A lot of basketball fans, players and coaches are crying foul this season. As part of a much-needed effort to clean up the on-court antics of NBA kazillionaires acting like kids, officials were told to slap a technical foul on any player who complained about a call. No whining. No questions or arguments or even warnings. Just an automatic T.
What was supposed to improve the game, however, became a joke as players wound up getting tossed out of games after the mere hint of wrinkling their foreheads. Only 17 games in, refs had handed out 30 Ts. More significantly, many of those blown whistles sent star players to the locker room—a no-no for fans paying good money to see those big names. So, as with other changes enforced in recent years by the NBA that eventually fizzled, it's likely that come playoff time we'll be back to watching players throw tantrums while officials swallow their whistles. Because after all, this is a league run by its best-selling "products."
So it is with the video game industry, where the best sellers set the standard. An industry that, like pro basketball, has made a lot of noise with a clampdown of sorts. In 2004, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with more pre-game buzz than a Kobe-Shaq showdown. The game came loaded with foul language, extreme violence and an abhorrent worldview. Which meant critics praised it, while the public—including lots of teens—ate it up to the tune of 13.5 million copies sold.
It wasn't until the following summer, when a hidden sex minigame was discovered encrypted in every copy, that most adults got wind of just how disturbing the game was. At the urging of several politicians, including senators Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman, the Federal Trade Commission launched a year-long investigation. Rockstar confessed to its sexually explicit mischief, while the Entertainment Software Rating Board took the unprecedented step of changing the game's rating from an M (mature) to an AO (adults only), causing most retail giants to yank it off their shelves.
What Happened Here, Hillary?
After such an uproar, you'd think the gaming world would be a different place now. It's not. Because while Rockstar has spent the last two years under the microscope, other companies' games have escaped scrutiny.
One recent, prime example is THQ's gang-centric Saints Row, which makes San Andreas seem like target practice. Of course, all the staples are here in this blatant GTA rip-off. The "urban sandbox" environment is filled with the usual prostitutes, pimps, drug lords, cop-killers and crooked cops. Only this time the main story involves four gangs that rule the metropolis's 15 districts: The 3rd Street Saints, The Vice Kings, Los Carnales and Westside Rollerz. Your character interacts with all four while trying to reclaim the entire city for the Saints.
But as with most titles in the open-world genre, storyline is just a fraction of the game. The rest involves building a gangbanging empire via side missions (e.g., murder a pimp and gather his "b--ches" for a rival, protect a drug dealer while he makes his runs) and generally wandering around this massive virtual world. In San Andreas you play as a thug let loose in a big city. Here you're a thug let loose in a big city inhabited almost entirely by other thugs. Even the "civilians" act (or at least talk) like gangsters.
Not Content to Stop
Only 15 seconds into the game the f- and s-words make their first of countless appearances. Yet after a while, even those words seem tame compared with some of the despicable, unprintable phrases used. Sexually vulgar comments, references and sounds aren't just heard from the lips of prostitutes and johns (you drive them around), they're also uttered randomly by not-so-innocent passersby—soccer moms, grandpas and children included.
And while jaw-dropping language alone should be enough to warrant a harsher-than-M rating on this game, THQ isn't content to stop with foul words. It wants actions and visuals, too. Strippers appear topless; other women are shown almost entirely nude. Virtual stores are named after sex acts. Drugs and alcohol are ever-present. (Your character can even stagger around in a pot-induced haze.)
Hundreds of victims are gunned down, beaten or burned to death, all in cold blood. And though there's not an abundance of gore, that doesn't for a second excuse the extreme, senseless violence. Just how bad can it get? I shot a rocket launcher into a crowd of downtown shoppers, watched their remains burn, then strolled over to the next block and passed a whistling cop. (GTA at least seems to take the police seriously.)
Calling All Refs
Those behind the game justify their creation by insisting they have to keep up with the times. "We have to be aware of all the games that come out that are popular and analyze them for what they do right and wrong," Saints Row project manager Clint Ourso said. "[We have to] constantly push to keep up with the latest and greatest thing out at the moment."
I guess such frog-in-the-kettle reasoning is to be expected from gamemakers vying for the top spot. The fact that Saints Row failed to register a blip on watchdogs' radar is not, especially considering that the game is just as attractive to younger players, just as well-executed, just as addictive ... and worse than San Andreas. So what happened? Have the gatekeepers fallen asleep?
Maybe so. Maybe we threw our hands up after seeing numerous states and cities admirably try to restrict the sale of such violent games to minors, only to be blocked by judges. Or maybe it seems futile to point the finger at THQ for knowingly creating an over-the-top, teen-appealing game when Wal-Mart, Best Buy and the like are all stocking their shelves with it.
This isn't just a ticky-tack issue, though. It's a flagrant foul. If Grand Theft Auto taught us anything, it's that the gaming industry can be held responsible for its actions. Someone has to officiate this madness. Someone has to make some objective noise and blow the whistle before this gets (more) out of control.
Until then, marquee players such as Rockstar and THQ will continue to redefine the rules rather than play by them.