I’ve played several of offerings of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and enjoyed them. I recently had the chance to play (very briefly), but more importantly watch people play the latest incarnation, “San Andreas” (the official web site seems dead right now). Of course, San Andreas is the poster-game for those opposing graphic violence and sex in video games. As well it should be. Not only have graphics become more lifelike — positively cinematic when compared to “the day” — but Rockstar Games has made the intelligent move of not only allowing you to do the things you always tried to do in games (blow up and kill everything), but encourage it. Place this alongside a set of narrative missions that cast you very much as part of a criminal underclass, and you have, to take up the call of the game-banners, a how-to guide for future gang members.
I’ve always been very skeptical of those who decry the negative impact of violence in video games. However, I think they have cried wolf so many times that parents who are not gamers may not realize just how bad some of these games get. I’m not a parent, but just as I was shocked when we saw 8-year-olds at the premier of “Kill Bill 2,” I wonder if parents have any idea what San Andreas is about. I do, and if I had kids who were 12 or 14, I would still probably buy it, but recently watching two 14-year-old boys play left me stunned.
One of the more maligned features of the game is the ability to pick up prostitutes and have sex in a car. The two 14-year-olds playing had a chance to do this. The first (to whom the game belonged), picked up a prostitute on the street, then pulled into an alleyway, largely at the prodding of the second boy. The camera angle drops so that you cannot see in the windows of the car, while the car bounces up and down for a few seconds. (Graphic depictions of dismembering a passerby with a chainsaw are fine, but we wouldn’t want to see sex.) The prostitute gets out of the car, as does the player character. The player moves around to the far side of the car and switches his weapon to a knife; as the boy playing explains, “not worth the bullet.” The character grabs the prostitute from behind, and slits her throat. As many have suggested, the game encourages this act because you can collect the money the prostitute is carrying. However, the player has all the money and points (and cheat codes) he needs, and gets back in the car to leave.
The other player is less experienced. He doesn’t own GTA-SA, but he does own other violent first-person shooters. This strikes me as strange given that he comes from (from my perspective) a strongly religious household. He also plays in a church band.
He enters a neighborhood when there are women loitering on a corner. He pulls in front of them to invite them into the car. They don’t enter. (Apparently he is unaware that he needs to press right-arrow to invite them into the car.) He pulls out, turns around, and shoots them as he drives by, saying “That’ll teach you skinny bitches for not getting in my car.”
For whatever reason, the first instance bothers me less than the second, perhaps most of all because of what I would expect from the two kids. The first can be a bit of a brat (like me), and seems well versed with some of the seedy sides of media generally. But the second, while certainly not an innocent, clearly leads a more sheltered life — at least in other areas (music, movies, etc.). Admittedly, I don’t know either of them well, but I found it disquieting.
Some of the enjoyment in GTA comes of the transgression of norms. A large group of people ranging in age from these teens up through folks in their fifties wandered through and watched the game for a while. Many were transfixed by the great range of actions and novel situations in the game, and also with the kind of thrill of seeing depicted — and for the players, somehow engaging in — an act that is absolutely forbidden in real life. I think this is why there is particular entertainment in killing police characters. These kids have grown up in white suburbia, and most likely have relatives who work in some capacity in law enforcement. They hold no particular animosity toward the police. And yet, the game gives them a chance to play at committing evil. I’m generally not that opposed to this.
Had the two approaches to the prostitutes happened without the ad libbed comments from the kids, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. But it was the clear case of the character and the player leaking into one another that turned my stomach. As with all media, we know that video games (a) do not “cause” people to do things, but (b) do have an effect of some sort. I wonder, and worry, what effect this has on kids, particularly if it is the primary or sole source of information they receive about crime, poverty, and violence.
The only solution I see as reasonable is to encourage parents to play the games with their kids. Clearly, this is a game that has been made and marketed for adults, and it is a brilliant game. But, just as clearly, kids are going to play it. I’ve never really understood games and media that are only for kids, and it strikes me that “adult-only” entertainment is equally difficult to produce. I certainly don’t think that the game should be banned. But I do think that somehow parents should be, you know, in loci parentis. I have no idea of how to make this happen, though.