing to do with me? … well, chances are it does. Because if you don’t consider yourself to be a Christian, then you probably know one. If you know one, then somewhere along the line you’ve probably felt offended by one. That being the case, you’ve probably witnessed a profound failure on the part of one or many Christians, a failure so egregiously antithetical to our core beliefs that it has probably distorted your view of who Christians are supposed to be.

A friend of mine, someone I’ve known since the seventh grade, once called me out of the blue last year. He was incensed – no, that’s too gentle a word – he was pissed about the results of the 2004 presidential election. His burning question was basically this (I’m paraphrasing): how do Christians justify electing a man who has made so many morally questionable decisions?

Not About Politics

Now, before I go any further, let me get a few things out of the way.

First, I’m not a political pundit, by any stretch of the imagination. By and large, I can’t stand politics, mostly because I think they end up being more divisive than constructive.

Secondly, (I can’t believe I’m admitting this publicly) I’ve never actually voted. Through a combination of poor planning, unforeseen circumstances and general apathy, I’ve managed to make it into my late twenties without actually casting an official vote of any kind. So I have no official (or even unofficial) political affiliation. So being a Christian doesn’t make me a pawn of the conservative right any more than being a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing would make me a radical leftist.

(And for the record, I only got into The West Wing after being completely and totally addicted to his previous series, Sports Night.)

But had I voted in the 2004 election, I might have strongly considered voting for Bush, so when my buddy from back in the day suddenly called me up to get an authentic Christian’s take on ol’ Dubya, I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to tell him, exactly. As our conversation progressed, I had to admit that I felt strongly enough about the same-sex marriage issue that I might have swayed to the right on that issue alone.

This, as you might imagine, set him off in a big way.

So what you’re saying,” he seethed, “is that you would put a sorry S.O.B. like Bush back in power because God doesn’t like a** f***ers?!”

Lacking no other response, I conceded.

“Well yeah,” I essentially said.

Stinging Attacks Hit Home

I’ve valued my relationship with this guy precisely because we’ve never been afraid to venture into emotionally explosive territory. It’s probably one of the reasons why we don’t talk more often, but when we do, it’s always interesting. And this was no exception, because when I answered his question, he proceeded to tear into me with a series of scathing indictments of short-sighted, narrow-minded judgmental Christians. And in a general sense, even though I disagreed with a lot of his underlying suppositions, his attacks were right on.

And it hurt to hear it.

Not because it was news to me. I’ve heard most of those arguments before. It hurt because it was coming from someone who knew me. It hurt because I could hear years of angst and frustration seeping through my cell phone. It hurt because essentially what he was saying (even though he didn’t explicitly say so) was, yeah… well if that’s how He works, then this God of yours is full of crap.

I flashed back to that moment this morning, more than nine months later, after reading this portion of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans (15:1-3, NIV):

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.

Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.

For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”

In this passage, Paul is quoting from a psalm of David, which was written during a time of intense personal trial (69:5-9, NIV):

You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you.

May those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me,

O Lord, the LORD Almighty;

May those who seek you not be put to shame because of me,

O God of Israel.

For I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face.

I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother’s sons;

for zeal for your house consumes me,

and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.

Whoa, Whoa… On Me?

This idea that the insults of those who insult God could fall on me… this is not a comfortable idea. And I would venture to say that most Christians don’t embrace this idea. This is something we run from, especially in the public eye.

There are many Christians in high-profile positions… head coaches of sports teams, high-ranking public officials, popular musicians, actors, etc. When Christians in those kinds of position are confronted with scandal on their doorstep, the popular responses are name-calling, and grandstanding speeches that divert attention away from the real problem. You would almost never hear a Christian say, in a press conference:

Yup… I messed this thing up so bad, all those bad things that people think about God because of me… I’ll take all of those things. I wanna hear ‘em.”

Why is this?

My guess is because it takes a level of strength and humility that’s hard to achieve by scratching and clawing your way to power.

And that’s how I think we’ve missed it.

Because for some Christians, especially ones in the public eye, the general response to genuine conflict with unbelievers looks like this:

Bring it on… we can take it, and we’ll dish it out, too… We’re not afraid of you. We’re gonna get our chance, and when we do, you and your Godless agenda are toast.

What ever happened to loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us?

One of the biggest mistakes we Christians make with people is the assumption that they will change their beliefs if we can argue our position well enough. But people are complex, multifaceted emotional creatures, and we respond in a plethora of ways. Often our motives for arguing our “side” are rooted in our aversion to emotional pain. When someone comes at us with beef about our Christian beliefs, we would rather try to shout them down with our intellect and our rhetoric instead of trying to understand where they’re coming from – because to do so would require us to receive their insults and take on their pain. Our subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) message is, look… you don’t have a right to feel this way, so I don’t wanna hear it.

My man Donald Miller expressed this in his book of memoirs, Blue Like Jazz (italics mine):

My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care. I don’t believe I will walk away from God for intellectual reasons. If I do walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything.

What Does This All Mean?

So here is where it all comes back to you.

(No, I don’t mean “you” as in me, or the generic “you” that means anyone or everyone, I’m talking about you, directly, whoever you are.)

If you’ve been angry with a Christian over something… anything… just know this – you have a right to be angry.

Now hear exactly what I’m saying, and don’t get twisted.

I’m not saying your anger is always going to lead you to the correct conclusions. A victim of child molestation who carries the emotional burden of that crime for years and years might ultimately decide that the only way to be free is to perpetrate the same act on someone else. That decision would be an illegitimate solution to a legitimate problem. And there are few things that we Christians do more than denounce illegitimate solutions to legitimate problems. That’s something that all of us, myself included, need to work on.

So back to “you” and my previous claim:

Even if there are compelling, logical reasons for a Christian to disagree with you on whatever subject you may have beef with us about, you still have a legitimate reason to be upset. It may have nothing to do with the person you’re dealing with, someone may call him or herself a ‘little Christ.’ But it’s legitimate, nonetheless.

And I believe God loves you so much, and wants so desperately to reveal Himself to you, that He doesn’t want your perspective to be screwed up by a portion of His followers who don’t quite totally get it.

So I’m going to do something that I’ve resisted for a long time.

I say, go ahead. Let the insults fly.

Because there are some Christians out there who’ll take it. And some of us not content to miss the mark any longer.

I’m G*Natural, and thanks for mixing it up with me.