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The Political Game: Banned in Boston


Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:

Suddenly, the video game violence debate is big news in Beantown.

The controversy began on Monday when a local advocacy group, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, delivered a letter to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates Boston's public transit system. The letter demanded that the MBTA remove poster ads for Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories from subway cars on Boston's Green Line.

Sixty influential locals signed on, including the mayors of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts legislators, religious leaders, top healthcare professionals, children's advocates and academics. Collectively, the signatories called it "unconscionable" to display the Vice City Stories ad on the train, saying, "Advertising on the MBTA enables Rockstar Games to reach countless children -- those who ride the trains and those whose neighborhoods the trains pass through."

The group called on the MBTA to not only pull down the GTA ads, but to refuse to accept advertising for M-rated games in the future.

While you might expect so much political clout focused on one issue to carry the day, the MBTA flatly refused to pull the advertisements. The agency's director, Daniel Grabauskas, cited First Amendment concerns and recalled spending one million tax dollars in 2001 in a losing effort to block ads calling for marijuana law reform.

Grabauskas, apparently blindsided by the GTA ad protest, complained that he first learned about the controversy on the front page of a local newspaper. For his part, Boston mayor Thomas Menino accused Grabauskas of hiding behind the First Amendment. The Boston Police union joined the protest, calling the GTA ads "complete lunacy." And, of course, longtime Rockstar critic Jack Thompson managed to get a few jabs in, telling the Boston Herald, "It is utter nonsense for the MBTA to suggest the First Amendment somehow prohibits it from not participating in a criminal conspiracy. What's next? Bus ads for crack cocaine?"

The Herald even checked with local hookers, those oft-cited victims of GTA's supposed depravity. The ladies of the evening interviewed by the paper had mixed opinions on the ads.

In the midst of this dust-up, a few questions come to mind. Did the Vice City Stories ads appear on mass transit vehicles elsewhere? Will we be hearing of protests in those towns? Would the MBTA and other transit systems accept ads for R-rated movies or music CDs with explicit lyrics?

So where is this controversy going?

Away, most likely. The ad campaign, which raised $115,000 for the MBTA, ends on November 30th. MBTA head Grabauskas promised to look into his agency's legal ability to block violent game ads in the future. Still, it's clear the transit chief was bitter about the way the attack went down. In a response to the original protest letter, Grabauskas wrote, "I expect that you will now be about the business of taking on the other challenges causing violence in our City and in our Commonwealth with equal zeal."

In a letter written Wednesday to the Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood, Grabauskas promised to begin the process of amending the MBTA's advertising guidelines to prohibit M- and AO-rated games in the future. Grabauskas ended his letter with, "I urge you not to be too smug with the result. There is no victory when there was never a battle."

Dennis McCauley is Editor of and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at

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