Politics & Policy

The Games People Play

Hillary Clinton picks an easy target.

It’s not easy to defend videogames. (Go ahead: Try it on your typical teacher or soccer mom.) But it’s nearly impossible to defend Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, whose producers proudly advertise its content of simulated drug use, sexual situations, explicit violence, and crime. So making GTA’s producers an enemy and calling for federally regulated corrective measures is a pretty easy and smart move if you’re an ambitious Democrat looking for some 2008-minded national standing.

Hillary Clinton meets the qualifications and is leading the Democratic charge against GTA producer Rockstar Games.

It came to the attention of some in Congress that computer programmers had developed a “mod” file allowing them to alter and amplify some of GTA’s adult-themed content.

The target of Clinton’s outrage might at first sound confusing to anyone not versed in the hand-to-eye coordinated diversions offered on videogame systems like Sony’s Playstation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox, and personal computers. Simply put, a “mod” is a computer file that modifies the original content of a video game. This particular mod allowed video gamers to view and dictate sexual acts between characters in the game.

Several years ago, the videogame industry voluntarily adopted a rating system. The last three entries in the Grand Theft Auto series have received a “Mature” rating, meaning that sales are restricted to those above the age of 17. Nonetheless, Clinton and her Democratic colleagues saw a second ratings standard as the solution to the game’s proliferation in the hands of children.

Initially, Rockstar denied responsibility for the game’s sexually explicit content in a statement:

So far we have learned that the “Hot Coffee” modification is the work of a determined group of hackers who have gone to significant trouble to alter scenes in the official version of the game. In violation of the software user agreement, hackers created the “Hot Coffee” modification by disassembling and then combining, recompiling and altering the game’s source code.

However, it was quickly revealed that the “modification” only unlocked content already contained within the game. In addition, the content can be unlocked in the Playstation 2 and Xbox models even without downloading a file. Since then, San Andreas has received an AO–”adults only”–rating, the equivalent of a NC-17 label for a film. What’s more, several retail chains, including industry giants Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart, have pulled San Andreas from their shelves.

Clinton has received some accolades in the press for her campaign. Conservative syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker noted while some 2008 White House Republicans have suffered recent media setbacks: “Hillary’s image, meanwhile, glistens with virtue. As she edges toward the center, she’s landed on a win-win issue.”

While multiple studies show the median age for gamers has risen above the age of 21, there can be little doubt large numbers of children have been exposed to game content inappropriate for their age. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has sold more than five million copies since its debut. And considering it has already been on sale for nearly a year, the increased restrictions on its retail distribution are not likely to hurt Rockstar’s bottom line. In fact, some critics argue the debut of game warning labels coincided with the exponential rise of videogame sales in the 1990s. Worse still, those same retail chains that have pulled the game from their shelves still offer “game guides” for San Andreas, which provide scene-by-scene instructions for completing the game. You can also still buy the previous two installments in the Grand Theft Auto series, both of which contain content comparable to that of San Andreas.

As it happens , the game’s modification that served as catalyst for Clinton’s attack, is far from its most offensive scene. GameSpot.com columnist Tor Thorson writes: “Given that the minigame is about as raunchy as an episode of ‘Sex and the City,’ cannot be accessed without entering a long string of cheat codes, and takes several hours of effort to access, charges that San Andreas is ‘pornographic’ may seem extreme to some.”

But one doesn’t have to defend Grand Theft Auto to put Clinton’s motivations into perspective. Perhaps it’s a sincere concern she has about San Andreas. It does Take a Village and all. Even with an easy target, however, Clinton might find it harder than she thinks to impress Americans who don’t believe the state should serve as the primary moral authority for children when responsible parents and retailers can better regulate themselves in a way that has real impact.

Eric Pfeiffer writes the daily political “Buzz” column on NRO.

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