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There’s no denying Carl “CJ” Johnson is a bad dude. He’s violent, he’s vulgar, and he’s got a nasty habit of stealing cars. He lives in the ghetto, gangbangers are after him, corrupt cops want to frame him. When he needs money, he mugs pedestrians. CJ once tried to steal a container ship. Just for fun, he murders his friends in broad daylight.
Considering how bad CJ is — how unrepentantly, irredeemably, fantastically evil — it’s no surprise that he’s caught the attention of some of the nation’s top lawmakers. Hillary Clinton, in particular, has been after CJ for some time. She calls him “pornographic.”
Here’s the interesting thing about CJ, though: He’s not real. He’s just an agglomeration of innocent polygons, mathematically rendered colors and shapes in the three-dimensional video game world of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” Yet that doesn’t matter to Clinton, who wants “Grand Theft Auto” and other violent video games banned from sale to minors. On Wednesday, in response to pressure from her office, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the group that rates video games, gave the game its highest rating — AO, meaning “adults only.” The rating is essentially the same as an X rating for movies; it caused most major retailers to pull the title from their shelves.
The ESRB says it decided to re-rate “Grand Theft Auto” because the game’s distributor, Take-Two Games, didn’t fully disclose the sexual content in the game. Specifically, a few weeks ago a group of “modders” — folks who modify commercial video games with their own graphics and level designs — discovered a way to unlock a “mini-game” in “Grand Theft Auto” in which CJ wines and dines a woman named Denise and is invited to her house for “coffee.” When the game pans to Denise’s room, though, we see no mugs of java. Instead, she’s naked, and after a bit of oral sex, CJ is allowed to proceed all the way.
As the gaming Web site Gamespot notes, CJ — that is, you — must satisfy Denise by pumping your joystick: “To win, players must maintain a steady rhythm with the left analog stick to build up an ‘excitement meter’ on the right of the screen. Fill the meter and Denise becomes very excited, telling CJ he is ‘the man’ before the game congratulates you with the words ‘Nice guys finish last!’ Let the meter drop to empty and the game admonishes you with ‘Failure to satisfy a woman is a CRIME!’”
If this sounds silly, that’s because it is. I’m quite fond of “Grand Theft Auto,” but I didn’t get a chance to play this sexy mini-game within “GTA.” Instead, I found a video of the scene online, and after watching it I couldn’t help but wonder, Is that all there is? (You can watch it in Windows Media format: Here is a dial-up version, and here is a broadband version.)
No genitalia are visible in the sex scene, and though some of the audio is racy — CJ intimates that Denise is so good with her body that she ought to think about becoming a “professional” — none of what’s here would redden the cheeks of anyone with access to Showtime. Clinton calls the scene “pornographic,” but insofar as pornography has a purpose — to titillate, and more — the stuff in “Grand Theft Auto” falls far, far short. Even if you’ve got the libido of a 15-year-old male, you’re not going to find much erotic profit in “Grand Theft Auto.” And if you know enough to search online for the “mod” you’ll need to unlock the scene in the first place, you are more than capable of finding torrid stuff online. Here’s a good starting place: Google “cigar oval office intern” and see what you find.
What is Hillary Clinton thinking? Probably her attack on violent and vulgar video games is of a piece with her larger political strategy, that recent, conspicuous shift to the center. She wants to signal to the nation that even though she’s a Democrat she’s not indecent, she still cares about kids and the trouble parents have in raising them right. I’m not saying it won’t work; Lord knows the “moral values” thing’s popular these days. Still, she ought to see that this is a dangerous business.
“Grand Theft Auto” is remarkably popular, and you don’t have to be a churl to find it fun. Indeed, the game’s sublime. To be sure, it’s surpassingly violent, vulgar and disturbing. To the extent that there is a point to the festivities — a goal — it is to steal stuff, beat and kill people (including cops and soldiers), and to live to tell the tale. Yet one also finds a real psychological fix in the game, an escapist thrill. “Grand Theft Auto” is resplendently open-ended. You can walk, run, drive, swim or boat anywhere. As Steven Johnson points out in “Everything Bad Is Good for You,” a fine contrarian defense of pop culture, the pleasure in video games comes in pushing them to their limits, in looking for new stuff to do and finding, amazingly, that you can do it. “Grand Theft Auto” takes that fun to new heights; it’s one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played.
No one has ever shown that games like “GTA” corrupt kids’ minds; most such assertions are leveled by people who’ve never played. By going out on this anti-pop culture limb, Clinton looks desperately out of touch with young people. As the music executive Danny Goldberg explains in his book “Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit,” Democrats have done this before — Tipper Gore railed against heavy metal and rap, and Democrats lost the youth vote in the 1990s.
The same thing can happen again: Video games aren’t played just by freaks and geeks. They make more money than movies. If Clinton wants to win the White House in 2008, she’ll need to get young people to the polls. Maybe she’d be wiser to focus on issues that matter to these people — say, the fighting and dying in Iraq — than on the fighting and the dying in the fake, fun world of “Grand Theft Auto.”
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.More Farhad Manjoo.