Wednesday, September 27, 2006

'Grand Theft Auto,' driving the dark side of video games

The Take-Two Interactive video game, in which points are scored for killing, robbing, beating prostitutes and sowing mayhem, has raced ahead despite speed bumps thrown in its path by critics and industry regulators.

New York City-based Rockstar Games, which owns Take-Two, proclaimed in June that "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories" was the best selling game ever for the PlayStation Portable console made by Sony.

Versions of the game made for other consoles have met with similar success, making it one of the top-selling video game titles of all time.

A few months ago, a jury in Oakland, a city near San Francisco, called for a member of a vicious US gang that played ultra-violent "Grand Theft Auto" by day, then robbed and murdered by night, to be imprisoned for life.

The man had been convicted of four murders, a dozen armed robberies, shooting into a home and a slew of attempted murders and robberies.

While a cause-effect link between the game and the crime spree was not proven, it made sense to prosecutor Darryl Stallworth that committing virtual violent crimes lowered the barrier to bloodshed in the real world.

"It plays a role in the graduation of a murderer," Stallworth told AFP. "Pulling a trigger and watching people bleed is so far beyond the average person's capability that they have to be desensitized."

"If you are playing a game or immersed in any medium that allows you to see it as unreal, you are a candidate for murder."

"Grand Theft Auto" has more than a half-dozen versions set in different US cities, including New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Points are earned by committing crimes, with more heinous acts reaping greater rewards. Ramming one car into another scores ten points, while killing a cop gets a player 1,000 points, an online summary of the game showed.

Players are given missions to complete and the preferred mode of transportation is stolen car, a crime labeled "Grand Theft Auto" in the California penal code.

"'Grand Theft Auto' video game is sort of a hit list," Stallworth said. "You get rewarded for killing a cop or anything else that gets in the way of your mission."

The US Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) branded "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" with an adults-only rating last year after learning the game had hidden sex scenes that could be unlocked with an after-market modification called "Hot Coffee."

More than 12 million copies of the game had reportedly been sold by the time its rating was changed and the revenue was estimated at 600 million dollars.

Take-Two fixed the game and provided a software patch to lockout the lascivious scenes.

Take-Two said in a recent release that the New York County district attorney had subpoenaed it for documents regarding what it knew of the "creation, inclusion, and programming" of the sordid scenes.

"Take-Two and Rockstar Games have always worked to keep mature-themed video game content out of the hands of children," Take-Two chief executive Paul Eibeler said in a release during the "Hot Coffee" controversy last year.

"We will continue to work closely with the ESRB and community leaders to improve and better promote a reliable rating system to help consumers make informed choices about which video games are appropriate for each individual."

Since its launch, "Grand Theft Auto" has been hit with civil suits in the United States and Europe by people who blamed the game for driving them to violent acts. There was no record found of such a suit winning in court.

Young men that play "Grand Theft Auto III" were more likely to drink booze, smoke marijuana, and be defiant than those who played a "low-violence" game based on "The Simpsons" cartoon television series, according to a study published this spring in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

"Grand Theft" also caused a rise in the blood pressure of players from homes or neighborhoods troubled by violence, according to the study, based on 100 US college students ages 18 to 21.

"Media violence exposure may play a role in the development of negative attitudes and behaviors related to health," the study concluded. "All youth appear to be at risk for potentially negative outcomes."

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