Saturday, November 19, 2011

Grand Theft Auto, Violence, and Alternative Media

    Time for another video game essay!

    Today's subject is Grand Theft Auto and its various clones. The games are pretty much distilled mayhem. The point of the game, obviously, is to steal as many cars as possible and trash them. Oh there's stories in-between the stealing  and crashing but I can't help it if it's my favorite part of the game. I can't tell you how many times I went riding around town at top speed, in the wrong lane, listening to Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N' Roses. It gets even better when there's fourteen or so cop cars chasing you.

    What does this say? If video games are a form of art, does it mean anything to us as an audience we prefer to play as criminals rather than the police? Does it encourage violence or does it discourage it--giving people an outlet for their frustrations? Does it mean nothing at all and it's simply pure entertainment, divorced from a larger context?

    The answer is, of course, all and none of the above.

    We are each individuals and the way art affects us is dependent on the person in question. That doesn't mean the question of whether a video game is too violent shouldn't be asked, it's, instead, a question about what level of responsibility we're willing to accept versus blaming someone else. People like Jack Thompson blame GTA for criminal activity but the truth is, we are the products of multiple influences. One of these influences, much to the annoyance of parents everywhere, is individual choice.

    I'm not going to say that media doesn't affect a person's behavior. Star Wars got me interested in religion and helped model who I wanted to be as I grew up. However, there's an interactive relationship between fiction and reality. A person who hungers for violence seeks out violent media, as often as not to squelch his urge for it as to enhance it. Certainly, in the wake of economic recession I find a lot of my anger deflated by seeing evil corporations get it in fiction--even if they're walking away scott free in the real world.

    One can also enjoy special effects for what they are. There was a scene in Highlander where the Kurgan goes on a wild car chase through downtown Manhattan, singing New York, New York. Damn if it wasn't the coolest scene in the movie (not involving music by Queen or sword-fights). Grand Theft Auto is one of the few games to really master the car chase and I would forgive much for this alone.

    But isn't this terrible? Is taking a rocket launcher given to you by a half-mad hippie and starting to wreck the majority of a downtown San Fransisc...err San Fierro wrong?

    If it is, I don't want to be right. I also haven't engaged in any wanton acts of violence in real life.


    What about playing the villain rather than the hero? Putting the player in the role of the bad guy versus the hero. Compared to Mario and Link, your average GTA protagonist is a pretty bad dude. Carl Johnson is a sociopath whose only saving grace is he loves his family. So is Tommy Vercetti (for some value of family) and Niko Bellic. Two out of the three may feel bad about killing, but they still do it. Worse, they get away with it. There's no forces of good to oppose our antiheroes, only worse evils. The police are corrupt, the politicians are satirical caricatures. Even the average citizen is rotten to the core.

    Let's face it, if the Grand Theft Auto world were real, it'd be close to hell on Earth.

    Except, it's not real.

     The characters in video games are completely fictitious. Their lives are as valuable as those of Alderaan's population. Given literally billions of people have watched said planet's explosion without a trace of trauma, there's something to be said for the idea the line between fiction and reality is firmer than people give it credit for.

    Action movies have, since the invention of film, gone out of their way to dehumanize the enemy. Star Wars is all about creating stock Nazis and faceless troopers for our heroes to kill. It took over a decade for someone to point out that there was probably a construction crew on the Second Death Star (thank you, Kevin Smith). The Grand Theft Auto series portrays a world of over-the-top violence overlaid with cartoonish  stories of sociopathic behavior.

    Really, I'm inclined to think these sorts of stories do more to discourage violence than anything else.  Propaganda exists for either recruitment or painting a real-life movement as good or bad but it's different from escapism. The Grand Theft Auto games are about putting on the hat of a criminal for a time and exploring what that means in the safety and security of our own homes.

    And that's okay.

    The point of fantasy is to getr away from what's mundane. To give people a chance to explore a different sort of life than they might normally posses. It's why so many stories about the Middle Ages are about Kings, Queens, and Knights. No one wants to be Dirt-Sowing Peasant 72#. They want to explore the glamor, glory, and wonder of a life which is interesting. Criminals, despite the tendency of their lives to be nasty, brutal, and short--are interesting. The games are a way of exploring that natural curiosity without getting us into any trouble.

    But Charles, you may ask, shouldn't we always play heroes? Why can't we play escapism where we're always in the right and everyone else is in the wrong?

    Because it's a bad idea.

    Spec Ops: The Line deconstructed the potentially dangerous attitude of video games which glorified being the hero and how it was much more problematic than the reverse. While I don't agree with it completely, it's easy to fall into the trap that morality is easy. Without naming names, plenty of shooters encourage their players to vilify real-life groups while taking comfort in their flag-waving righteousness. This makes me more uncomfortable than the belief GTA-players will decide to start joy-riding with other people's vehicles. Being a villain is easy, being a hero is a lot harder. Which is good. Because, God knows, I need a reminder of that when I steal a cement mixer so I can slam it off a rooftop into oncoming traffic.

    Ahem. In the game, I mean. Honest.

    Admittedly, there's something to be said that crime, violence, and corruption have a place in video games but not an unlimited one. That it's perfectly alright to play the bad guy but it's possible to go too far. I actually think these detractors have a point. It's possible in Vice City, as Jack Thompson would say, to take a baseball bat to hookers. Which, frankly, is just not cool. It's harmless, hurting nothing more than a bunch of free-floating pixels, but not cool.

     The question is what to do about it. For my part, I suggest nothing.

     The video game sequel to Scarface specifically prohibits the murder of civilians as a counter to these activities. Yet, there's a very good point that just because you can do something doesn't mean your average gamer will. You could make civilians indestructible and immortal in your video games but that's a band-aid the fact they're already playing criminals.

    In short, given these games are about artificial people who are about as meaningful as any other blip on a screen, the difference is a matter of taste rather than morality. Violence against the bytes of data onscreen doesn't matter save how the person playing chooses to react to it. We can't control that, though some uses of it will be disgusting or stomach churning. Some people's reaction to football is disgusting. That's life.

    In most cases, people will just do what's fun because it's fun. Not because it's illicit or forbidden. When something becomes genuinely disturbing, they'll put it down. If they don't, maybe it's not as dangerous as people think. I support ratings for video games, fully aware I watched more R-rated movies at age fourteen than I ever have watched as an adult. Violent media may have an affect on our children, just as it may have an affect on adults, but it's not going to be the deciding factor whether we turn out to be sociopaths or not.

    Otherwise, I would have been a killer the moment I finished watching Robocop for the 300th time.

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