08/01/2005 06:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

One Hot Cup of Coffee

San andreas 2.jpg

We’re still a ways off from the snows of Iowa, 2008, but rest assured the race for the Democratic primary is well underway.

Not surprisingly, it was Hillary Clinton who appeared first on the field, stretched and all suited up, and firing the starting gun herself with some carefully stage-managed outrage about the terrible affront to society perpetrated by Rockstar Games, who had apparently contributed to the moral decline of our nation by including (or, depending on who you talk to, forgetting to delete) some simulated sex in the San Andreas iteration of the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise. The thing that set Clinton off was “Hot Coffee” — a third-party mod for San Andreas that allowed the game’s gangsta protagonist to “gird [his] loins for love” and get buck wild with a digital female partner. “So many parents already feel like they are fighting a battle against violence and sexually explicit material…” Clinton said, rushing to plant her flag on Democratic moral rectitude as she continues migrating to the center. “We need companies to be responsible and we need rating systems that work." Her action plan: investigate, legislate — and triangulate.

As grandstanding, Clinton’s gambit was a triumph: San Andreas was re-rated; stores stopped selling it; the Federal Trade Commission opened an official probe of Take Two Interactive, Rockstar’s parent company; and there’s even talk of Congressional hearings on the entire subject (proceedings that are well known, of course, for successfully preserving the innocence of children). But as politics, Clinton’s centrist ambush doesn’t bode well for Democrats. She’s out in front, but leading whom? Clinton’s strategy doesn’t just misunderstand video games; it misunderstands the supposed center.

Because no one likes finger-wagging Democrat. It failed for Tipper Gore, and it will fail for Hillary Clinton. If we wanted to have our knuckles rapped, we’d turn to the GOP. And as much as the moral majority stuff is at the center of today’s Republican rhetoric, it doesn’t always make great political hay for them either — all the endless moralizing is how culture-war conservatives consistently overplay their hand among moderate Republicans and independents who don’t want evangelical ethics legislated into their lives. That hasn’t stopped the Democrats — Joes Lieberman and Baca and others also came out of the woodwork to jump on the Hot Coffee bandwagon — from making the same mistake. As if they can out-preach the preachers. That’s what I don’t get: why stake your claim on being second best at the other guys’ main weakness? If you’re gonna steal Republican thunder, at least pick something better than hidden sex codes in video games. If that’s the best we can do, we’re in trouble.

Not to mention that the entire attack on San Andreas is misguided. Sure, Rockstar put the porn in there. (There was some uncertainty at first as to whether it was added by the mod, or just unlocked by the mod; it turned out to be the latter.) But unlike other “Easter eggs” — hidden details intended for discovery by players in the game — Rockstar insists that Hot Coffee was never meant to be found.

Even if the code wasn’t disabled, and Hot Coffee was planned from the start — who cares? The brief scene is admittedly lurid, but it’s a fairly inefficient way to sneak impurity into adolescent hearts. This is not the old days of, say, ten years ago, when most kids still had to sneak into dad’s closet and find an old dog-eared copy of Penthouse to see the thing that makes Jesus say yuck. There’s instant porn on every computer all the time (or so I’m told). Why, then, would a horny 14-year-old go to the trouble of buying a $50 game, finding, downloading and installing the mod, and then driving his little character all around San Andreas just to see an unerotic casual encounter between polygons — when in an instant you can type “porn” in Google and find much hotter coffee than what’s being served by Rockstar?

What Clinton and others fail to realize is that Hot Coffee is not intended to titillate. Like the rest of San Andreas’ thousands of little details, the little interlude is just one more facet of the game’s incredible depth. The reason San Andreas is so popular is that’s a “sandbox” game — a densely articulated world, open-ended, and ready for exploration. You can do some drive-by’s and get some Hot Coffee, or you can spend all your time hang-gliding or riding your motorcycle into the sunset listening to Magic Man by Heart. Artists have even used this flexibility to make Grand Theft Auto films, where they capture video of the character just hanging out at the beach or seeing the sights like a tourist.

As such, San Andreas is really a sociological experiment. And what Clinton and the DLC backup band don’t like are the results of that experiment, since it would seem that without rules or consequences, many kids’ first instinct is to run people over, shoot cops, and slash people on the street. And despite that I’ve spent hours doing those very things in San Andreas myself, I do find it disturbing to see our instincts unfettered. Because as Hobbes said: the State of Nature ain’t pretty. Which is why I’m glad real life is nothing like San Andreas — and that’s probably the lesson most kids learn by causing all that virtual mayhem. But it’s definitely not the lesson that will be learned at Senator Clinton’s hearings.

(This post became a longer article, available at the LA Weekly)