NEW YORK – The creators of the popular, but oft-criticized "Grand Theft Auto" games are set to release a new title in which players assume the role of a 15-year-old wannabe tough guy, a premise that drew outcry almost as soon as it was announced last year.
But amid a rash of recent school violence, lawsuits and an ongoing discussion about the influence of video games on children, the developers at Rockstar Games defend "Bully" and say the issues are out of their hands: All they can do is try to make good video games.
"Some people like our games; some don't," company spokesman Rodney Walker said. "We can't try to beat these arguments. Our whole process we believe with 'Bully' is we have to let the game speak for itself. We just want them to know that this is just entertainment."
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Actual game players certainly have enjoyed Rockstar's previous titles.
Its games, ranging from the "Grand Theft Auto" series to this summer's "Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis," have received favorable reviews.
"Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" was the top-selling game in 2004, beating out perennial hits like "Madden NFL" that year.
The $39.99 "Bully," out Tuesday for Sony Corp.'s (SNE) PlayStation 2, uses the same freeform design of "Grand Theft Auto" but is rated "T" for teenagers age 13 and older instead of "M" for mature players 17 and older.
In it, players assume the role of Jimmy Hopkins, who thinks he's the big fish in the pond — until he enters Bullworth Academy.
Players in the living, breathing world of "GTA" could drive cars, perform missions — and shoot pedestrians and police officers with reckless abandon.
With "Bully," there are plenty of fisticuffs but no guns, no blood and no dying. The most powerful weapons include a slingshot and a baseball bat.
More importantly, actions have consequences: Stay out past curfew, and the screen blurs as you become sleepy and eventually pass out. If you're skipping class, you'll have a swarm of adults around you voicing their disapproval.
There's even some incentive for attending the twice-a-day classes: Your character gets an enhanced ability to flirt with girls or recipes to make stink bombs and other prank devices.
Ultimately, Hopkins faces bullies instead of becoming one as he negotiates a complex social hierarchy dominated by various cliques like greasers, jocks, nerds and preps.
Rockstar's success and explanations have done nothing to appease Jack Thompson, a Florida attorney long critical of violence in video games and other popular media.
Without ever having seen or played the game himself, Thompson has called "Bully" a "Columbine simulator" and sought a ban.
Earlier this week, he persuaded a circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County to play "Bully" himself and determine if it should be sold to minors.
"The premise of Bully is that it is sometimes acceptable to deal with bullying by becoming the ultimate bully," Thompson wrote in his complaint. "This was the dynamic at Columbine. It has been the dynamic in other tragic instances of school violence."
The judge ultimately saw no reason to restrict sales and dismissed the complaint on Friday.
Rockstar was embroiled in a different ratings controversy last year after a hacker uncovered a hidden sex scene in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."
Meanwhile, several pending lawsuits blame Rockstar and parent company Take Two Interactive Software Inc. (TTWO) for real acts of violence.
Last month, relatives of three people slain by a 14-year-old on newsman Sam Donaldson's New Mexico ranch sued Rockstar for $600 million, claiming the crimes would not have occurred had the teenager never played the violent game.
Another $600 million case in Alabama against Rockstar, Take-Two and Sony blames "Grand Theft Auto" for the 2003 murders of two police officers and a dispatcher at a rural police department.
In both cases, Thompson is the attorney for the plaintiffs.
Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship in New York, said newer forms of media have always been targeted for society's problems — because they're new.
Comic books were blamed for juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, and similar arguments have been raised over the years against rock and rap music, she said.
"It presents the perfect irony about censorship," she said. "People who want to censor things don't really think about them. They just want the subject off limits. They're into creating taboos."
The game's producer, Jeronimo Barrera, said "Bully" influences came from Hollywood movies such as "Sixteen Candles" and novels like J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" — a coming-of-age book that has been one of the most banned since it was first published more than 50 years ago.
"We want to be on the same equal footing with other media because then we wouldn't be having all these problems that we have with our critics," Barrera said.
Controversy won't end with "Bully."
Coming up in a few weeks is "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories" for Sony's PlayStation Portable system. And sometime late next year, Rockstar plans to release "Grand Theft Auto IV" for the new generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)
A visit to the Manhattan headquarters of Rockstar Games reveals a playful, laid-back workplace that typifies many other video-game offices.
Employees in jeans, sneakers and T-shirts ride their bicycles on the hardwood floors or bounce a basketball, maneuvering between stacks of cardboard boxes. Vintage arcade machines line one wall, while in the distance employees in cubicles hover over their computers.
The developers at Rockstar may be the ones feeling bullied, but they vow to continue making the games on their own terms.
"We usually pick things that are really difficult to do," Barrera said. "In this case, it was the experience of your school days in this living, breathing world. We're not the types that do market research. It's more from the heart. We have a passion for what we do."