When Grand Theft Auto IV went on sale this week the Office of Film and Literature Classification started getting phone calls.
Not from members of the public concerned about the level of objectionable content in the smash hit video game, but from frazzled staff at gaming shops. "They were saying, 'What do we do?'," says chief censor Bill Hastings.
The shop assistants' dilemma was how to say no to parents demanding to buy Grand Theft Auto IV with their 14-year-old beside them.
The Office's advice was to stand firm. "If it's perfectly obvious the parent is buying the game for the child, don't sell it to the parent," says Hastings. "If a game is R18 it's R18 for a reason and it's illegal to make it available to anyone under that age."
It's possible the adults buying the game for minors are unaware that they could face three months in prison or a $10,000 fine for their actions. Or perhaps they're thumbing their nose at a law that, although it's been in place since 1994, has yet to be enforced against parents.
But Hastings argues fear of being caught shouldn't be the driving force here, it should be doing the right thing - especially for your kids. The game gets its R18 rating largely because of its violence and, thanks to advances in game software and hardware, because it is very realistic.
"When the violence does happen in Grand Theft Auto, it is of a quality that makes it R18 - the degree of it, the intensity of it, the realism of it," says Hastings. "When you shoot a body it reacts in a very human way. It's not just stickmen falling over. It looks real."
There's also a lot of offensive language and some sex. "Sexual matters are not a dominant theme of the game although their presence indicates the game is adult in nature," says Hastings reading from the Office's classification report.
In the version submitted for classification here, the sex scenes include going to a strip club and getting lap dances. There's also another point where the player can have sex with a prostitute - but in the version sold here, there is no visual depiction, just audio.
That's because the game's developers, Rockstar, submitted a specially edited version of the game to the Australian censor - the same edited version that's sold here. Oddly, in Australia, the game gets an MA15+ classification (not suitable for under 15s) - the highest rating, other than banning, the censor can give to video games there. Even with the edits, our censor still rated the game R18. "You have to ask Australia whether they are expanding the upper limit of their MA15+ category to accommodate games that would better deserve an R18 classification," says Hastings.
But unlike banned games such as Manhunt, Reservoir Dogs and Postal, Hastings says Grand Theft Auto does have some redeeming qualities. "With the games we ban you have to kill everyone you meet and you're generally rewarded for making the killing more gruesome. In Grand Theft Auto, you don't have to kill everybody you meet - you could drive around and just look at the architecture."
It's the game's open ended nature that gives a point of difference.
As one reviewer put it: "Unlike so many video games, it made me reflect on all of the disturbing things I had done."
So while you can hire a prostitute, have sex, then run her over or shoot her, you don't have do that to advance in the game.
Others have questioned why there is such blatant misogyny and sexualised violence against women in the game. "It consistently portrays women as disposable sex objects and it is inexcusable," says a gamer on a web site posting.
Some gamers have also reported playing the game with the intention of doing the minimum amount of violence possible - hanging out, making friends, watching the game's TV shows or going online with the in-game internet. For some, the game's realism has a sobering effect. "The physics of death feel shockingly real. Bodies can't be blown apart or torn to pieces, but they react convincingly to explosions and severe impacts. Each death is a decision," wrote one reviewer.
Others have referred to the "uncanny valley" hypothesis - that when facsimiles of humans, such as game avatars, look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion. In other words, so real it's creepy.
The game also gets high marks for its humour. It's sets are riddled with parodies - such as the in-game equivalent of Fox News called Weazel News. Likely to appeal to adolescents: a chain of internet cafes called TW@ (the humour is not to everyone's taste). Sample dialogue: "Tell that idiot if he doesn't stop staring at me, I'll get his head chopped off and put the film on the internet." But many reviewers are raving about it: "Beneath the ramrod violence this is a deeply satirical series, lampooning machismo brutality more than celebrating it," says one.
Hastings agrees: "All games in the Grand Theft Auto series have a kind of black satire - an overstatement of machismo. It takes the piss out of Soprano-type things."
But while the humour may soften some of Grand Theft's brutality, the game is set in a seedy crime underworld where carjacking, drug running and contract killings are commonplace - not unlike a TV episode of The Sopranos. Which has prompted some reviewers to recall Tom Wolfe's 1976 essay, "Pornoviolence", on the future of entertainment. "The new pornography depicts people acting out another, murkier drive: people staving teeth in, ripping guts open, blowing brains out, and getting even with all those bastards ... the old pornography was the fantasy of easy sexual delights in a world where sex was kept unavailable. The new pornography is the fantasy of easy triumph in a world where status competition has become so complicated."
