When I walked into the house, Eli was knocking over a liquor store. He was a man of color, twenty-five years old, and wearing the style of t-shirt I associate with men who fought in World War Two. Popularly it’s known as a wife-beater, but I can’t in good conscious propagate that name without comment. Eli had a handgun. A Glock? A Sig Sauer? A Beretta? How should I know? I abhor guns, I had to google those names. The store clerk, stuffing money in a brown paper bag, looked terrified. And for good reason, Eli was shooting holes in the wall just over the clerk’s head.
“Jesus, Eli, what are you doing?”
“I’m scaring the cashier to make him move faster.”
Grand Theft Auto. It’s a video game. We let Eli buy it the other day. Actually, we took him to Walmart and bought it for him. When he tried to download it on his PS4 gaming console, he wasn’t permitted. Apparently, you need to be seventeen to do that. This tidbit of information might have served as our first clue.
Eli wasn’t alone. Susan and Sophie were sitting in the room with him, absorbed in conversation. A nice scene for me to encounter coming home from work, the whole crowd hanging out together in the family room. Until Eli started robbing the store with his Glock, his Beretta, whatever.
We watched Eli play a bit of GTA the day he brought it home. Yes, there’s the whole car stealing aspect, but really it just seemed like a driving game… only in a car you can trash because you can just steal another one when you need to. Eli was taking a short cut through some hilly scrub brush outside of Los Angeles proper. The graphics were fantastic.
When I was thirteen, we had Pong. Sort of ping pong on TV—a dot moved slowly across the screen and you needed to hit it back to your opponent with your electronic paddle. I think the challenging part was that the ball speeded up as the point continued.
GTA isn’t like this. It almost looks real. The desert flying past Eli’s wheels was littered with rocks and sage and garbage. Little plumes of dust and spree flew up as he made skidding turns to avoid washouts and larger plants. At one point he hit a tree and we were treated to a tumbling, rolling wipeout from the driver’s point of view. It was pretty cool. I couldn’t figure out what all the negative press was about.
“Why are you robbing a liquor store? I thought you were supposed to steal cars?”
“Those cars are wrecks. I need to get some money so I can buy a good car.”
“Well, why don’t you steal cars and sell them. At least you’re not shooting people!”
“Dad! That’s a great idea!”
Eli, stopped his motorcycle in the middle of the highway, he pulled out his Uzi (?) and jacked a car. He left the woman who was driving standing in the middle lane. By now we were all watching Eli, appalled.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Grand Theft Auto has a “Mature” rating. Supposedly it’s suitable for people seventeen or older. Tonight, I learned that in many countries you need to be an adult to buy it. In general, we don’t allow Eli to watch “R” rated movies. I know he has access to them through Netflix on his phone, but so far, he seems much more interested in YouTube videos and Phineas and Ferb.
There’s a website we visit when we feel like we’re pushing the age limit on Family Movie Night. It’s called Common Sense Media. It’s an awesome resource for parents. It offers age-appropriateness ratings by parents, experts and even children. If I wonder whether Groundhog Day is good to watch with my kids, I just type it in. “Parents say 12, Kids say 10, Common Sense says 11.” We’ll be watching that movie tomorrow night. Tonight I typed in Grand Theft Auto. “Common Sense say 18+ Crime, violence, sex, drugs, and alcohol = not for kids.” At least they don’t smoke cigarettes.
Eli is at a sleep over tonight. No doubt he’s playing GTA, or some battlefield shooter game. Or maybe he’s just watching GoodFellas. Obviously, he’s hitting an age where I can’t control everything he sees and does, and I don’t want to either. He needs to learn to set his own boundaries and make his own mistakes. But sometime this weekend, we’re going to sit down and talk about what it means to intimidate a make-believe store clerk with a handgun.