"Grand Theft Auto IV," like its predecessors, is rated "M" for "Mature." That means that the game's content is only "suitable for persons ages 17 and older."
But we all know that won't prevent everyone under 17 from getting their hands on the game.
I recently talked to three teenagers who have owned and played "GTA" since well before the age of 17 -- with and without their parents' permission -- about their past experiences with "GTA" games.
One 15 year-old told me his parents don't allow him to play M-rated games without their approval, and "GTA" is strictly off-limits. However, he acquired "San Andreas" though a game-trading website, and they don't know he's been playing it:
"They would probably be more upset that I didn't listen to them first, and about the content second. In my defense, I feel that going to high school has prepared me for the content in M-rated games."
Read on to learn how these teens got their "GTA"s, what their parents do and don't know about it, and whether they plan to acquire "GTA IV" later this month...
Eric, 17, Ontario, Canada
Eric, who turned 17 in February, rarely plays games anymore, but as a PS2 owner, he has played every iteration of "Grand Theft Auto" since 2001's "GTA III," well before he was 17. He got to play them at a friend's house, and his parents have even bought him "Vice City" and "San Andreas." He said that they typically buy him M-rated games without any issues at all. "It was the same process as buying any other game," he said. "I'd just get it -- the rating never worried or bothered my parents 'cause I guess [they thought] I could always distinguish the difference between the whack stuff in the games and reality."
However, his pals with "super uptight moms" had more trouble with getting M-rated titles like "GTA." When stores started asking for identification for the purchase of M-rated games, Eric's then-13-year-old friends would ask older people to buy them "GTA" "It's like, they'd wait outside of Best Buy or whatever game store," Eric explained. "They'd be like, 'Hey!' to some young 20 year-old gamer or something, figuring he's a nerd so he'll do it." Once the game was bought, they'd tip the guy five or 10 bucks and then hide the game from their parents.
Now that Eric is 17, I asked him if he would help his underage friends in the same way. "Pssh, probably not," he responded. "I set my controller down a long time ago." He has no plans on playing "GTA IV"; besides not owning an Xbox 360 or PS3, he said he's too busy with other activities like skateboarding, drawing, making music and just being outside.
Dylan, 15, Pennsylvania
Dylan is a 15 year-old gamer who owns an Xbox 360 and a PS2. He plays five to six hours a week and owns "GTA III," "Vice City" and "San Andreas." His parents bought them for him and he expects they'll buy him "GTA IV" because they have no problem buying him M-rated games. In fact, he claimed that they don't care about a game's rating. "They understand that games are violent, but [they] also understand that I'm not going to bring a gun to school just because I saw it done in a video game."
"They'd tip the guy five or 10 bucks and then hide the game from their parents."
For "GTA" specifically, he said, "They've seen me play it, and they think it's violent. They don't think I should stop playing it, just because of its violence."
I asked him what he thought of people who claim that games like "GTA" influence kids to commit violent acts in real life. He scoffed. "I think the whole point is ridiculous," he said. "We're kids, not monkeys. That's why they are video games. Most violent acts probably happen with teens, because we are teens. Most of us realize the consequences of violent acts, but maybe for some [violence] feels like the only right thing to do."
I asked what he meant, and he replied, "Maybe look back on school, relationships, other things that might be a source of stress. They might have those problems, but might be playing a game like 'GTA.' [People] might think it's the game making them violent. If I were in that situation, or could help someone in that situation, I'd advise [them] to stop playing the game, and see if they still feel violent."
Dylan doesn't think banning M-rated games is the right thing to do. "A game getting banned because of those kids is unfair, and isolating a kid can make him or her feel different. Their stress wouldn't be getting any better... So is there a solution? I don't think so."
Sean, 15, Maryland
Fifteen year-old Sean is the biggest gamer of the three teens I interviewed, yet the most restricted when it comes to playing M-rated games. Playing 14-20 hours a week, he considers video games "a large part of my life and a major hobby," and he owns an Xbox 360, a PS2 and a GameCube.
"When my parents asked the clerk about 'GTA,' he said it was 'the reason the M-rating was invented.'"
His parents don't allow him to play M-rated games unless they approve it first. He recently convinced them to let him buy "Halo 3" and "Assassin's Creed" after showing them comments on whattheyplay.com, a website where parents review games' appropriateness for their kids. It said that both games were age-appropriate for those 12 and over.
However, "GTA" is totally off-limits. His parents came to that decision with the help of a game store clerk. "When my parents asked the clerk about 'GTA,' he said it was 'the reason the M-rating was invented.'"
Despite his parents' objections, Sean has played "Vice City" at a friend's house, and he even owns "San Andreas." He got the game through a a game-trading website, where a point-system is used so no credit card is needed and no age requirement is enforced. "They don't know I have been playing ['San Andreas'] because they would probably not let me play it," Sean said.
I asked if his parents would be really angry if they found out he had "San Andreas." "They would probably be more upset that I didn't listen to them first, and about the content second," he said. "In my defense, I feel that going to high school has prepared me for the content in M-rated games."
Sean has every intention of getting his hands on "GTA IV," either though a friend or through the Internet. He really enjoys the "GTA" series because of the gameplay. "The graphics have always been decent, but being able to just explore, find things, drive around and generally causing mayhem are definitely the best things about this series," he explained. "And if things are that much more realistic in this new one, then that's even better."
He added, "On a side note, if my parents took video games as serious as [they take] movies and paid more attention to what I was playing, all of this could be avoided... Not that I would want them to do that."
Did you or do you play "GTA" before the age of 17? If so, how did you do it, and what did your parents make of it?