21 July 2005

Grand Theft Auto - What is Really Being Revealed?

Without a celebrity-trial-of-the-week, the hulabaloo emanating from south of the border concerns a hack to a popular video game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, that reveals explicit sex scenes. The presence of these scenes has triggered presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton (who presumably knows a thing or two about the effects of illicit sex scenes) to call for Congressional hearings into the matter, and the Entertainment Ratings Software Board to slap an Adults Only rating on the game, effectively removing it from the shelves at retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

The simple answer to what this reveals is that gratuitous violence is acceptable in the U.S., but gratuitous sex is not - it's a shame that murder and mayhem aren't considered original sins. (In point of fact, a careful reading of Genesis reveals that indeed, among the original sins were murder and mayhem - think of Cain and Abel; the first commandment given to man and woman was "go forth and multiply," and God wasn't talking about the times tables! But I digress...)

A more subtle examination of the effects - or messages - of the medium, "hulabaloo over GTA:SA," is more instructive of the environmental conditions of the culture in question. Today's wars are often fought via a "video game" style interface. Bush-the-elder's Iraq war was indeed the "video game war," with its iconic video image of the smart bomb going down the chimney. Footage of Bush-the-younger's Iraq war is often in "first-person-shooter" style, with the images as seen through night vision goggles casting a cyber-realistic hue to the battlefields. In fact, the U.S. military currently uses war simulation video games as a regular part of their training for contemporary soldiers.

Thus, the carnage of Grand Theft Auto provides perfect conditioning for America's youth in preparation for becoming a soldier. After becoming inured to on-screen violence in cyber-experience, it is a small leap to on-screen violence that is enacted in the battlefield. On the other hand, (consensual) sex is life-affirming; it is the antithesis of war, death and destruction. The vicarious experience of bombs and bloodshed are good preparation for a war zone. A vicarious blowjob, apparently, is not.

There are many indications that the first decade of the 21st century is retrieving the 1960s (and earlier). In the mid-60s, the slogan of a nascent anti-war movement was "make love, not war." This, of course, is the last thing that the current U.S. administration wants people to hear.


Tony Walsh said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the interesting post (and congrats on the blog move). I am not generally in favour of children being exposed to video game violence, and I also believe that game violence can be desensitizing. This being said, I think you're off the mark in saying GTA is an example of "perfect conditioning."

GTA:SA, until recently, was rated Mature (it is now rated Adults Only). It is a game that is not meant for children. Obviously children play the game, but that's the fault of bad parents and profit-hungry retailers. GTA is not intended as a means to condition youth, otherwise it would have been rated Teen, like the recruitment game "America's Army." America's Army is designed to interest teens in the US Army. It is far more "perfect" a conditioner than GTA in this respect.

GTA features game play that is not conducive to military conditioning. GTA is best decribed as a "sand box" style of game. Players are not forced to follow a specific path, and in fact, many people enjoy touring the virtual landscape as a pastime, ignoring the "goals" of the game. A more "perfect" conditioner would reinforce a male-dominated heirarchy and enforce rigid game play--following orders and instructions would not only be rewarded, but be a mandatory part of progression through the game. Like America's Army. GTA fails in this regard.

Lastly, there are some who will argue that GTA is not a game about violence at all--much like a game like Frogger isn't about dodging traffic, a game like Pitfall isn't about jumping over crocodiles, and a game like Tetris isn't about catching bricks. GTA is about exploration, strategy, problem-solving, and tourism (among other things). Frogger and Pitfall are about small, repeated accomplishments. Tetris is about organization and cleaning up. The satisfaction in playing these games isn't generally in the details, but that's where the general public gets hung up. GTA makes for sensational, disgusting screenshots. Sex and violence sell. But that's not why most gamers are attracted to it.

A much better vehicle for turning our youth into warmongers is sport. Football, rugby, and soccer feature opposing sides, leaders, followers, strategies and tactics. I'd argue a football fan would be a much better soldier than a GTA player. Desensitization to violence is secondary to ingraining an understanding of warfare's foundations.

Mark Federman said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Tony. On the whole, I tend to agree with your observations concerning what the various games are "about." And certainly it is true that sport is a surrogate (and preparation) for war, just as war has become sport - witness the Sunday-afternoon-football-like colour commentary that was common during the first phase of the current Iraq war.

As you point out that the essence of GTA is exploration, strategy, problem solving and tourism, given the changing nature of urban-situated warfare that was characteristic of, for example, Somalia, and certainly Bagdhad, Faluja, et al., GTA may well be quite an appropriate pre-training exercise for the would-be recruit.

Tony Walsh said...

Blast, defeated by my own argument! You've made a good point about GTA's non-overtly-warlike attributes laying the foundation for modern urban warfare. I think there are much better military training games out there, though. In addition to the official America's Army, there's also "Full Spectrum Warrior" which was designed not only for training real soldiers, but also as a commercial video game (we can suppose for indoctrinating civilians). In my experience, GTA doesn't sell war. Games with real-world war settings (and over the last 3 years there have been a glut of games based on real-world conflicts) do a much better job of sexing up the military.

With game based on real-world warfare, players can experience what actual military weapons, vehicles and situations are like (from the perspective of the game designers). That's where military-sponsored games have been very successful. In making teens think they could shoot the real gun or pilot the real tank. And that doing so would be both easy and fun. In my experience, GTA is more likely to sell a teen on the bands featured on the soundtrack, but not so much a trip to Baghdad.

I think you have very valid concerns, but I wanted to offer some elaboration on GTA and wargames from the perspective of a seasoned game player.

Rock on,