I’ve played all the Grand Theft Auto games (yes, even the original) and I often thought the media reaction to them was largely misguided. Except in those very few people already on a psychological edge (in which case anything might trigger them), computer games do not make us overcome the deep taboos we have about violence. Characters like Keith Vaz might pop up on the news to play some cheap gesture politics but they're wrong to say that computer games make us more violent than the games I played as a child when buying a spud gun for a young boy was as normal as buying him a football.
Last week Grand Theft Auto 5 was finally released and I was surprised that the media were so outraged about a torture scene. I couldn't help but feel that the media again got it so very wrong. Only this time it’s because there’s much more about this game that deserves censure.
Having now seen and played GTA5, I have to admit that I’m worried. I’ve never seen such a well-crafted game so utterly ruined by unneeded sensationalism and a pervasive and deeply crass vulgarity. I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, though, of course, isn’t that what prudes usually say? So perhaps I am a prude. And if I am a prude, it’s because I worry about the intellectual, moral, and emotional development of any child spending hundreds of hours in such a bleak and twisted world.
Speaking to a teacher the other day, I discovered that her school had noticed a drop in attendance the day that GTA5 was released. She even told me that many of her students had already warned her that they wouldn’t be in because they wanted to spend their day in Los Santos (the game’s thinly disguised version of Los Angeles). Now, I’m not such a stickler for education that it bothered me that kids do that. I’d prefer it if our youth made choices on their own and learned to live with the consequences. School has become a way for the state to teach us to conform and real education happens despite of school, not because of it.
Yet GTA5 is making me question my own liberal attitudes towards censorship and ratings. But let me be clear. It’s not the violence that offends me as much as the quality of life portrayed in the game. So much about the game is needlessly graphic. Take a few examples which might sound trivial when taken separately when what I’m trying to condemn is the total overwhelming ethos of the game... Within minutes of my playing the game I was listening to a radio broadcast describing two women engaged in what is more politely described as ‘water sports’. Many of the incidents in the game are also highly sexualised: one mini-game involves closing pornographic pop ups as they appear on a computer screen. Outside the building was a huge poster advertising ‘cougars’ (a term for older women who enjoy the company of younger men). It depicts a middle aged woman on her hands and knees, her breasts drooping like giant teardrops. One of the main characters is introduced screwing a woman (from behind). Another side mission involves a motorbike chasing a car but it begins with a character telling your protagonist that ‘you’re only here to suck ****’. I haven’t even bothered going into the strip joints… And then there’s the music... Even the music seems deliberately chosen to offend. Previous games had great but sometimes eclectic music mixed in with the popular. It even had Philip Glass alongside rap and hip hop and hits from the 60s. That meant that you could always skip through the music to find something to your taste. Perhaps I’m just older. Perhaps I’ve fallen unlucky in that game has no music I like. Yet there’s a difference between music I dislike and music that makes me wince.
There are few lyrics less family-friendly than Nick Cave’s ‘Henry Lee’ (a favourite of mine) but it’s a song I don’t listen to often because that stuff gets inside your brain. The music in GTA5, however, is wall-to-wall ‘fuck you’ this and ‘motherfucker’ that. The gameplay mechanic means that you’re constantly switching between cars, all playing different radio stations, so it’s hard not to suddenly find yourself listening to something that makes you pause the game to change.
The dialogue surrounding the music is also depressingly lowbrow, deeply sexualised and informed by the worst kinds of pornography. I’ve seen the ads on TV and I’m surprised they found snippet of dialogue suitable to broadcast. Yet my complaint isn’t that these elements shouldn’t be in the game. My problem is that these elements have entirely taken over the game and aren’t executed with any degree of real humour or even sauciness. Grand Theft Auto used to be the thinking man’s Saint’s Row (a game that ripped off the GTA formula but with more of a juvenile need to cause offence) but now it has chosen to adopt that Saint’s Row sensibility. Playing the game is like being stuck in the mind of a 15 year old boy and it’s every bit as bad as that sounds.
Probably the worst elements of the game involve the game’s black protagonist, Franklin Clinton. My white liberal consciousness has trouble processing these segments of the game which portrays the black experience as being almost entirely negative, racist, and deeply prejudicial. As a white liberal I’m already troubled by any use of the ‘n’ word but I’m also troubled by my being troubled by the ‘n’ word. It annoys me when I can’t use it, for example, when talking about a certain Joseph Conrad short story. Yet here, the patois of the black characters is laced with racial epithets which quickly become overwhelming.
I’m not sure I’m successfully raising my argument above the usual kind of crap spouted by members of the 'National Viewers' and Listeners'Association'. I don’t mind some element of these things in games, even if those younger than the age rating get to see them. Yet Grand Theft Auto 5 feels like a large plug has just been opened and our higher order thinking is being drained from beneath. It’s rated 18 but it’s being played by every boy upwards of 13 year old and, no doubt, probably many more much younger. The idea of children hanging around with these virtual characters is only slightly less worrying than if they were hanging out on the street corner with real gangsters, grifters, and products of the federal prison system.
It’s hard for me to equate my love for Derek and Clive, Richard Prior, Larry David, and The Thick of It with my reaction to hearing the language in GTA5 except there is a difference. The former use it to expose some absurdity about the world. GTA5 uses it to make us think that this is what the world is like. And that’s the problem. Swearing is a vital part of our linguistic machine. It allows us access to areas of the emotional register that are hard to reach with normal language. The new GTA doesn’t have emotional registers. Every other word is ‘motherfucker’, with use of the ‘n’ word so prolific that it’s impossible to justify. I’m well past my eighteenth, twenty eighth, and even thirty eighth birthdays and I have played computer games all my life. I also have a fairly liberal attitude to most things but every bone in my body tells me that this game is wrong.
For me, GTA5 is a struggle to enjoy alone, entirely unplayable in polite company, and a constant disappointment. Perhaps it exposes my own limits, the places where my taboos begin. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m getting old. Yet I hope my reaction to this is something that is shared by people of all ages because the game attempts to push back our cultural norms, degrades us as it tries to shock us. It doesn’t teach us what we are. By entertaining our youth, it is showing them the world they’ll create. And as much as I looked forward to playing this game, I don’t want to be part of that world. I don’t want to encourage the makers even as they become the richest among us by showing us the worst parts of ourselves.