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SEX, SECRET CODES AND VIDEOGAMES

First of all, let me express my shock--total jaw-dropped, head-slapped, loss-for-words shock--upon learning that a hidden scene in the videogame Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas depicts a somewhat graphic sexual encounter. Who would imagine such a thing in a game that lets millions of people vicariously engage in simulated cop-killing, 'ho-running, drug dealing and drive-by shooting? Even though you can run the game for weeks and not play this scene, the very idea that it's buried in the code suddenly changes everything. Does this eliminate GTA's chances for a Christopher Award (which affirms "the highest values of the human spirit")?

All right, I'm kidding. In truth, what's really astonishing is the sudden wave of outrage, fear and panic triggered by this story--including an attack by Sen. Hillary Clinton. It's a sign of the degree to which we're all in the dark about the impact of videogames on young people, as well as our inability to figure out where we should place them in the cultural pantheon.

Let's recapitulate. GTA: San Andreas, created by a company called Rockstar Games, is the latest version of a popular series available on game consoles like Xbox and PS2. It's a vividly rendered scenario where players take the role of amoral urban thugs. This version alone has sold 6 million copies, and is rated M (the equivalent of an R movie rating), with a warning printed on the box about strong sexual content. Recently a Web site not associated with Rockstar released instructions to "unlock" an interactive interlude included on the disc that could not otherwise be viewed. (Rockstar claims that it was left over from an earlier draft of the product.) Though no genitalia are exposed, players use the joystick to control a character having sex with a nude woman.

No way is that scene family-friendly. GTA is not a kid's game. Despite its appeal to teens, its key audience is young adult males who grew up on Super Mario but now crave the more-grown-up entertainment they consume everywhere else--the stuff of action movies, beer commercials and Maxim magazine. Its creators believe they are engaged in an artistic enterprise, no less than the auteurs behind adult fare like gangster films, rap music and HBO sitcoms. Within the community of gamers, GTA holds a position roughly equivalent to that of "Scarface" in the film world--a breakout hit that's a creative breakthrough as well, albeit not without some controversy.

The issues get dicey when it comes to teenagers, who have a keen interest in games no matter how they're rated. The simulated sex scene is a red herring--any kid who is savvy enough to download codes to hack a game is certainly clever enough to find real pornography on the Internet. The big question is the effects of the games themselves, which eat up an incredible amount of time, much of it in the service of hostile actions. Are they a harmless way to blow off steam, or training grounds for psychopaths? Steven Johnson's recent book "Everything Bad Is Good for You" argues that complex epics like GTA actually make you smarter. My gut tells me that simulating the actions of a heartless gang-sta is something to discourage, and I've banned GTA from my household. My 15-year-old considers the ban absurd: "You always know it's a videogame," he says. Tough.

The rating system can help parents enforce their rules, and retailers who sell M's to underage kids should be sanctioned. In this case, though, the ratings board, because of a buried scene with cartoon sex, has changed GTA from an M to an AO (Adults Only)--the equivalent of an X-rated flick. Many retailers won't carry AO's. Clearly the standard for videogames is harsher than for movies--because this medium is still considered "kid's stuff." But the industry's growing pains prove otherwise.