Monday, August 11, 2008

The Evils of Video Games

Back a few years ago a video game came out to great fanfare and controversy. The game’s developer, long accustomed to controversy, actually pulled the game off the racks and re-tooled it to meet the demands of Christian consumer advocates and avoid lawsuits. When the modified game reappeared on shelves a few months later the player could no longer engage in such horrible activities while playing the game.

The game was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. With the modified version the player could no longer access a mini-game that required a Game Shark for the PS2 or Xbox version or modifying the code in the PC version that had a DDR-style button pushing rhythm game thingy for when the main character had sex with his girlfriend (I have one of the pre-modification versions of the game, by the way. I’ve never bothered nor cared to even attempt to access this mini game because it’s just so friggin’ stupid). You can, however, still shoot thousands of people, beat dudes to death with baseball bats, hire prostitutes, and, oh, yeah, have sex with your girlfriends, just without being able to make it in to a stupid rhythm game.

Anyway, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve been a fan of the GTA series since GTA II. (Funny story: I was introduced to GTA II by a girlfriend. She thought the game was great. Meanwhile, I had a new sound system installed in my car and was proudly showing it to her and her first [and only, as I recall] comment about it was to register her disappointment with my choice of radio presets because there wasn’t a damn bit of Christian music on any of them. There has to be some sort of life lesson in that). I didn’t so much care for GTA III, but that’s probably because I’d already played GTA: Vice City and the latter was superior in every possible way. I also recently bought an Xbox 360 pretty much specifically to play GTA IV. I’ll probably toss Call of Duty 4 and maybe BioShock in there, but, dagnabit, I wanted to play GTA IV. Either way, here’s a far from exhaustive list of illegal and immoral things I’ve done in Grand Theft Auto games:

  • Caused massive pileups on freeways, then thrown a grenade in to the middle to make everything explode.
  • Driven on sidewalks to run over screaming pedestrians.
  • Strafed random pedestrians.
  • Sniped random pedestrians.
  • Shot people through the windshields of their cars to steal said cars.
  • Hired prostitutes, then killed them to get my money back.
  • Gunned down hundreds, if not thousands, of police officers.
  • Gotten up to a three-star wanted level simply to shoot down police helicopters.
  • Gunned down hundreds, if not thousands, of rival gang members.
  • Broken in to houses, killed the occupants, and stolen their TVs and stereos.
  • Beat hobos to death with baseball bats on beaches.
  • Stolen warplanes, tanks, and attack helicopters, used them to shoot anything that moves.
  • Dealt drugs.
  • Stolen cars (duh).
  • Done about 100 MPH on crowded city streets.
  • Run over motorcyclists for the fun of it.
  • Intentionally rammed other vehicles.
  • Run stoplights.
  • Blasted through toll booths without paying.

Here’s list of similar things I’ve done in real life:

  • Driven over the speed limit.
  • Rolled a few stop signs.
  • This one time I was at a red light and I went straight on the arrow. I wasn't paying enough attention.

There is totally a point to all of this. Millions of copies of GTA have shipped. Every time a new one comes out someone is out there calling it the sign of the downfall of western civilization. Then someone, somewhere, will wander in to a school or a church or a shopping mall, pull out a shotgun and start blasting away. Correlation being the same thing as causation and all, those same watchdogs of humanity will then say, “Ah ha! We were right all along.”

Interestingly enough, everyone I've talked to who has played Grand Theft Auto games has a similar story to this one:

I was walking down the sidewalk one night in college after I’d been playing a bunch of San Andreas. There was a motorcycle parked on the sidewalk. I looked at it and thought, “There’s nothing stopping me from stealing that.” Then I kept walking, mostly because there were plenty of reasons for me to not steal that motorcycle. It didn’t matter how much Grand Theft Auto I had played, I wasn’t about to start mimicking it.

Meanwhile, we had violent, horrible, evil deeds long before Rockstar Games came in to existence. Hell, watching people fight to the death in real life was once a major form of entertainment. I highly doubt there are too many people I know today who could stomach a good, old fashioned day of gladiator games, even if they’ve watched the movie Gladiator a bunch of times and played a lot of Grand Theft Auto.

In fact, and I’m sure this will get me in a hell of a lot of trouble with all the moral watchdogs out there, I’d be willing to bet the popularity of Grand Theft Auto is a good sign for society. The thing is, while we’re sitting around shooting pixels on a television, we’re not out shooting real people on the street. Humans are violent. We’ve always been violent and probably always will be violent. Society actually increases the possibilities for violence because we’re always so damn close to one another. I would actually say it’s a good thing that we’re channeling violence to non-existent people.

Meanwhile, that one person who uses Grand Theft Auto to justify opening fire in a crowded mall overshadows the millions who couldn’t imagine doing such a thing. But it’s much more convenient to find a quick and easy, headline-grabbing scapegoat than to admit that, at our core, we are capable of being horrible people. No one wants to admit that, given the right conditions, they could be the Columbine shooters, the Virginia Tech shooter, or something much worse. So the, “The Devil Made Me Do It,” defense is adopted, sometimes by the perpetrators but often by the jackass publicity seekers.

I also think it’s interesting to consider the things that do not and cannot happen in a Grand Theft Auto game. There are no children in GTA games, there never have been and there probably never will be (now, there is Rockstar’s similar Bully, aka Grand Theft Auto: High School, but no one dies and the gratuitous blood spatter isn’t in that game). There is no rape. Although the violence is pretty much 98% gratuitous, it’s not grotesque. You can’t, say dismember and defile a corpse.

