If you’d start a religion today, would you ban or allow violent video games?
The reason why I ask, is that my sister gave me Grand Theft Auto V for my birthday. Playing it brought me back to my teenage years, when a big part of my worries could be narrowed down to the question: “how can I beat the next boss and get into the next level?”. It also helped me see this game for what it really is: a piece of art.
GTA V, not unlike earlier versions, has so many facets that it is hard to know where to begin talking about it. The game holds a tremendous amount of possibilities: you can shoot down people in the street, do some yoga, blow up busses in a drive by, play tennis with a real or virtual friend or you can just light up a joint and enter in a fist fight with one of the innumerable clowns that materialize from the smoke. GTA V has storylines in which you make choices and feel the consequences of your actions and characters that support you or fuck you over. All of it happens in a world full of detail which would take you about half an hour to drive around in one of the faster cars, stolen or bought.
The game comes with an excellent package of sarcastic jokes about all aspects of western society, in particular media manipulation, New Age gurus and consumerism. The in-game equivalent of Facebook, for example, is called Lifeinvader. It has its own office building in Los Santos, which you can enter to mess with the technology. Another example: the day you steal nerve gas from a lab somewhere in the mountains, the presenter of the news on the radio wonders why “the criminals went to great lengths to get their hands on a formula for cheap perfume”. Afterwards, the same radio channel broadcasts a commercial on why “Flow”, with its great packaging and advertisements by famous people, is far better for you and your self-esteem than tap water.
The game has the perfect combination of qualities to suck you out of your daily trouble into a dream where you are the ruler of your destiny and that of the imaginary other. It has doubtlessly had more attention than the Mona Lisa – during the phases of crafting as well as appreciation -, has brought in more money than most blockbusters and has probably made more people happy than Jesus.
Still, people world-wide fight a battle against the virtual violence in such games which has little more consequences than getting some virtual cops on your virtual ass. Easy to shake off once you have some experience. Opposers of the GTA franchise argue that the violence promoted rewires the back of the players’ brains. They believe that shooting people in a virtual world will alter the subjects perception of life and death in the real world, reducing the barrier to shoot people in real life. Personally, I have to admit that after playing GTA for several consecutive hours, when going to the almost closing supermarket for a beer and a pizza, the thought of blowing someone’s brains out may occasionally cross my mind when a random bastard walks in my way. Of course, it wouldn’t easily happen: I don’t usually carry a minigun around.
The discussion raises an interesting series of questions about the perception of the real versus the illusory, quite relevant in a society where virtual and casual reality overlap more and more. How big is the influence of actions in virtual worlds on our actions in real life? Can the power we feel while playing such games settle inside us as a day-to-day desire? Or could such games satisfy desires we already have, and thus make us live our normal lives in a calmer way? Would that just be a superficial thing, or could virtual lives be deeply nurturing?
Mankind has made fantasy more tangible. Young generations are growing up alternating between real and virtual worlds. From a young age onwards, we learn to discern the two from each other. I do believe that being in touch with virtual worlds helps us relativize our own lives, by making us accustomed to be view things from a distance. I’d guess that rather than having us irrationally import behaviour from one world to the other, games help us see things in their contexts and act according to the circumstances. So next to being masterpieces, I believe they might have educational value.
As long as we still eat, sleep and jump around from time to time in real life. Let’s not forget that.