GTA V: A brief review and some thoughts

Everyone has been playing Grand Theft Auto V lately. Though I didn’t get a chance to try it until this morning, and only for an hour or so, I’ve seen and heard quite a bit about it. It looks like they hit this one out of the park: GTA 4 was a colossal bore because it tried to go in a gritty and realistic direction that’s antithetical to what the series is about. The earlier GTA games were cartoonish. This new instalment appears to have struck just the right balance—realistic, non-stylized graphics and designs, but plenty of colour. It’s clear this is a world you’re supposed to have fun in.

So my abbreviated verdict on GTA V is: get it. That’s not what this article is about, though, because statistically speaking you probably have it already.

Earlier this week there was a conversation around the office about GTA V. One of my colleagues asked why anyone would want to play it. “It’s so violent and misogynistic,” she said.

“Of course it is,” goes the obvious answer of conventional wisdom, “That’s the point. That’s why people buy it.”

But why is violence and misogyny not just acceptable, but a selling point? I am aware of all the arguments against Jack Thompson, and I think we can consider the legal battle there largely won. But over time I’ve become increasingly aware that saying something is legal is faint praise. If playing GTA is legal, all that means is that armed men won’t prevent you from doing it. That doesn’t mean you should do it. Over and above the argument of whether violent games ought to be censored is the argument of whether we ought to play them at all, or whether we as rational and compassionate adults should willfully abstain from them. This argument is a great deal more complex and cannot be solved with slogans or preconceived notions. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to think.

There are two arguments that I think might have some merit to them, though of course I’d have to see them worked out in more detail to know for sure. One is that violent games are a kind of purging ritual. The deepest, darkest parts of ourselves—the parts that believe on some level it would be hilarious to steal a car and drive it down a crowded sidewalk—find an outlet in absurdly violent video games. We make the violence into a joke, something harmless and unserious, something that is clearly a little bit of play, not a part of ourselves. In this way we tame it.

The other is that the violence, at least in GTA, is in the context of a DeLilloesque satire of American consumer culture. The in-game advertising and branding (for just one example, there’s a Home Depot-like hardware store called YouTool, which is a joke that works on many levels) emphasizes the unreality and futility of the game world, and in that world it seems more or less logical to drive down a crowded sidewalk. The developers are trying to make a point—and this is something that’s clearly been going on at least since Vice City and San Andreas.

It seems instinctively true to me that violent video games are not insidious (at least in most cases). However, I have no rigorously argued justification for this feeling. This is something I need to think about more, and that I’ve been meaning to write about more for a long time. I’m trying both of these arguments on for size for now, but at this point I’m not sure.

Any thoughts or criticisms?

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