The maker of the controversial video game Grand Theft Auto is reportedly set to release a new game, Bully, that some officials believe will lead to increased violence on school campuses. The Miami-Dade School Board in Florida has taken local action to limit the sale of the game to minors.

As originally reported in The Miami Herald newspaper, a resolution passed by the Miami-Dade School Board on March 16 urged retailers not to sell Bully to minors and directed the district to inform parents “on the potential harmful effects to children of playing interactive video games containing violence.”

The resolution is believed to be the first such action taken against Bully by a major school district. But as more school leaders become aware of the game, districts around the nation could take similar action.

Little is known about the new game, as companies such as Rockstar Games and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., the maker of Bully, are routinely quiet about the content of a major release until it hits the shelves. But Bully is said to take place in a school, and players reportedly are permitted to act as bullies, using slingshots and other weapons to commit violent acts against schoolmates.

Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series has been highly controversial–and highly profitable–for years. In that game, players steal cars; beat and murder enemies, police, and passersby; hire prostitutes; deal drugs; and engage in numerous other illegal activities.

As of press time, neither Rockstar Games nor Frank Bolanos, the Miami-Dade School Board member who introduced the resolution, had returned telephone calls from an eSchool News reporter seeking comment.

Bolanos, however, told The Miami Herald that Bully is “the antithesis of everything [the Miami-Dade School Board] is trying to promote.”

Joseph Garcia, chief communications officer for the Miami-Dade County School System, told eSchool News that school safety issues are very important to Bolanos and other board members.

“I think [Bolanos] sees [the Bully resolution] as of a piece with other efforts he’s championed in the district in terms of raising school safety issues,” Garcia said, noting that Bolanos has offered other resolutions concerning the scope of school security operations in Miami-Dade County, training for school police and security officers, and the district’s effort to train and prepare for various emergency situations.

William Lassiter, manager for the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, a resource center for programs that promote safer schools and foster positive youth development, said Miami-Dade’s resolution “helps raise awareness [among] parents.”

“There is violent content in the game, and it does encourage children to do things that are inappropriate in schools,” Lassiter said. “I think parents are unaware about the violence in the game. Anything that raises awareness to this is a good thing.”

Lassiter also warned that, like some games in the Grand Theft Auto series, pass codes can be obtained by players to “unlock,” in gamer lingo, secret content that is even more graphic in nature.

In February, the Los Angeles County city attorney’s office filed a lawsuit against the publisher of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for reportedly hiding pornographic images in the game. In addition to the usual content of the Grand Theft Auto series, the San Andreas version of the game also includes an embedded mini-game, in which characters could engage in virtual sexual acts, according to news reports. In July, gamers reportedly used codes obtained from internet web sites and other sources to unlock a mini-game called “Hot Coffee.” In San Andreas, characters refer to sexual acts as “hot coffee.”

“A lot of times, parents might see the beginning clip of [the game in the store, but they] don’t understand the full content of the game,” Lassiter said. “Even if you don’t have to enter pass codes, parents might not see the full content of the game, and [so they might] not realize this is inappropriate for their child.”

Though Lassiter said efforts to block the sale of such games through legislation have been largely unsuccessful, he said boycotts by parents might negate the question of game censorship. The message to parents, he said, should be: “Don’t purchase it, [and] don’t let your child purchase the game.”

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a self-regulatory ratings organization for video games established by the Entertainment Software Association, independently applies and enforces ratings, advertising guidelines, and online privacy principles adopted by the computer and video game industry. The organization notes on its web site that it has a two-part ratings system consisting of a ratings symbol that indicates the age-appropriateness of the game in question, as well as content descriptors that indicate the elements in the game that led to a particular rating or that might be of interest to concerned parties.

In the lawsuit against Rockstar Games and its parent company, the Los Angeles County attorney’s office states that the publisher failed to disclose the hidden contents of the game to ESRB, which led to a lesser rating of “Mature 17+” instead of “Adults Only 18+.”

A spokesman for the ESRB would not comment on the pending court case. He told eSchool News that Rockstar Games has not yet submitted Bully for rating and, as a result, the organization is not in a position to discuss the content of the game. The spokesman said any organization submitting materials to ESRB is under contractual obligation to submit “all pertinent content” to the ratings board–whether it is directly playable or hidden on the disc.

Links:

Miami-Dade County Public Schools
http://www.dadeschools.net

Rockstar Games
http://www.rockstargames.com

Center for the Prevention of School Violence
http://www.cpsv.org

Entertainment Software Rating Board
http://www.esrb.org