Acton Commentary

Family Values and Grand Theft Auto


GTA: SA makes it cool to “bust caps.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York is promising to introduce legislation that would set a fine of $5,000 on retailers who sell violent and sexually explicit video games to minors. At the same time, she has called on the Federal Trade Commission to launch an immediate investigation into how explicitly sexual material was hidden - to adults anyway — in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas . The game was the top seller in 2004 and is the third in the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto series, one that has been lambasted by critics for denigrating women, glorifying violent crime, and encouraging the 'gangsta' lifestyle.

The hidden scenes in San Andreas were available to gamers via shared information on the Internet and allowed them to engage in onscreen 'virtual sex.' Initially, Rockstar Games, the producer of the Grand Theft series, claimed that hacker programmers created a download with program coding changes that insert the sex scenes into their game. The company has since admitted the scene is the product of one of its own programmers. Enter Sen. Clinton and a request for a government investigation.

Even without these new scenes, the Grand Theft Auto games promote society-melting vices about which all (including those in the government) ought to be concerned. Sen. Clinton noted as much: “There is no doubting the fact that the widespread availability of sexually explicit and graphically violent video games makes the challenge of parenting much harder.” This of course begs the question: how ought the availability of these games be curbed? The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), an industry association of video game companies that reviews video games and assigns ratings, can only do so much considering the multi-layered, highly complex nature of video games. Perhaps, say some, more regulation is needed to ensure that material like that in San Andreas isn't disseminated unchecked.

Sen. Clinton is reviving the age-old debate about the role of government in regulating vice. It is a worthy debate. But in the hoopla surrounding the San Andreas story, I've heard little mention of the most efficient and effective means of limiting moral pollutants like sex-soaked video games: the family.

True, Sen. Clinton rightly points out that the availability of these games “makes the challenge of parenting much harder.” The problem with this statement, however, is that it views parents as the helpless victims of a hostile culture who desperately need assistance — presumably from the government. In fact, parents are challenged by video games only insofar as they allow them in their home.

The video game industry is no different from any other business in that it responds to market pressures. If people want video games with characters that pimp, steal, assault, rape, and murder, then someone will develop and sell just such a game. Scarcity is no excuse for immorality, but it is an economic truism that where a market exists, a product emerges. While parents definitely do not wholly determine the market viability of violent and sexually explicit video games, they do (or ought to) wholly control their children's exposure to them.

This is not to say that the government has no role in enforcing basic norms of public morality. Indeed, this seems to be the sort of thing Sen. Clinton is calling for. The debate is also about how far the government should reach. The principle of subsidiarity, drawn from Catholic social teaching, holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be.

This principle applies to standards of morality as well as it does to other societal policies. If people want to limit the influence of games like San Andreas , the most effective and efficient means is by relegating the task first to an organization smaller and simpler than the federal government, such as the family. Instead of jumping immediately to a discussion of governmental fines for retailers, perhaps we first ought to ask ourselves how the problems of games like San Andreas can be dealt with by parents and families. Perhaps instead of operating in the spirit of Sen. Clinton's book, It Takes a Village (read: State), we might do better to adopt the spirit of Sen. Rick Santorum's upcoming book, It Takes a Family .

There are those who suggest that video games, films, music and other media are so pervasive that even the children of attentive parents are assaulted by immoral ideas. This is no doubt true. But is also misses the point that the family is the first line of defense against moral failure. The government does have an important role in protecting children against psychologically harmful materials, and worse. But it does not have the primary role. Socially poisonous materials like San Andreas might have a much shorter shelf life if we heard this important truth a little more often.