Electronic ecstasy or digital depravity?

By all accounts, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City by Rockstar Games - one of the best-selling video games in the world - is a bit of both. As its sales continue to skyrocket, so might the controversy surrounding it.

On the one hand, fans will tell you, the game is brilliant - a lush and wild adrenaline-fueled, shoot-'em-up role-playing game that is surely one of the most ambitious pieces of interactive entertainment ever made.

You can go anywhere, do anything, drive dozens of cars, motorcycles, buses and speedboats, fly planes or deliver pizzas, all while listening to humorous DJ banter and classic '80s music. The freedom and creativity of the game, combined with the breathtaking size of its richly detailed environment, is absolutely mesmerizing.

On the other hand, it is absolutely not for children younger than 17, many of whom play it anyway. Glamorous, hedonistic and mind-numbingly violent, the PlayStation 2 sequel to the best-selling Grand Theft Auto 3 glorifies mayhem. If it moves, steal it, shoot it, kick it or kill it. Critics, including parents groups and U.S. senators, worry openly about the effects of such a vicious pastime.

Murder and mayhem

The game is neither hard nor too challenging. You play Tommy Vercetti, a criminal just released from jail who's loosed on a coastal city in Florida in 1986 with more ammo than a well-armed militia. At its core, the game involves yanking drivers out of their seats, throwing them onto the pavement, then driving off in their cars.

But that's just the beginning. You can pay a prostitute for sex, then kick her to death and get your money back. You can kill policemen, blow up their cars, burn people with a flame thrower and hear their screams, chuck Molotov cocktails in the street, commit drive-by shootings, blow people's heads off with a sniper rifle and watch blood spew from their necks, kill people with Gatling guns and chain saws and screwdrivers and meat cleavers, distribute porn and traffic cocaine.

Cool, say its players.

Wait a minute, say its many critics.

Michael Wilbon, a Washington Post columnist, said the developers of the game should be stoned in the street. One California parent even picketed in front of an electronics retailer.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said in a statement: "Games like Grand Theft Auto are particularly troubling because they go beyond celebrating violence generally and actually reward players for engaging in organized crime, murdering innocent people and other forms of perverse, anti-social behavior."

Lighten up. It's only a game. You can see far worse on TV and in the movies, gamers say.

All of which frames the ethical question: Is Vice City a reprehensible example for children that could cause harm and should be avoided at all costs? Or is it just a game, a violent but ultimately harmless fantasy that never leeches into the real world? Depends on whom you ask.

The developers of Vice City say the game was never intended for children. It's the video game equivalent of an R-rated movie, designed for older players who have outgrown the foofy characters of their youth.

Still, young children are playing it. Although the game is rated "mature" (for 17 and above), many parents simply disregard the rating or don't understand it.

Worse, critics say, stores such as Best Buy have no age restriction regarding who can buy mature-rated games. And some parents use video games as electronic baby-sitters, with virtually no knowledge of what they contain.

One thing is clear: America's youth are spending more time with video games than ever before. The video game industry, which expects to take in more than $10 billion this year, generates more money than the movies.

Differing parental views

Like many parents, Lorene Jarrett of Lee's Summit, Mo., said she didn't realize what the game was all about.

"Shooting policemen? Kicking prostitutes to death?" she asked while shopping in a Best Buy store with her 12-year-old son, Ryan. "He won't be getting that."

She shook her head.

"What's happened to our world? I can't believe they're putting things like that into games these days. That's not a game. That's sick. And to think I might have let him buy it."

Other parents think differently.

"Both my kids play it," said Melva Winters, a mother from Kansas City, whose sons are 11 and 15. "They haven't killed anybody yet. And until they do, I figure, let 'em have some fun."

Tyler Burrows, 14, from Lenexa, Kan., plays the game all the time.

His father, Mark Burrows, isn't concerned about the violence.

"It doesn't bother me as long as I think Tyler knows right from wrong," he said.

Tyler said he does.

"I understand it's a bad game and all," he said. "... But it's fun."

And even therapeutic, he said.

"Whenever I get mad at something or get bad grades ... I play the game, and it calms me down. I know a bunch of people I go to school with whose parents won't let them have the game. But it's not like I'm going to get a Gatling gun and kill 300 people," Tyler said.

Gamers say there's no way Vice City would induce copycat crimes. But a 19-year-old man in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., recently told police that Grand Theft Auto inspired him to steal three cars and help burglarize 100 more.

That's not surprising to Craig Anderson, a chairman of the psychology department at Iowa State University and an expert in violent video games. Anderson testified before Congress in 2000 at the request of Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Whether the game influences anyone to commit a crime misses the point, Anderson said. The negative effects of video violence are not immediate, but subtle and cumulative, like those of smoking.

While a few cigarettes will not immediately give you cancer, continued use will almost certainly have a bad effect. While smoking is bad for the body, Anderson said, violent video games are bad for the mind.

After analyzing numerous studies, Anderson and a colleague came to an inescapable conclusion: Violent video games increase aggressive thoughts and behavior, increase the chances that kids will get into fights at school and reduce "pro-social" behaviors, such as the willingness to help someone who is having difficulty.

And as each generation becomes more tolerant of more outrageous violence, Anderson said that "you have to wonder at what point does the culture sustain serious damage?"

George Scarlett, deputy chair of the department of child development at Tufts University in Bedford, Mass., said there were many reasons not to be concerned about such games:

Violent games are 21st century make-believe "cops and robbers" play.

Games help kids develop friendships and stay connected to peers.

Kids don't take aggressive play seriously.

Relationships are key

"If your relationships are good, no video game is going to have any ill effects," Scarlett said. "If the relationships are bad, then maybe the video games have some augmenting effects. But what I worry about is that the video game becomes a scapegoat and a diversion from the real sources of violence - poor parenting and toxic relationships."

Scarlett has two children, both of whom play violent games. "And both of them are pacifists," he said.

Jeremy McCannon, 27, a FedEx driver from Kansas City, said Vice City is not popular because of its violence, but rather because of the freedom of its game play.

"I'm not going to go out and buy a game just because it's got breasts or rampant violence," he said. "There's all sorts of movies ... that have that."

For parents who worry about their younger children playing a certain game, McCannon had a suggestion: Rent it first, play it together and discuss it before making a decision.

Cumulative effect

Even if they do encounter such ultra-violent games, said Ed Christophersen, a psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., there's no need to panic.

"If they're exposed to them, they don't need immediate therapy," he said. "It isn't going to make a good boy go bad."

On the other hand, he said, kids could find many more productive things to do with their time.

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