Now, to any parent reading this, heed my disclaimer: I know that it’s hard keeping up with what your children are interested in, I know it’s hard to remember whether Ethan asked for Flappy Bird or Birdman, and I know that most of you really are doing the best you can. It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and focus to keep anyone under the age of 10 alive, let alone educated, physically healthy, socially equipped, and not on fire. So I understand that you don’t have time to conduct research on every single thing that your kid wants. Who does? I do, but that’s just because my only children can be found in a save file of Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life (and what disappointments they turned out to be).
However, when parents do not conduct at least a little bit of research on video games in particular, it is likely to go in one of two ways: either they staunchly forbid their child to play Pokémon because animals with superpowers are demonic or they buy their kid Grand Theft Auto V after seeing it played at a birthday party in which the ten-year-old guests played a golfing mini-game. Neither of these options are preferable, which suggests that researching what your children want before you buy it is ideal. However, if you, valued parents, have not had time to look into the Grand Theft Auto series your seven-year-old so desperately clamors for, you’re in luck! I have done all the research for you and my short answer is no, your seven-year-old should not play Grand Theft Auto. If this answer is substantial enough for you, thanks for reading the article! Otherwise, please read on for a more detailed analysis.
Reason #1: Violence
In this section, I’m going to dig up a horse that died in 1992 and has been beaten to a pulp ever since: violence, not just in GTA, but violence in video games in general. This has been an area of contention since Sub-Zero and Raiden played double-dutch with Scorpion’s spine in Mortal Kombat (1992). Researchers found games like Mortal Kombat to be harmful to developing minds, so the United States government formed the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in response to their concerns. This designated particularly gruesome games like Mortal Kombat, Duke Nukem, and later Grand Theft Auto with a “Mature” rating to ward off bloodthirsty toddlers. It worked rather well until apathy replaced efficacy.
My parents were a bit more strict than others when I was younger. When I turned 14, my parents allowed me to own and play my first M-rated games. Though I was allowed to play some “Mature” games, my parents restricted my library with a somewhat unusual rule: I was only allowed to play games that were rated “M” because of violence. Many American readers will probably relate to this rule of thumb: if a child sees a nipple on television, he or she will immediately start writing love letters to Charles Manson, but if a child sees a hitman on TV send a bullet through the head of an innocent bystander, it probably won’t have any effects whatsoever. American culture in particular approaches the concept of violence with a very blasé demeanor. During my employment at a video game retailer in Cincinnati, I encountered a number of parents who came into the shop looking to buy games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto for their little kids. I’d discourage them from buying these games for their children because of the extreme violence they feature, to which the parents would consistently retort, “Oh, that’s nothing they haven’t seen at home!” What? Nothing they haven’t seen at home? Are prostitutes brutally murdered in their homes on a semi-regular basis? Hopefully not! But in either case, it seems that graphic violence doesn’t “count” for Americans. This could potentially be due to the fact that the American standard of living reduces exposure to violence in real life, and, as a result, Americans have an easier time dissociating real from fictional atrocities.
Video game violence differs from that of other kinds of media. The player is not a passive participant but, rather, takes on an active role. Now I’m not going to argue that playing violent video games will make a child into a rampaging ball of hatred and murder. Most of my friends grew up playing very violent video games and none of them are insane, degenerate murderers (as far as I know). However, encouraging a player to perpetrate violent acts can still normalize violence in a culture already too accepting of it in the first place. Because violence is horrible. Ask anyone who has been the victim of violence, either directly or indirectly. While some games question this mainstream mentality (shout out to Spec Ops: The Line, as discussed in Mr. Dutcher’s article), most M-rated action games glorify war, killing, and violence as if they are fun and worth celebrating. Even the US Military has recognized this mentality towards war and implemented it in their advertising.
