Gangsta tutorial

Matt Johanson is a high-school social-studies and journalism teacher and co-author of the upcoming book Giants, Where Have You Gone?

I picked up some bad habits lately: running over pedestrians for their pocket money and blowing up cops with a rocket launcher. But running my chop shop has sharpened my business skills, and you should see my chiseled biceps.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the popular new carjacking game, outrages parents and politicians because it nurtures every evil impulse you’ve ever (or never) had.

CJ, the player character, starts with easy, bloodless missions, like tagging churches. Later, he graduates to gorier challenges, like stealing a harvesting combine from a survivalist camp and grinding the survivalists through it before delivering the machine to a marijuana farmer.

Previous Grand Theft Auto games let players hire prostitutes to gain health points. San Andreas lets you make money by pimping the prostitutes yourself.

Games that glorify prostitution, gangs and realistic violence can’t be good for kids. But since they’re playing anyway, it’s nice that San Andreas imparts several pieces of healthy and practical advice.

For example, CJ has to exercise and eat well to stay fit. To complete certain missions, he must build his strength by working out in a gym and swimming. Players get this valuable lesson for only a few dozen hours of sedentary television-screen gazing and a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

The game offers relationship tips when CJ dates his girlfriends: A progress meter rewards him for giving them flowers and penalizes him for kissing them too soon. Never mind that Denise wants to perform drive-by shootings on every date and that Catalina considers armed robbery to be sexual foreplay.

CJ also learns about fashion (by wearing gang colors), vocational skills (by robbing banks and trains) and career networking (when you earn enough respect points, you can command other gang members in turf wars).

Maybe these points are a small consolation, but they will have to do, because San Andreas and its like are not going away. This teacher can verify that kids had the game within nanoseconds of its October release. “Mature”-rated games scare them off about as much as R-rated movies.

They may not do their homework, but at least they’re reading something: the 272-page illustrated strategy guide. As CJ would say, “Gangsta for life!”