Glenn's Junk Chest

An assortment of Glenn's writings, photography, gaming resources, flash movies, and other creative output.


Thursday, November 25, 2004

Video Games: Grand Theft Auto

...without the context, that game is “having sex with hookers and killing them” in the same way that “Romeo and Juliet” is just a call for teen suicide.
-- David Thomas, DenverPost.com


Every year, there's a list published of video games that someone like the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility considers too violent. They insist this list is important because games are mismarketed, misrated, sold to children despite being rated "M", and generally a bane to civilization as a whole. Questioning how they arrived at the list reveals that they haven't actually played them and that their real motivation is to see all of these games removed from retail shelves and relegated to the tawdry obscurity of porn-like adult-only outlets, regardless of other factors. I scoff at the list, and find the organization's motivations questionable, if not downright repressive, and thus offensive.

CJ and Ryder
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, however, is an interesting case. It's the newest title in the GTA lineup, and of all the games I own, it's the only one I restrict myself to playing after the kids are in bed. One doesn't have to look very far to see the merits of this policy. It's violent, and encourages disrespect of rule of law. In its attempt to depict urban culture, it's characters unquestionably reveal racism and sexism. The language used by the characters is so profane that I cringe to think of my children hearing it, much less repeating it.

It's also prurient entertainment, giving the player a vicarious thrill by allowing them to do wrong with little or no boundaries. This is the main source of appeal to the game, the ultimate empowerment that makes the game feel so compelling. When you first sit down with it, you feel like you can do anything. Unfortunately, those social and legal boundaries are important for children to learn, and the false sense of security they provide is important for children to feel safe. (For example, they're the only thing that keeps people from entering your house when you're not there. The physical barriers are laughably easy to bypass. Heck, my house has hollowcore wooden front door, no deadbolt, and a picture window in front.)

In short, the game sets a poor example.

Immersive Environments
On the other hand, it does contain a lot of extremelly interesting social commentary, even social satire. It offers a glimpse of the future of computer simulation, creating a rich gameworld where you can go almost anywhere, do almost anything, in essence interact with a fantasy environment and lead a fantasy life, at least for a few hours at a stretch. It's extremely satisfying in that sense.

The protagonist is an African American, and the depictions of racism and sexism in the game make the experience seem more real, and thus the immersion in the fantasy more complete. Something about the interactive nature of the game makes this disturbing, but I can't quite put my finger on why it's ethically distinguishable from, say, reading a book with an urban African American protagonist. Furthermore, since the game is designed for you to empathsize with that protagonist, I'm not sure what the net impact of the title is on the worldview of the player.

I guess for grownups, I'd say the game is probably a guilty pleasure without too much evil attached. For kids whose worldview is still in formation, I'd say keep them far, far away.

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