Can we stop trying to ban Grand Theft Auto, please?

March 31, 2021
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I, like a few million other Americans, live in a suburb that’s within spitting distance of Chicago, the American city most famous for being eerily like Iraq. Although I’m fortunate enough not to live in the city itself, I’ve driven through it on more than one occasion, and in these brief drives, you know what I’ve always wanted to do? Hijack a car. Setting aside the fact that I’d almost certainly get caught, and that I have absolutely no desire to become a criminal, it seems like fun. I mean, after all, I do it all the time in Grand Theft Auto 5, a 7-year-old game that has an average of 125,000 players on Steam, so why shouldn’t I do it in real life?

The answer to this question is, obviously, that I’m not a criminal, and that just because I see something in a video game doesn’t mean that I’m going to do it in real life. However, this an answer that Illinois State Representative Marcus Evans Jr. is blissfully unaware of, because he’s trying to amend a 2012 Illinois law that bans underage children from accessing violent video games. If his amendment passes, HB3531 will prohibit the sale of all violent video games, a definition that he also wants to change to include things like motor vehicle theft, and anyone who sells violent video games will be charged $1,000 (£709).

According to a Chicago Sun-Times article, the bill is being proposed in the wake of an increased amount of carjackings in Chicago, a city that is already the 31st most dangerous in the country. Evans was apparently contacted by Early Walker, a Chicago resident who started an initiative called “Operation Safe Pump”, which was created to prevent carjackings, who noticed similarities between local carjackings and Rockstar’s flagship title.

"I feel like this game has become a huge issue in this spectrum," Walker told the Chicago Sun-Times. "When you compare the two, you see harsh similarities as it relates to these carjackings."

Anyone who thinks that Grand Theft Auto is realistic has never driven through midnight traffic in Los Angeles 

Although Walker’s heart may be in the right place, he’s trying to encourage the Illinois Legislature to do something that is, objectively, a waste of time. For a number of years, “Do video games cause violence?” was a hotly debated topic, but it’s one that’s had a number of developments over the past decade which allows me to use the term “objectively” in what would’ve been considered an Op Ed if I’d been writing back in 2008.

The first one of these developments came in 2011 in the form of a United States Supreme Court Case. It’s of note that this specific development only applies to the United States, and that anyone interested in reading about European Union video game regulation can read about it here.

In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Calif. law prohibiting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, which is similar to the existing law that Evans is trying to amend in Illinois, violated the First Amendment, because in short, video games in the United States enjoy the same protection as other forms of non-obscene speech. 

David Allen, who teaches media law at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said that this is the primary flaw with any law that attempts to regulate video games, of which there are many. Allen said that because violence is not considered to be obscene in the United States, it can’t be regulated by the government, which is why laws like the one being proposed by Evans, or even the existing Illinois law that prohibits the sale of violent video games to children under the age of 18, are almost never enforced. 

“(Evans’ bill) would never stand up to a First Amendment charge,” Allen said.

Allen did also note, however, that while the government in the United States can’t regulate video games, private corporations can. This is why places like GameStop ask for identification when buying M-rated games, or why Steam asks for you to verify your date of birth every time you try to buy a new shooter.

Remember when people thought this game was going to turn everyone into psycho killers?

American law aside, though, the other two developments in the debate apply to a more global audience. The biggest one of those is a study published last year by the Royal Society. The study analysed the multitude of existing studies about video games and violence, some of which suggested that carjacking people in Grand Theft Auto may cause people to carjack people in real life, to come to the same conclusion that many of us came to years ago.

“Overall, longitudinal studies do not appear to support substantive long-term links between aggressive game content and youth aggression,” the study reads. “Correlations between aggressive game content and youth aggression appear better explained by methodological weaknesses and researcher expectancy effects than true effects in the real world.”

In other words, the research that does exist on the topic can’t prove definitively that video games do cause violence, but instead that it’s more likely that people who play video games and commit violence were going to commit the violence because of other factors.

The only thing that playing Grand Theft Auto makes me want to do is go for a bike ride

This is something that Joel Mulick, a 16 year old who lives in Chicago, has seen first-hand. Mulick said that, in his experience, many of the people that are committing these crimes are doing so because of other societal factors and that, like many of us, it’s just coincidence that they play Grand Theft Auto.

“People aren’t stealing cars because they played Grand Theft Auto,” Mulick said. “Tens of millions of people are playing Grand Theft Auto, and you don’t see tens of millions of people robbing cars.”

Instead, Mulick said that the money that lawmakers are spending on banning video games would be better spent on community programs so that tragic stories like a 12-year-old robbing cars in America’s capitol happen less often.

This is something that Nek Oz, who lives in Norway, agrees with, if for no other reason that he knows first-hand that restricting video games doesn’t work.  Although anyone who wants to buy on Steam Grand Theft Auto needs to be at least 17 years old, this didn’t stop Oz from playing almost a decade ago.

The age verification process on Steam, which doesn’t question how I’m one year shy of being the oldest person to ever live.

“I first played Grand Theft Auto 5 when I was 15-16,” Oz said.

Mulick, too, was able to play Grand Theft Auto when he was too young to buy it himself because his older brother gifted the game to him. But in an age where the vast majority of games are sold digitally, it’s not exactly hard to get past these existing age restrictions. On Steam specifically, anyone who wants to buy a mature-rated game simply needs to input their own birthday and there’s no verification process involved.

It’s also not much harder to get access to games in countries with much more restrictive laws. Thanks to inventions like VPNs, online key resellers and even eBay, anyone who wants to play violent video games, regardless of their legality, just needs to jump through a few hoops in order to do so. 

When Australia banned Hotline Miami 2 a few years ago for reasons that aren’t worth getting into, VICE published an article a week later that featured the game’s developer telling readers explicitly how to get access to the game.

In an age when VICE is telling people how to get access to banned video games, then, it’s a safe bet to say that banning games is a colossal waste of everyone’s time. In America, banning violence isn’t even allowed, and even in the countries where lawmakers have a bit more leeway to waste everyone’s time, it’s not hard to get access to video games. Even if the powers that be want to ignore the studies that prove vidya doesn’t cause violence, someone somewhere has to realise that trying to restrict access to decades-old games is just a waste of taxpayer dollars, so can we stop trying to ban Grand Theft Auto, please?

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Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.