Make no mistake, Grand Theft Auto is violent. Not only can you kill any civilian, criminal, or police officer you want (characteristic of any GTA game), but the story requires you to brutally torture someone with pliers, electric clamps, and waterboarding. While this sounds horrible, it is mechanically designed to be fun, even to a seven-year-old. This will only bolster our acceptance of violence, nullify our empathy, and desensitize children to it in the future. Speaking of desensitizing…
Reason #2: Sex
I almost didn’t include this point because American parents are often pretty well convinced that sex is the leading cause of pure, unadulterated evil in the United States. However, not all parents fit into this category, so I’ll explore the subject briefly.
Sex has become gradually more prevalent within games in the last 10 years. Grand Theft Auto V is the first game in the GTA series to feature first-person gameplay capabilities. While this applies to shooting, driving, flying helicopters, bowling, and any other of the oh-so-silly GTA V antics, it applies to sex scenes with prostitutes as well, making for a much more “immersive” experience. While there is no nudity in these particular sequences, the dialogue is unquestionably the most graphic part. Adults may view these scenes as funny rather than arousing but children lack the maturity to make such a distinction. In fact, prepubescent exposure to sex has proven to cause many adverse effects, including an increased risk of careless sexual activity at a young age and mental detriments such as addiction or intimacy disorders later in life. However, echoing every teenager who ever wanted their parents to buy GTA V, the strong sexual content is entirely avoidable. With this in mind, no parent I have ever questioned or parent’s review I have ever read has affirmed that their children are “allowed to” venture into these seedier parts of the game. To that I humbly remind you that…
Reason #3: Your Child Probably Won’t Obey You
I have read more parents’ reviews than I can count stating, “I know there’s sex stuff in the game but I just trust my 10 year old to avoid it.”
…really? Really?! C’mon, people! Do you remember being 10? If your mom told you not to climb on the furniture or say a juicy word you heard on Cops, do you remember what you and every other person who ever lived did as soon as she walked out the door? You jumped on the couch to the tune of the A-word. Expecting a child to practice restraint and self-governance on something you specifically forbade when there are no immediate consequences is like expecting your cat to babysit your pet mouse while you check the mail. The temptation is too great! Nothing tantalizes a child more than a crime specifically forbidden that he or she knows will never be discovered. So if you let your child play Grand Theft Auto V, know and accept the fact that they are probably having a shooting spree in a Los Santos strip club as you read this article simply because they can. In other words, your child will come in contact with adult content inevitably if they play the game. And this is a problem because….
Reason #4: Kids Doesn’t Get Satire
Let me clarify something: I like Grand Theft Auto. I really enjoy it, actually, because I recognize the game as satire. Grand Theft Auto IV was like watching a 50-hour long roast of American culture and I thought it was smart, gripping, and witty storytelling. Alternatively, the outrageous violence, sex, and immorality of GTA V satirizes not only modern culture but video games in general. The game is just a hilarious extended hyperbole: the stripper dialogue is not only dirty but absurdly, unrealistically dirty; the torture scene is horrendously gruesome; the language, violence, and chaos of the game is, for lack of a better term, absolutely bananas. GTA is a crazy, crazy series and, as an adult, I not only understand that it is not to be taken seriously, but why it is not to be taken seriously.
In contrast, when children see someone getting shot in the head, to them it means that someone was shot in the head. Children lack an understanding of the world around them comprehensive enough to grasp the satirical and hyperbolic notes of GTA. This is why “Mature” audiences are better equipped to play the GTA series, not because violence, sex, and profanity magically no longer affects them when they turn 18 but because they can understand their purpose in storytelling and video games.
Well, that’s pretty much it. Moral of the story: don’t buy your kids Grand Theft Auto and pay attention to the ESRB ratings because they are there for a reason. If you are looking for an milder alternative for your distraught kid, you can’t go wrong with Pokémon! Unless you’re morally opposed to Pokémon, in which case I don’t know what to tell ya.
Clearly, I made quite a few assertions here, and the conversation on the games that children ought to play is far from over, so I’d like to know what you think! Let me know in the comments section below! Do you agree, disagree, or neither? I’ll do my best to post prompt and thoughtful responses to any questions you may have. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to stop by Top Shelf Gaming for brand new articles every week!