proper audience

Indulge me as I muse about the value of criticism and its conflict with popular culture.
In the news: Hobbiest programmers — known as “modders” — have discovered hidden sex scenes in the popular game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and have published code which will allow players to access the mature content. Harry Potter fans are anxiously awaiting the Friday release of the sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is a computer game; Harry Potter is a popular book series. They both have their champions, and their critics.
The GTA champions are those who defend the game’s hyper violence and mature themes. When you buy GTA, they claim, you know what kind of game you are buying. The critics claim that the game in unsuitable for children and that, in the extreme, should have never been made in the first place.

Harry Potter fans are the adults, with and without children, who enjoy reading the books. They claim if the books enourage more children to read on their own, then this makes the books even better. The Harry Potter critics say that the writing quality is poor, that it distracts both children and adults from more worthy books. “How did we ever come to this situation, where a children’s book is a bestseller?”
Harry Potter and GTA are very unalike, in their content and their audience. One is wholesome, or at least of some educational value, while the other is intentionally unwholesome and pandering. But the champions of both Harry Potter and GTA are alike in the way they defend their opinions; they honestly enjoy the works, and make arguments to insist that, given the proper audience, these are both works that can enjoyed by lots of people.
From the critical side, there is a problem with the “proper audience”: it is an abstraction, it doesn’t exist. Whether or not someone is part of the proper audience doesn’t prevent them from taking a book or game off the shelf. In the case of computer games, yes there are restrictions on who can purchase a game (the ESRB), but these restrictions only apply in some, and not all, cases where someone picks up a game. In the case of a book, there is no sign on the bestseller shelf which says: “Warning: children’s book”.
Without a “proper audience” in place to regulate who consumes which product, there is no “parental supervision” and no “suggested rating” — these are only temporary situations which will fade quickly, while the products remain solid.
The result is that we end up with a lot of copies of these books and games, they become pervasive, and, by this pervasiveness, tomorrow’s readers will assume these things are of value. Kids and adults will both read Harry Potter and play GTA, because they are fun.
This is the responsibility that most champions remain unaware of. Are these the things you want to see on the library bookshelf? If getting kids to read is a good thing, is Harry Potter the kind of reading you want to encourage? Personal taste aside, aren’t there more memorable and more meaningful books out there?
And for the GTA defenders, this will only lead to more games oriented around sex and violence. It doesn’t matter what the critics and watchdogs say; having a copy of this game on your shelf is a stronger endorsement than any amount of parental supervision can overcome.
We all want our opinions to be heard and considered. Yet when we listen to other people’s opinions we consider them collectively. You can’t have an opinion about every book and every game, because no one has enough time to examine every one of them. So we’re forced to accept the collective opinion on these things. In the case of both Harry Potter and GTA, the collective opinion says “thumbs up, we recommend it.” Special conditions mentioned by individuals — “but not for children” — get lost in the mix.

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