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Grand Theft Decency

The release this week of the video game Grand Theft Auto IV is predicted to be the biggest event in the entertainment industry this year, with some authorities predicting more than $400 million in sales over the next few weeks.

While other sectors of the entertainment industry are struggling, video games have seen a 57 percent jump in sales since last March, according to The Washington Post. Forbes reports that the video game market in the U.S. alone is worth $18.8 billion a year.

Even in the midst of economic pressures, fans of the Grand Theft Auto series say they will sacrifice other purchases in order to buy the new game — billed as the most sophisticated video game yet invented.  Reviewers praise the game’s graphics and technological advances.

Ryan Holt, a 21-year-old student at the University of Northern Colorado told The New York Times that he was willing to adjust his lifestyle in order to purchase the game and accessories: “I’d probably give up my cell phone. Probably not food. I like food.”

The big problem with Grand Theft Auto IV is not its marketing, but its message. The game carries the “M” rating for “Mature” and is to be sold only to customers 17 and older. The label warns of “blood,” “intense violence,” “partial nudity,” “strong language,” “strong sexual content,” and “use of drugs and alcohol.”

As one young man told Reuters, “This game has everything — sex, drugs, cars, money … anything you want.” As Reuters explains:

“Grand Theft Auto 4″ casts players as an Eastern European immigrant who runs drugs, shoots cops and beats up prostitutes after falling in with a crime syndicate — stuff that has drawn fire from family groups and politicians.

Avid fans like Lorenzo seemed drawn to the excitement — but only in game play. “Violence is like sex. It sells,” Alba said outside the GameStop shop. “I like violence in games, it’s cool. Not in real life.”

Or, as Chris Baker writes at Slate.com:

As you’d probably expect from the reputation of the series, “Grand Theft Auto IV” includes–let’s quickly consult the label–blood, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and use of drugs and alcohol. Yes, concerned teenage boys of America, if your parents are irresponsible enough to let you get your hands on this, you can still kill and maim and plunder and [deleted] until your heart is full. But there’s a difference this time: The violence is no longer cartoonish. Shoot an innocent bystander, and you see his face contort in agony. He’ll clutch at the wound and begin to stagger away, desperately seeking safety. After just scratching the surface of the game–I played for part of a day; it could take 60 hours to complete the whole thing–I felt unnerved. What makes “Grand Theft Auto IV” so compelling is that, unlike so many video games, it made me reflect on all of the disturbing things I had done.

The release of this latest product in the Grand Theft Auto series is a reminder that games and entertainment products constitute a significant moral challenge — and a potential minefield for parents.

In some sense, we are what we play. This is not to say that every young male playing “Grand Theft Auto” is now or will become a violent sexual predator who steals cars. That is clearly not the case.  But it is to say that these players are filling their minds with these images and narratives and they are feeling the competitive exhilaration of engaging in immoral acts as players in a game that engages multiple senses and sensations.  This is dangerous stuff for the soul.

As Mike Musgrove reports in The Washington Post:

I’ve never found it likely that bloody video games cause bad behavior in kids, but then again, I’d also never pass any of my old copies of the games to a child. So I’m a little unsure about how to react to a recent study showing that the game is more popular than any other among 12- to 14-year-old boys.

That’s right — this is the most popular game among 12- to 14 year-old boys.  This shocks even one of the game’s creators, Lazlo Jones, who told the Post, “If you let your child play this game, you’re a bad parent.”

This game is a signal of where the culture is headed.  There is a moral minefield at every turn and no sector of the entertainment industry is safe — and certainly not the world of video games.

Parents have to make hard calls on entertainment options and they have to make their decisions stick.  Christian young adults are negotiating a world of seemingly infinite choices — and every choice is laden with moral significance.  The release of Grand Theft Auto IV presents parents with a great teaching opportunity and young adults with a moral choice.

This new release reminds us all that a game is often never just a game.