Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Who, Pray Who, Will Save the Children?

I'm torn two ways about the lastest screech-in-a-tornado over Grand Theft Auto and the downloadable porn-patch.

In case you're unaware, this ultraviolent video game involves playing the part of a ganglord-drug-dealer-murderer. Drive-by shootings, beatings, drug deals, pimping those prostitutes... all in a day's work for the average 14-year-old boy, right? Click away.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has paired with the Religious Right in a campaign to put warning labels on this game, following the discovery that for a free downloadable patch, the innocent GTA player can watch characters having soft-core sex.

On the one hand, I am annoyed to find The Usual Suspects in their parade against the oh-so-evil popular culture winning even a single battle. Our poor innocent children must be protected from their vacant-eyed look-the-other-way at-least-they're-not-bugging-me parents and the uber-commercialized world that wants to suck the life out of them through the thumbs and eyeballs. GTA wasn't a threat to their moral fiber until we could watch them screwing, is that it?

It's such a uniquely American thing. We don't care how much blood and gore we see... but heaven forfend we see a bare breast! Automatic R rating!

On the second hand, nobody is banning GTA, except maybe Wal-Mart, and I'm really crying over that one. They're just putting warning labels on it. Now, granted, GTA already has some warning labels. Now it has more warning labels.

I am as strident a defender of the First Amendment as anyone. I write soft-core porn, folks. Socially redeemable, entertaining porn, but let's face it - people do the nasty on-screen in my books.

But try as I might to be a free-speech purist, I have no problem with warning labels. No one says, "You can't buy this." But the labels help parents recognize the stuff they should consider NOT buying their children, no matter how much they whine. "Jimmy has it and it's totally cool and there's no, like, bad stuff at all, Mom! Honest!" The hell you say, Junior. This label tells me this game lets you practice machine-gunning ferrets and humping crack whores in alleys before you perform a dark ritual involving newborns' blood to win the game. We're gonna have a little talk with your therapist.

People have asked me, "Would you feel differently if they wanted to put warning labels on your books?" Honestly, NO. I am happy that my publisher makes an attempt to warn buyers that they are purchasing books with sexual content. When my teenage babysitter asks about my books, I tell her she is welcome to enjoy them - in about three years.

On the third hand, I am disappointed in Sen. Clinton. She should know better. Yes, her support on this will help solidify her support on the right side of the scale. Maybe. But those right-wingers will not vote for her because of this - there are too many other things about Sen. Clinton that they hate. I wouldn't be surprised if the right-wingers approached her in the first place knowing that she'd jump at it, because THEY know it will weaken her support from the far left. Undercut on both sides, she will not come out of this unharmed.

On the fourth hand... Grand Theft Auto is an abomination, and games like it are the reason there is no video game system in my home and never will be. The very few games we have are educational movie-tie-in games from Disney for the Kiddo, my collection of old Infocom games and "You Don't Know Jack," a trivia game. I admit, I got sucked into my ex-husband's "Warcraft" and "Heroes of Might and Magic," but it's probably better for my writing that I no longer have those games.

I grew up on Infocom games. There were no graphics in Zork: The Underground Empire. The computer told you in words what was going on, and you told it in words what you wanted to do. It required you to read, and think, and the only work for your thumbs was the space bar. For those of us with an imagination and lacking in hand-eye coordination, Infocom was our world. Perhaps if Infocom had survived, we would have a text version of Grand Theft Auto. But somehow, I think the instant-gratification of this violence-glorifying game would be muted by having to READ the hideousness.

Is it hypocritical to call GTA an abomination, when I am a fan of such clearly violent shows as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"? I don't think so. While Buffy's kick-ass abilities are extolled, violence that harms the innocent - or even the not-so-innocent - is never sought. Her violence is intended to protect the innocent from harm, not cause it. The downfall of her fellow Slayer, Faith, comes when Faith kills a human believing him to be a vampire.

In "Buffy," we also see the toll that constant violence takes on the character. While in early seasons, Buffy takes to the fight with glee and gusto, in the middle of the series we see her begin to darken, sadden, performing her work more as a matter of course than a calling. By the end, she has become embittered and hardened, almost unlikeable. It would be easy to pass this off as bad writing - and certainly that had some effect - but it is also the sadly natural progression for a person who becomes inured to violence, much like a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

So what is the difference? If Buffy existed in the world of Grand Theft Auto, the kid behind the controls would be the demon she fought to slay. Grand Theft Auto puts the player on the side of evil, letting white-bread suburban kids who have never seen any real violence in their lives play "bad." No, it is not healthy.

While no one would wish that our children be subjected to violence, degradation, abuse or the constant war-zone lives of haggard urban children who learn to duck when a car backfires, the overprotected suburban kids are clearly so far from reality that they can cheer when a police helicopter is shot down over a residential area. Would they react the same way if their own hometown were under fire by opposing forces or their subways exploded weekly under their feet?

Ask London how funny it is. Boom! Got 'em!

We let our children live their lives by remote control. They do not see the agony of a gunshot wound, the blood covering a stabbing victim, the staggering survivors of a bombing tying tourniquets around their missing limbs. But they can do it on the computer screen, watch the points rack up - and cheer on the bad guys.

After all, nobody got hurt. Not for real.