At the very impressionable age of four, my son loved Grand Theft Auto. More specifically, the version he played was the Hot Coffee-moddable San Andreas. Before Child Protective Services bestows upon me the prestigious honor of father of the year, allow me to explain.
Gaming has been a part of my son's life since the moment he was born, so I was not surprised when he showed an interest in video games as early as the age of two. I started him off where I began my gaming career: the original Nintendo Entertainment System. He built up his hand-eye coordination and took the bridge out from under Bowser in no time. Then one day, he got a glimpse of me playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and asked if he could play. What happened next was quite the eye-opener.
With a DualShock controller in hand, he started to press each button individually as he tried to figure out what their functions were. Soon he asked, “How do I get in a car?” I pointed and told him, “The one with the green triangle on it.”
I egged him on to take the car in front of him which was waiting at the red light. He quickly looked up at me with disgust and refused, stating that the car was already owned by the person driving it. His response absolutely amazed me, so I decided to sit back and observe how he chose to interact with this highly controversial game without the aid of a rotten-minded adult.
He finally entered an unoccupied car and began driving. He was very mindful of the other cars and pedestrians. He didn't know the rules of the road, so he ran red lights and turned down one-way streets in the wrong direction. However, he did stop at intersections if a group of cars were gathered waiting for the light to turn green.
At one such intersection, he attempted to brake, but he was traveling too fast. Instead of plowing into the rear of the car ahead of him, he swerved to the right and popped up onto the sidewalk. In doing so, he accidently ran over a woman walking toward his oncoming car. He was incredibly ashamed of himself and profusely apologized.
“It’s OK. It’s only a game. It’s not real,” I reassured him. After a few minutes of me explaining the difference between a game and real life, he felt comfortable enough to continue playing.
Only seconds later, he witnessed a policeman jump out of his patrol car to pursue a criminal of San Andreas. His eyes lit up as he asked if he could drive the police car. I reminded him that it was only a game, and it was fine to take the car. As he drove the squad car, I pressed L3 to turn on the lights and siren. He asked very excitedly if he could get the bad guys, too. With a huge smile, I pressed R3 to initiate the Vigilante Missions. It was as if his imagination had come to life. He was taking down delinquents left and right. As expected, the dangerous work of an officer brought an ambulance.
At this point my son was familiar with the game’s mechanics and hopped into the ambulance. As he put the crime fighting behind him, he wondered out loud if it were possible to take people to the hospital. I instructed him to press R3, and he was off to save a few lives. He was having a blast racing from point to point, picking up people in need, and then speeding off to Las Venturas Hospital. During one of his life-saving adventures, he passed a fire house with a big, red, shiny fire truck parked out front. He didn't want to let his passengers down, so he took them to the hospital and then asked if I could guide him back to the fire truck.
Getting behind the driver’s seat of the fire truck awarded him with the most fun he had while playing Grand Theft Auto. With sirens blaring, he chased down the first red dot on the map. As he approached a car engulfed in flames, he began showering it with the truck’s water cannon. Fire after fire, he extinguished them all.
Joe Lieberman's worst nightmare.
In all his time with Grand Theft Auto, my son never once encountered any of the controversy surrounding this notorious title. He didn’t beat any hookers with a baseball bat. He didn’t deal drugs. He didn’t go on a murderous rampage. He certainly never once had a cup of hot coffee. He didn't avoid these things because I told him he couldn't try them; it just never occurred to him to commit these acts in the first place.
The ESRB rating found on every box is a great tool for parents who are not familiar with games and their content, but I strongly disagree with using them as tools to raise our kids. Every child is different, and, as parents, it is our responsibility to cater to their individual needs. I understand not every kid is like mine, so I wouldn’t recommend that everyone allow their children to play Grand Theft Auto. But I would recommend that you listen and pay attention to your little ones to determine what they are capable of handling and what they are not ready for yet. They might even surprise you and find the light in something thought to have been so dark.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!