Saturday, August 23, 2008

When virtual crime becomes all too real

Thai Takes

IT is early evening in a Bangkok shopping mall and the youth is in a state of frenzy after engaging in an orgy of violence; he has just stolen a car full of drugs, robbed a bank and murdered a prostitute.

More youths in the video arcade are stealing, robbing and murdering in Grand Theft Auto (GTA), a computer game that allows players to assume the role of an urban criminal.

That snapshot of a typical Thai video arcade, however, has become almost obsolete after a recent fatal episode where life imitated a computer game.

On Aug 3, in the Thai capital, a 19-year-old student, Polwat Chinno, stabbed a 54-year-old taxi driver, Khuan Phokang, about 10 times after his victim fought back with a metal bar when Polwat attempted to hijack the taxi.

Police arrested the teenager at the scene of the crime and charged him with causing death and possession of knives. He faces death by lethal injection if found guilty.

Polwat told the police he copied the robbery from GTA, a game he had been religiously playing for a couple hours daily for the past few years.

“He said he wanted to find out if it was as easy in real life to rob a taxi as it was in the game,” said Captain Veerarit Pipatanasak, a Bangkok police spokesman.

Two days later, the New Era Interactive Media Company, the legal distributor of the computer game series, that has sold about 70 million copies worldwide, removed GTA from sale in Thailand.

It also warned people to be careful about the types of computer games they buy, and urged friends and relatives of gamers to watch their behaviour closely when they were playing.

On the same day, Thai police announced it had banned GTA because of its obscene content.

“The police are empowered to immediately arrest shopkeepers if they find any GTA games on sale,” warned Ruangsak Jaritake, a police spokesman.

A senior official at Thailand’s culture ministry declared the murder was a wake-up call for the authorities, to tackle violence in computer games.

“This time bomb has already exploded and the situation could get worse,” said Ladda Thangsupachai, director of the ministry’s cultural surveillance centre. “Today it is a cab driver, tomorrow it can be a video game shop owner.”

In a knee-jerk response, the Thai Health Ministry immediately released a list of 10 most dangerous games: GTA, Man Hunt, Scarface, 50 Cent – Bullet Proof, 300, The Godfather, Killer 7, Resident Evil 4, God of War and Hitman.

So what do some Thais think of the list?

“The public health ministry quickly assembled a list of Top 10 Violent Games – not by research or reason, but by a quick 'Googling',” derided a Bangkok Post editorial on Monday.

“Bureaucrats accepted the first hit, an obscure list from a local US politician trying to get his name in the newspapers and his face on TV in an election cycle.

“Such a ban is also self-defeating, since new games come on the market regularly. In any case, a police ban is only just another business hitch to the video pirates and shop owners involved in underground distribution.”

On the banning of GTA, the editorial theorises that even if there had been a ban earlier it would not have prevented the taxi driver’s death.

The editorial also said it was most troubling that the authorities and the media quickly and conveniently latched on to the alibi of a confessed, vicious killer.

“They were far too quick to accept the word of Polwat,” it noted. “His claim that the video game GTA made him commit the crime sounds more like a novel legal defence than a credible motive.”

The editorial has a point.

Matt Peckham, who has a blog called Game On in www., does not recall an actual “scene” in any GTA game where someone robs a taxi driver, much less kills one.

“Sure, you can haul people out of cars, then go out of your way to dispatch them, but taxi-killing is neither required nor rewarded. In GTA games, killing is in fact penalised,” Peckham wrote.

Tell that to the Thais gamers, who have now gone “underground” to play GTA.

(Published in The Star on August 23, 2008)


InobonG ProPer said... sons like to play the GTA game..

i've seen them playing and i know about the stealing cars..i realized that it wasn't right but i didn't say anything to them as i thought it was only a game!!

now...i better warn them!