The high profile release of Grand Theft Auto IV this week has seen a number of groups use the inevitable publicity for their own means. Newspapers, online sites (yes, including this one) and blogs eager for pageview-generating stories about the hit title lap up stories from pressure groups, hoping to ride in on the search results or the Digg/Slashdot/Reddit homepages the masses consume. This potent and symbiotic relationship is well documented, and at no time is it more visible than during a big event - and GTA IV will probably be the biggest we'll see this year.
Not the least publicity hungry of these parties is, of course, our old friend Mr Jack Thompson. He waded in with a typically unmeasured rant calling the 18/Mature (depending on jurisdiction) rated game "the gravest assault upon children in this country [the USA] since polio". So far, so predictable.
The inclusion of a drink driving element to GTA IV also brought it to the attention of an organisation called "Mothers Against Drink Driving" who promptly put out a statement saying "MADD is calling on the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to reclassify Grand Theft Auto IV as an Adults Only game, a step up from the current rating of Mature and for the manufacturer to consider a stop in distribution - if not out of responsibility to society then out of respect for the millions of victims/survivors of drunk driving."
This 'feature' sees the main character patronise a bar, then the game allows you to drive afterwards. Driving whilst in this state is inevitably difficult with the car becomeing understandably very difficult to control. The police also take an interest and give chase when they see your drunken antics. All quite realistic then, and probably not a good thing to be doing as it doesn't even aid the main aim of the game - to work your way up the criminal career ladder.
So who is this pressure group? Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD) was set up in the 1980's by Candice Lightner with the laudable aim of reducing drink driving in the United States, a country that has a one of the worse drunk driving accident rates in the developed world. After forming, the organisation rapidly turned prohibitionist, and began advocating less liberal policies tackling issues with alcohol in general rather than just drink driving, such as raising the drinking age. Civil liberty groups also criticised the organisation for advocating alcohol interlock devices factory-installed in all new cars. It has also been pointed out that there is a potential conflict of interests between MADD and some of it's bottle industry partners, causing MADD to refrain from advocating increased taxes on distilled spirits.
Lightner left the group in 1985 saying that it "has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned. I didn't start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving".
Thompson often calls GTA a "murder simulator", so it is ironic to hear that MADD, critical of the drink driving depicted in the game, themselves ran a drink driving "simulator". Started in 1988, in partnership with Chrysler and the US Department of Transport, MADD rigged a Dodge Neon car to simulate driving whilst drunk. A computer took the driver's weight and a hypothetical number of drinks, then delayed the steering and braking accordingly. Naturally some safety measures were employed like a trained driver with a brake pedal in the passenger seat, but what they created was effectively a full-size real-life drink driving simulator. This was sent around hundreds of US schools and college campuses and driven by hundreds of thousands of students.
So, it's acceptable to drive a deliberately impaired full-size car around but not alright to simulate the same thing on a game console? The hypocrisy here is troubling, especially when its digested so fervently by media with their own interests to serve. Whilst nobody is arguing that the group's core aim is not admirable, how can we take them seriously if over-zealous statements like this are made, especially when MADD have already set their own precedent when it comes to acts of 'simulation'. Your comments, as ever, are appreciated.