Moreover, the story lines themselves are evolving. GTA III doesn’t really have too much in the way of character development, as Claude is mute, and I can’t say much for the two Stories games, but Vice City, San Andreas, and GTA IV have interesting storylines.

In Vice City, you’re Tommy Vercetti, a mobster from Liberty City who has been sent to Vice City by your boss and abandoned after a drug deal gone bad. Tommy is pretty much a scoundrel with no redeeming qualities beyond his acerbic wit and kickass Hawaiian shirt. In San Andreas you’re Carl Johnson, a gangbanger who was recently released from jail. All CJ wants to do is get back with his family and friends, but a rival gang, a crooked cop, and a turncoat make that pretty much impossible.

In GTA IV you’re Niko Bellic, a former soldier in an eastern European country of some sort looking for a better life in Liberty City and a chance to hide from some people who want you dead. In one of the cutscenes before a mission another character asks Niko if he’s worried about his soul. He responds, “When you walk in to a village and see fifty children neatly lined up against the church wall with their hands cut off and their throats cut, you realize that the people who could do this have no soul.” It’s a nuance that was lacking in previous games in the series: that idea of what seeing true violence and evil can do to a person.

I’m actually beginning to wonder if the social watchdogs actually have everything backwards. As we’ve gone from the cartoony overhead of GTA II to the, “Holy crap, that rain really looks like rain,” of GTA IV, I think Rockstar has managed to make more real, more empathetic characters. Although Carl Johnson and Niko Bellic’s worlds are fascinating and exciting, I find that I’m happy I don’t have to live in them and can come and go as I please.

The weird thing, too, is that GTA IV is just such a beautiful looking game that I derive as much pleasure from jumping in to a car and driving around to see the world in the TV as I do from watching the really cool explosions. I was playing yesterday and there was a point when I walked out of the safehouse, rotated the camera and just kind of went, “Whoa,” as I saw the view down the block. Earlier on I’d walked out of a building and in to the middle of a thunderstorm that looked like a real thunderstorm.

Maybe that’s the sort of thing that can contribute to absorption and confusion between fantasy and reality. Maybe it is a slippery slope. But maybe, instead, it’s the sort of thing that will contribute to a much better appreciation for the world we actually live in and a much-needed release valve to help us avoid treating our world like Niko has to treat his.


Fiat Lex said...

In Elizabethan times it was licentious theaters, a century ago it was trashy novels. And I'm sure in caveman days the elders (who had survived all the way into their late twenties!) would grumble that the kids were too interested in playing stupid games with their twigs and leaves which took their minds off foraging.

:D Thanks for incorporating my favorite GTA rant subject in there--no rape, no children, no animals. However realistic they make the weather, you can't change the fact that when the "corpses" of the dead sprites gradually vanish into the sidewalk, you know there was no other interaction possible with them. Simply part of that imaginary universe.

My favorite thing to do in San Andreas was to drive CJ off cliffs. (Which, as Dave pointed out when you brought over your Xbox, will be harder for me to do in GTA IV, with its massively urban environment.) It was a source of some painful amusement to my dad, who was an avid motorcyclist himself in his day. All I'd have to do would be to land CJ on his head with the motorcycle on top after jumping over a small building, and he'd wince and graphically describe the injuries which a real person would suffer to the spine, skull and limbs if they attempted such a feat.

That a big part of why I play videogames--and most other people too. Taking out our frustration with the world, and with ourselves, in an environment where we know the only thing that will be harmed is little blobs of color. These games have to be over-the-top in order to help us achieve suspension of disbelief.

I know even with the milder and more "inoffensive" games, I would get frustrated and run my little Mario or Donkey Kong or Sonic over the same cliff over and over, or intentionally impale them on spikes or drown them. Out of pure spite, not because it made a kickass explosion or let me test the "laws of physics" in the game or showed me a new angle on cool scenery. In a way, killing yourself repeatedly in a rich, textured game like GTA is less emotionally harmful than doing it in a smaller game, and a better way to relieve frustration with yourself. "Aw, I can't stay mad at you after that beautiful action sequence!" Much better, to my mind than "Yeah, count 'em down and drown again, you stupid little blue ball of spikes, that's what your worthless jumping ability gets you!"

big a said...

"Yeah, count 'em down and drown again, you stupid little blue ball of spikes, that's what your worthless jumping ability gets you!"

This cat's got claws! :P

Fiat Lex said...

XD It's not that I hate Sonic more than other videogame characters, just that I suck more at using him.

Geds said...

Lex: Thanks for incorporating my favorite GTA rant subject in there--no rape, no children, no animals.

Um, personally, I'm in favor of the general lack of children and rape. I could go either way on animals, as plenty of games involve killing them in one capacity or another.

Big A:

Dude, that's just creepy. Thanks.

Fiat Lex said...

You've heard this "rant", Geds. It's about the NON-evilness of GTA. Things that are truly, soul-rippingly evil are wherever possible excluded. CJ doesn't even do drugs, and has little patience with them that do!

Since the same group of civilian sprites is repeated over and over in each city, I like to imagine them all re-spawning at their houses, same way CJ re-spawns at the hospital. And then they get to go wander the sidewalks and say nonsensical things to one another until it's time to dive in front of another car. It's like an action-movie version of Purgatory.

Though I think Dana Carvey had the best idea: make a Hospital videogame where you have to fix all the people who got gruesomely killed in other videogames. It'd be like MASH without any of the wisecracks.

Geds said...

Oh, that rant.

Sorry. I think I parsed your comment backwards...