Bus-ted

Could an RTD ad for Grand Theft Auto drive kids crazy?

"I am not a video-game player," George Robison admits, but he's suspiciously good at Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, the video game whose ads he's attempting to have banned from the Regional Transportation District system.

Robison expertly weaves his stolen Jeep through traffic, ripping light poles out of the pavement. "Uh, oh, oncoming traffic," he mutters as he attempts a U-turn, only to send the Jeep into a gruesome cartwheel. It lands on its wheels miraculously -- which is appropriate for Robison, because not only is he the Denver chapter president of the Parents Television Council, but he's an evangelist at Columbine Church of Christ. Soon he ditches his beat-up wheels and carjacks the nearest replacement. "Ahhhh!" screams the car's driver as the minister rips him out of the driver's seat and runs him over as he peels away. Robison giggles.

The fact that Robison is willing to play (and, apparently, exceed at) this game suggests that he's not a complete burn-all-joysticks stereotype. He let his teenage sons play video games -- though the games did nauseate him, he confesses. But when he saw an ad on an RTD bus last fall for Vice City Stories, that was too much. He'd heard about this game, how in it you could smuggle drugs, gun down cops, sleep with prostitutes -- and that wasn't what he wanted promoted on his bus.

"My issue is the safety of our children in these public spaces. We don't expose them to indecent ads, alcohol ads or pornography, so my question is why do we expose them to this?" says Robison. And last month he and his supporters -- including former lieutenant governor Jane Norton and former Colorado U.S. attorney Mike Norton, husband-and-wife hall monitors -- asked the RTD board to stop accepting ads for games deemed inappropriate for those under seventeen.

Although the Vice City Stories campaign in question expired in November, the board is reviewing its advertising policy to determine whether it should be modified for future game ads, says RTD spokesman Scott Reed, who declined an invitation to take on Robison. "I've never played a video game in my life. My kids make fun of me."

Robison's crusade has already "stirred just a bit of dust," he says. Some bloggers point out that Vice City Stories and similar games are rated "M" for mature, which means that stores such as EB Games won't sell them to buyers without an ID proving that they're over seventeen, anyway. And in an online column, Fred Jandt, editor of Mass Transit magazine, asks, "who made RTD the 'steward of the public good'?"

Games like Vice City Stories are a special circumstance, argues Robison, because they teach kids to kill. "In our city, we've got bullets going through limos and killing people. You know what? It sounds to me like what I was playing here," he says. "The affect it has on a young mind is devastating based on research done by doctors and psychologists."

But while video-game sales have skyrocketed over the past fifteen years, juvenile homicide arrest rates have plummeted, says University of Southern California sociologist Karen Sternheimer, who's researched the subject for her books Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions About Today's Youth and It's Not the Media: The Truth about Pop Culture's Influence on Children. Most studies on video-game violence, she says, note no more correlation with actual violence than increased hand-eye coordination skills. Sternheimer also questions studies that link aggression and games such as Grand Theft Auto. "People may be aggressive but never be violent. It is equally likely that more aggressive people seek out violent entertainment," she says. "I have not seen a link between video games and violence."

Sternheimer obviously hasn't watched Robison play Vice City Stories. "Come on buddy, let's go!" he hollers at his game character as he dodges gangster bullets and steals another car. Soon, however, the roaming death trap is belching smoke, then fire. "I think I need a new car!" says Robison, but he's too late. His vehicle explodes, knocking his lifeless body to the pavement. "Oh, wasted!" he hollers, cackling.

Game over.

 
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