With $800 million in sales on release day, Grand Theft Auto V has reached a monumental point in the history of gaming. Accompanying this flood of excitement is a deluge of gameplay videos from Instagram, Facebook, Reddit and similar sites of everything from walk-throughs, to videos of the game’s more questionable activities, like body-checking elderly women trying to attend church. The game faces a wave of criticism from media critics and politicians for its depiction of violence, but we risk encouraging censorship if we allow their ideas to dictate the content of our entertainment.
Internet images of starvation, conflict and disease are as trivial as morning coffee. Between the news and entertainment, the death of another human being has become an expected occurrence when we turn on the television. We are slipping into desensitization. Even as I write this, a man approached my friend and said, “The death toll in Kenya has reached 50.” The first thing that crossed his friend’s mind, and regrettably my mind as well, was his incorrect pronunciation of “Kenya,” not the death of 50 people. This is scary, but fear can propel illogical accusations.
Pundits and politicians have asked intimidating questions about violent video games. Do they encourage crime or apathy to it? For the sake of specificity, let’s focus on whether or not the Grand Theft Auto series perpetuates racist or misogynistic violence.
The answer is no. There are intuitions at work, such as media and religious groups, that promote unmerited fear and distrust of violent video games.
The way the game has been portrayed on the Internet and television is actually really impressive. Many of us are familiar with the depiction of prostitution in the game’s world. Here is a common phrase about the game: “Grand Theft Auto lets you kill prostitutes.”
It does. But prostitutes are not singled out. We forget that the game also allows us to kill homeless people, wealthy people, cops, criminals and even yourself. However, the media focuses the murderous aspect of these games on their victimization of vulnerable groups. We have localised the issue of violence in Grand Theft Auto by pretending the game encourages the murder of minorities, the less fortunate and women, when in (virtual) reality you can kill anyone. This is equality, even if built on a twisted foundation.
Like most gangster entertainment, Grand Theft Auto is set in a world full of sex and murder. The inclusion of prostitution is logical, distasteful as some find it. Likewise, its artistic premise is founded on the concept of a sandbox — any behaviour is permissible. Imagine how immersion-breaking it would be to see prostitutes walking around protected by a forcefield, or entirely omitted from an otherwise gritty and fallen world.
The game does not really punish the player for murdering prostitutes. But this freedom from consequences is prominent elsewhere. Radio programs in Liberty City mock obesity, players can kill cops, steal exotic car and rob banks without ever facing prison or permanent death. Liberty City, the game’s setting, represents a life free from repurcussions. But we choose to focus on, of all things, the ability to kill prostitutes.
The behaviour of non-player characters in Grand Theft Auto is consistent across race, gender and occupation. You are as likely to encounter a prostitute on the street as you are to encounter a businessman, a jogging mom or a pizza delivery boy. We cannot remove or protect characters in this virtual city without compromising the vision of violent mayhem the game was found on. The source of violence in video games and the reasons for their popularity are more complex and deserve a larger discussion than horrifying anecdotes about running over a prostitute in a car.
Grand Theft Auto is a sly dog. It is a world in which we can act upon our desires with no thought for the ramifications. People act erratically and function as playthings for the player character, who writes his or her own story. The game presents you with many possibilities but doesn’t advocate for any in particular. If my character slaughters the homeless, my actions do not make the game immoral. I am the one that decided to kill, and it’s my job to separate fiction from reality. When I turn off the television, it’s my job to recognize that I am in Calgary, I won’t respawn in the hospital and if I commit crimes the police will find me. Personal responsibility led me to play the game, and personal responsibility will represent my decisions when I cease playing.
There is no inherent aspect of Grand Theft Auto that dehumanizes particular groups. But the game is a vessel that channels the presumptions we bring from reality. The game’s popularity reflects this. Now, do we remove the in-game opportunities to act on prejudices, pretending they do not exist? No. We should attempt the difficult course and address the underlying fascination with violence plaguing our society, rather than blame the games that were inspired by them.