It's the overall "brutalising effect" of video games and violence on TV that concerns senior researcher Ian Hassall at Auckland's AUT Institute of Public Policy.
"Children do end up playing real world games - pretend shooting and knocking one another down, that's normal. But running people over in cars, killing people with blood splattered everywhere in video games - is that the same thing? There is a level of fantasy in play which is healthy and beyond that is somewhere else."
As a general proposition Hassall says he's not in favour of censorship. "I think children do learn things by being exposed to the ups and downs of society. I'm not demanding that all of this be banned. But we need to know what it is doing and who it's doing it to, and not be surprised when we find there is an association between this and aggressive behaviour, poor school performance, in some people."
While studies show clear links in terms of effects on arousal and attitudes, whether those effects translate into behaviour is far from clear cut. In fact, as books like Grand Theft Childhood point out, the idea that children engage in the illegal, immoral, sexist and violent acts they see in some of these games is not supported by the current research. The book also provides a historical context - "the threads of violence are woven throughout the fabric of children's play and literature from a very early age".
Lullabies describe boughs breaking and cradles falling. Fairy tales talk of a wolf that devours a girl's grandmother and religious instruction is strewn with stories about plagues, pestilence, jealousy, betrayal, torture and death.
Clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron, in the recently released, £275,000 Byron Report commissioned by the British Government, summarises the issues: "There are some possible negative effects of violent content in games, but these only become harmful when children present other risk factors". The report finds that there is some evidence of short term aggression from playing violent video games but no studies of whether this leads to long term effects. "There is a correlation between playing violent games and aggressive behaviour, but this is not evidence that one causes the other."
But Byron also finds:
* That arousal brought on by some games can generate stress-like symptoms in children.
* That games are more likely to affect perceptions and expectations of the real world amongst younger children because of their less developed ability to distinguish between fact and fiction (due to the immaturity of the frontal cortex).
* That interactive nature of games may also have a more profound effect than some other media, again especially among younger children (up to around 12 years old) who tend to use narratives to develop their values and ideas and who learn It's this type of research - the effects on young minds, the prolonged exposure required to play the game and the immersive nature of the medium - that leads the censor to give Grand Theft Auto IV its R18 rating.
"The law says at 18 and over you are deemed to accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions," says Hastings. "So by that time you know what is right and you know what is wrong. You know this is a game and you know this is not translatable into real life."
Fiction meets reality in Britain
A hooded man queuing to buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto IV was stabbed by a passer-by in the head and neck.
Scores of witnesses of the attack outside a South London store on Tuesday thought the stabbing was a stunt to whip up excitement about the 18-certificate computer game.
The 23-year-old victim was treated in hospital and discharged.
Elsewhere, an 18-year-old from Leyland, Lancashire, suffered a broken jaw after being mugged by two older men whose motivation, said Lancashire police, was the victim's newly bought copy of the game.
The attacks and subsequent publicity had little impact on sales in Britain, where more than 600,000 versions of the game sold on its release, generating an estimated £24.4 million (NZ$62 million) at the tills - nearly double the box-office takings of a blockbuster film.
The higher-than-expected UK sales figure, compiled by Chart-Track, eclipsed the record of 501,000 held by the previous instalment in the series, San Andreas, in October 2004.
The revenue - and first week global sale projections of US$400 million - means the developers will easily recover their reported US$100 million development budget. Grand Theft Auto IV is the most expensive video game ever created.
Play.com was taking up to 80 orders a minute and had to take on 90 extra staff to cope. Woolworths in Britain reported selling 200 copies a minute and said that it would be sold out by the end of the day.
Information about New Zealand sales of the game since it hit the shops on Tuesday is hard to come by. The game's publisher, Take-Two Interactive, wouldn't provide sales figures for the last four days. But retailers indicate sales are exceeding expectations.
Noel Leeming and Bond and Bond stores sold 80 per cent of their stock by the end of the first day - around 2000 units, most of which were pre-sold. That's about one and half times more than last year's big seller, Microsoft's Halo 3.
Dick Smith stores sold out on day one, are back in stock now and expect to sell out again this weekend. "We've sold in two days what we sold in a month for Halo 3," says James Cunnold, Dick Smith national merchandise manager.
"It's going to be the biggest game of the year," says Simon Barton from Gameplanet, New Zealand's largest on-line games retailer. "It's blown away Halo 3. We sold out of the Xbox version the day before release with pre-orders." In four days he's sold around 1500 copies of the game, including about 800 of the special edition package which Gameplanet sells for $150 (compared to $120 for the standard edition). "We've just got some new stock of the Xbox version in today (Friday) - that probably won't last the weekend."