This 'Bully' Isn't So Tough

Jimmy, right, must decide whether to stand up to bullies in the controversial new video game.
Jimmy, right, must decide whether to stand up to bullies in the controversial new video game. (Rockstar Games)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

As it turns out, "Bully" isn't really a bully after all.

And with today's release of the video game, Rockstar Games, the reigning bad boy of the industry, seems to have paid a visit to the guidance counselor.

When Rockstar announced that it was developing a game starring "a troublesome schoolboy" last year, controversy arrived on cue. This is Rockstar, the guys who dreamed up "Grand Theft Auto," a top-selling series featuring plenty of gore and guns.

Before "Bully" got anywhere near the shelves, CNN's Lou Dobbs said it was "another disturbing example of our culture in decline." Ronald Moten of the Peaceoholics, a Washington-based nonprofit, took a busload of teens and picketed Rockstar's headquarters in New York. The British House of Commons weighed in, condemning the company. Florida lawyer Jack Thompson, the most vocal -- and vitriolic -- opponent of violent games, declared the upcoming title a "Columbine simulator" and last week persuaded a Florida circuit court judge to review the game's action.

The $39.99 PlayStation 2 game is expected to be one of the holiday season's blockbusters. It follows a year in the life of a young toughie named Jimmy Hopkins, who gets dropped off at a boarding school as Mom leaves for her fifth honeymoon. Jimmy finds jocks and preppies at Bullworth Academy, of course, and soon meets bullies predictably picking on nerds. Think of the book "Catcher in the Rye" with a dash of John Hughes humor and the cattiness of the movie "Mean Girls" thrown in. The game, rated T for ages 13 and older, is about climbing -- and navigating -- the social ladder at school. When a chubby kid with owl glasses nicknamed Pee Stein gets hassled, Jimmy can either leave Pee alone or get in a scuffle to save him. And guess what Jimmy does?

In the "Grand Theft Auto" games, rated M for mature and AO for adults only, players can mow down cops and pedestrians with abandon. In "Bully," Jimmy relies on such classic moves as giving wedgies, firing a slingshot and dunking someone's head in the toilet. He can slug someone with a baseball bat, but it breaks after a few swings.

"You're not a wizard in a dungeon. You're not a gangster in the ghetto. You're somebody we've all been -- a kid in school. How universal is that?" asked Jeronimo Barrera, the lead producer of "Bully" and a Rockstar veteran. Barrerra used his own personal history as inspiration. He's 34, an '80s kid, a guy who worshiped at the altar of the Hughes classic "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." When he was in the seventh grade at A.P. Giannini Middle School in the Sunset District of San Francisco, he used to fight off "the punk kid" who would steal his friend Robert's "Dungeons & Dragons" book. Robert was in a wheelchair.

"Jimmy is a cool kid," said Barrera. "He's kind of endearing."

Endearing? From Rockstar? This is like hearing Marilyn Manson tell you to eat your peas.

Some longtime fans of Rockstar, who have seen the game's demos on and blogged about it on fan sites, see "Bully" as the electronic equivalent of beating a punching bag in the basement. A way to remember those gloriously painful (and often embarrassing) high school days. Therapeutic, even.

As 18-year-old John Sherman, a Rockstar fan from Suitland, puts it: "Who hasn't been bullied or been a bully?"

"This isn't the game that people expected from Rockstar. Everyone expected 'Grand Theft Auto' meets high school," said John Davison, editorial director of the 1Up Network, a game company. " 'Bully' seems much more intimate. It's about interaction. The way those individual interactions -- talking with the preps, fighting with the bullies, befriending the nerds -- can affect the game." The focus on relationships is "a step ahead for Rockstar, I think," he said.

Just as in real high school, Jimmy makes some choices that bring adverse consequences. Skip class, and a chorus of adults will chide you. Stay out past curfew, and you run out of energy. Befriend the nerds, and you'd better be prepared to fend off the bullies.

Some game analysts have speculated that Rockstar backpedaled after steady pressure from a variety of critics, including Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Last year, the senators decried the company when a hidden sex scene was discovered in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," which went on to sell nearly 8 million units.

But "Bully" was in development for three years, said Rockstar spokesman Rodney Walker, with designers eager to focus on the intricacies, humor and irony of campus life.

"The game's title is 'Bully.' The setting is a school. The medium is games. Of course it was going to get a lot of heat," said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "But the fact that it's been so heavily assailed before anyone has ever seen it is the most significant thing about it. No one who's assailing it could have considered the game in its entirety -- what it's trying to do; what it's trying to say; is it any good? The fact is, bullying is a subject explored in fiction, in films. It's not much of a surprise that someone would take the topic up in games."

On Friday, Florida Judge Ronald Friedman dismissed Thompson's complaint about "Bully" as public nuisance. After he watched someone play it, Friedman concluded: "There's a lot of violence. A whole lot. [But] less than we see on television every night."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company