I hate "Grand Theft Auto." Yes, I know it's a masterpiece of video-game design that ingeniously weaves its caustic jokes on urban reality into a complex narrative; hundreds of gamers have told me so. I still hate its cheap use of spraying blood and globe-breasted cholas to snare young male attention and its snarky indulgence in bad taste -- carjackers beating up hookers -- in place of real satire. Mostly, I hate that, as a believer in the need for free popular culture and the validity of young people's desire for antisocial stories, I find myself having to defend it again and again.
Well, it's happening again. The California Assembly is expected to vote soon on a foolish and dangerous bill, AB 450, which would criminalize the sale or rental of a video game possessing "violent content" to anyone under 18. Similar laws have passed recently in Illinois and Michigan, and more are in process elsewhere.
We are in another of America's periodic prohibitionist crusades against entertainment forms that offend adult sensibilities, and once again our leaders seem determined to miss the point that each one of those crusades has already made: They don't work. In fact, they always backfire.
In the 1950s, the targets were comic books; in the 1930s, gangster movies. Politicians and reformers have launched lesser forays against gangster rap, Elvis, slapstick cartoons, the Three Stooges, jazz and just about every other noisy product that comes off the cultural fringes to seize people aged 13 to 30 and disgust their parents.
The pattern is reliable. A new medium or genre appears, selling itself partly with shock value and the things young people like -- which inevitably include bad taste.
There is a cry of horror from teachers and parents who wish to believe that adolescents won't think about sex and gore unless they are "exposed" to them. Then research is created to demonstrate the medium's negative effects, usually by social scientists who already dislike the offending material and design studies that seek only the negative, never the positive. Always, "Does this make the child more aggressive?" Never, "Does it make the child feel freer, bolder, more resilient?" Never even, "Does it make him more aggressive than, say, playing soccer?"
Finally, the legislators move in, for no fruit hangs lower in the political orchard than entertainment loved by kids and nonvoting geeks in their 20s. When the Illinois Legislature passed its video-game law, Democratic Sen. Mike Jacobs said: "I'm going to vote for this bill, but I'm voting for it for one reason -- because this is a political bill. If I vote against it, it will show up in a campaign mail piece."
In the early 1950s, the U.S. Senate assailed comic books for supposedly contributing to juvenile delinquency. As a result, many comics that are now considered great works of popular art were killed and the medium's development was retarded. Die-hard comics fans reacted with an "underground comics" movement that eventually spawned material far more offensive to adult taste than any of the comics excoriated by the Senate. And, of course, juvenile delinquency didn't go down. In fact, it went steadily up for the next quarter of a century.
I say "of course" because I don't think anyone, not even the authors of bills such as AB 450, really believes that such legislation will have any effect on real-world crime. Since bloody "first-person shooter" games hit the market about 15 years ago, violent crime in America has dropped nearly 30%. Youth crime has dropped even faster than adult crime. A few hideous acts have been perpetrated by kids who played video games, but the same acts have been perpetrated by kids who didn't. All the numbers show that young Americans aren't nearly as violent, criminal or disrespectful of laws and other people as was my generation in the 1970s.
Bills such as AB 450 are eruptions of offended taste, and like all such eruptions only aggravate what they're supposed to stop. We all know that every kid who really wants to play "Grand Theft Auto" will find a way. The law will only add the glamour of contraband to the experience. That's how prohibition always works.
Access to video games is restricted by the same types of ratings and retail policies as Rrated movies. It's a porous system, but one that most of us have accepted as good enough. We don't need laws making shock entertainment look sexier and more powerful than it is. We don't need our police wasting their resources putting careless Best Buy clerks in prison for selling games.
And we don't need our lawmakers throwing themselves into an unwinnable war against the eternal forces of adolescent bad taste. Grown-up reality should be enough for them.