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Virtual Bully: A Finer Line for Videogames

I think it's sad that I am looking at this game with a modicum of relief because it appears not to be ultra-violent (blood splattering and women being raped and beaten).
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This week Rockstar Games - those wonderful folks who have brought us the Grand Theft Auto Oeuvre - released Bully, a new T (for Teen) rated videogame. Its release is sure to generate a great deal of hand-wringing from parents and media watchdog groups. I guess I will be doing my fair share, too, because, as Editor in Chief of Common Sense Media, I have to figure out how to explain this game to parents. The easiest response could be a knee-jerk "bad stuff!" But that's not particularly helpful when you have a kid like my 13-year-old who is going to want to play this game and probably own it. So what do I do? My homework. And I'm not letting him near this game until I know what's in it.

Rockstar, king of controversy, knows how to walk right up to the age-appropriate line, taunting those of us who, in truth, wish they would use some common sense themselves and stop with all the bottom-fishing entertainment. But seeking the lowest common denominator in entertainment is hardly a crime or lonely pursuit. It's just that in a world where media has become a "super-peer," I wish that once in a great while media producers could create the kind of entertainment that they'd let their kids to play or watch or download all the time.

From what I understand (Rockstar didn't send out advance review copies), this is a Lord of the Flies-type affair, where players become Jimmy, a new 15 year old student who attempts to fit in at boarding school. The cast of characters is strictly central casting, complete with jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, and clueless administrators. The game comes with limits and consequences. Thumping a tormentor, protecting a geek from a beating, giving a younger child a noogie...these things are okay in bully-land. Hitting a girl, adult, or small kid? No way. Miss a curfew, the screen goes all fuzzy.

As for the actual game, I've seen only what the rest of the world has- trailers. Here's a sampling of comments and responses to the trailer on YouTube where, as of this writing, it had been viewed 41,796 times (only about a hundred of those were from my 13 year old son, I promise). "Dude," says one commenter, "as long as I can get a girl pregnant in this game, I don't care how dated the engine is (presumably a reference to the fact the game is coming out on Playstation 2, not 3 to ensure the broadest possible holiday distribution). Or this contribution, "I wonder if there are unlockables where you can get guns, c4s, poison gas?" To be fair, there were also plenty of innocuous comments ("this game looks aaaaawwwsum, dude") which, while not particularly insightful or illuminating, are probably most representative of those who can't wait to fork over (or have their parents pony up) the $39.95 each game costs.

So what's my beef then? Simple: I think it's sad that I am looking at this game - both as a mother and a professional information purveyor -- with a modicum of relief because it appears not to be as ultra-violent (blood splattering and women being raped and beaten) as other games my kid and his friends want to play. What did Robin Williams say the other day? Something along the lines of 'you know you're bad when you start violating your standards more quickly than you can lower them.' I know my son wants this game for his birthday. Robbed of my usual excuses - no blood or guns allowed - I now have the more nuanced task of discussing role models and pointing out research that shows that the more time spent with aggressive video games, the more inured kids become to aggression. This makes me the boring mom, the killjoy mom. But so be it. Until my kids are old enough to vote me off the island, I still get to decide what's right for them. But like other parents, I must do my homework about video game content, I will read reviews, look at the game, decide with my husband what's right. Then, even though it's not popular, I happily reserve the right to say, "No."