I’m going to keep a spotlight on video games over the next days because of all the hype surrounding the April 29th release of Grand Theft Auto IV which is going to set a new sales record for entertainment product (perhaps $400 mil, way beyond the previous record-holder Halo 3). Again, I look to my video game guru Keith Boesky, whose company is responsible for selling the most intellectual property and developers into the game business, to answer the oft-asked question: is there more violence in video games than movies? Keith takes issue with my recent description of GTA IV as “loathsome” and compares the game’s content to past and present violent Hollywood films and TV:
“I love Nikki, I love GTA, so I have to address the adjective. I could think of a lot of ways to describe GTA IV. Perhaps ‘mind boggling in scope,’ ‘unbelievable achievement in game making,’ ‘more technologically complex than the NASA systems that put a man on the moon,’ or just ‘beautiful.’ …GTA IV is an ‘M’ rated game — the industry equivalent to the MPAA’s “R” rating — and will not be sold to anyone under 17. The GTA series drives its medium forward and takes us where we’ve gone in films like The Godfather, Scarface, or more recently, The Sopranos.
“Isn’t the most troubling part of watching those movies feeling like you might do the same thing in the same situation? In GTA, you don’t feel it, you do it. In each installment, you play a character, invited to prove himself to the bad guys. Instead of sitting and waiting to see whether Michael can take the gun out of the toilet and put a bullet in someone’s head, you do it. The game is not limited to large missions or tasks. Simple things serve to suspend your disbelief and move you further into the world than a film can. While the game is no better lodestone for your moral compass than Scarface, there are consequences to your actions. If you commit a crime in public, the police will be after you. Like Tony Soprano, it may get pretty hot, but also like Tony Soprano the heat may die down without your going to jail.
“GTA is violent, but like the movies, the violence is a reflection of our time. In 1972, Vincent Canby called The Godfather ‘… one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment.’ Today it runs regularly, unedited, on basic cable. Eleven years later Scarface took violence further to reach same point, and 15 years later, The Sopranos brought more sex and more violence directly into our homes on pay cable. In each case, it was ok to watch. GTA shows us, it is ok to play. The game is a fantasy, it is ok to pretend. Don’t be scared of the people doing this stuff in the game. Be scared of the people doing this stuff in real life…
“Games are constantly being attacked for sex and violence – even though we have none of the first, and strictly control the second. Politicians, media, parents and crazy lawyers all attack the industry with a broad brush, sweeping kids together with adults, and ‘M’ rated games together with ‘E’s. The industry is diverse enough to accommodate Mario and Snake Plisken but the media and politicians still portray our market as one for children. The average aged gamer, who is 33 years old, probably enjoys playing Mario, but he also wants to play some Halo, a bit of GTA, some Call of Duty and a touch of Zelda.
“Just to place some perspective on the market, I pulled some information from The Entertainment Software Association and the list of the top selling games from Next Gen. According to The ESA, 85% of the games sold in 2007 were ‘E’, ‘E10′ or ‘T’. This equates to the ‘G’, ‘PG’ and ‘PG-13′ ratings in the film industry. (The rating system is administered by a self imposed oversight board called the Entertainment Software Review Board.) I went through the top selling games to see what people were buying ratings-wise. The three “M” rated games accounted for roughly 23% of the slightly less than 90 million units in sales represented by this list. Contrary to popular belief, there is no Hostel in there and no Debbie Does Dallas. In fact I challenge anyone to find a single naked boob. More significantly, I challenge anyone to find a single scene involving gratuitous violence.
“Game ratings are based on similar criteria to those applied by the MPAA. The number one title, Call of Duty 4, places you in the middle of a war zone. People are shooting at you from all over, your buddies are dying and you are killing bad guys who look an awful lot like Iraqi insurgents. Kids shouldn’t play it. On the other hand, an adult gamer, would no more want to play an ‘E’ version of the game, than watch a version of Black Hawk Down edited to secure a ‘G’ rating. If you think these games are getting into the hands of children directly, you are just wrong. The average age of the most frequent game buyer is 38 years old and 80% of console games were purchased by people over the age of 18. I know statistics can be manipulated, so let’s just look at practicalities. If a person under the age of 18 tries to purchase a game at Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, Target, Toys R Us or Gamestop, a register prompt tells the cashier to check ID. Kids who are playing these games get them from their parents. In Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us, the games are locked behind glass. I don’t think the bullets are locked up in Wal-Mart. A kid can’t even get the game to the register unless someone hands it to them.
“I am not delusional. I know there are ultra violent games out there. I played the snuff film called Manhunt and saw the ESRB speech where Gail Markels showed the scene from Postal where the player lights someone on fire and pees on them, but these games just don’t sell in volume. Don’t take my word for it, look on the top 100. You won’t find them. Based on the unit sales of the 100th title, if you don’t make it into the top 100, you don’t earn out your production cost.
“Like any other media, violence alone will not sell games. The game must be good. The Sopranos was loaded with violence and boobies on HBO, but they were able to strip out the violence and boobies and still have a hit on A&E. The same can be said for any best selling ‘M’ rated game. But as grown ups, why should we? So Mr. Politician, when complaining about in game violence, we are really asking whether someone over the age of 18 should be able to watch Black Hawk Down or Alien.”