Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
25 November 2005
Violence, Games, Children: Many Questions, Few Answers
Ruffin emailed that two of my recent posts (here and here) indicate I'm going to shelter my son from certain types of games. This much is true: time and reflection have made me consider more closely what I'm willing to show my young son, including violent videogames.

I already have a head full of images, stories, and ideas I'd rather my son never have to know. The sources are numerous: books, history, movies, games. I see my boy's innocence, and I wish no part in its corruption. I wish I could prevent such corruption altogether.

It is impossible. My efforts to protect him will be for naught, except to demonstrate that I cared and I tried my best. At some point, he will see how awful Humanity really can be. At that point, I will tell him where I've ended up: that there is much evil but also some measure of good in the world, that I choose to use my short time granted here to create more good as I am able, and that somehow we all make do with what joy we can eke out while we're here.

In some sad way, I perhaps anticipate and even welcome his inevitable induction into this unfiltered reality. A shared perception of the world contributes to my relationship with my own parents. As my parents and siblings and I provide support for each other, so I hope it shall be with my wife and children.

Let me bring this back to videogames.

Taking such a dim view of the world, it's fair to ask: Why would I still want to play Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, a game which acts out a part in a sadistic criminal world? This is a game that revels in Man's inhumanity to Man, that embraces and celebrates it. How could I enjoy this, and even seek it out?

I wish I knew.

As with Pulp Fiction, a movie filled with the kind of people I would avoid in my real life, there is something voyeuristic and thrilling about doing precisely those things, criminal and evil, that society prohibits. With luck, I will never commit a drive-by shooting. I will never snipe down dozens of men in the street from a rooftop. I will never stand atop a parking deck, destroy a passing SUV with a rocket launcher, watch bystanders run to see the wreck, and then cheerily toss a Molotov cocktail amongst them.

Yet, a game like Grand Theft Auto permits me to commit precisely those acts. Let me tell you, vile as they are, they are darkly thrilling to behold.

I am simultaneously repulsed and attracted; is that really healthy?

As Ruffin asked in that email: Why is it ok for us, the adults, to play these games?

Somedays I think I know the answers. My mind separates moral from immoral and simulation from reality thereby permitting me to express safely that part of me my inhumanity. I know it's an illusion and that no one is physically harmed. As 50 Cent said, "There's the part where you actually press start on the controller -- after that you are playing a game."

Other days I'm less optimistic. If I wrote short stories about the same events I might see playing GTA and my friends read those stories, my actions would likely draw some serious questions about my intentions. If I drew pictures of gang members being burned with a flamethrower in the streets of a city, people might question my mental health. Yet acting these things out in GTA would draw decidedly less attention, both from me and those around me. Why?

Will I let my son play GTA:LCS, or the decade-hence equivalent, with my permission before he can leave home and do as he wishes? How will I know he's ready to face those ugly parts of humanity and not be irreparably warped by them? If I misjudge, what will be the consequences, both for me and -- more importantly -- for my son?

I have no idea how to answer all these questions.
--Matt Matthews at 20:33
Comment [ 1 ]

Comments on this post:

Taking such a dim view of the world, it's fair to ask: Why would I still want to play Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, a game which acts out a part in a sadistic criminal world? This is a game that revels in Man's inhumanity to Man, that embraces and celebrates it. How could I enjoy this, and even seek it out?

I wish I knew.

I can't speak for you, but I know why I want to play Grand Theft Auto games, and I can express that reason. I suspect the reasons are similar, at the core, so here goes.

I absolutely DON'T like the GTA games for the opportunity to play a criminal who routinely murders people. In all the cases where the actual theme of GTA are entertaining to me, as far as I've been able to determine, it comes from an ironic treatment of the action (like driving over someone in Taxi mode and saying "oops") or from the pure kinetic elements of the gameplay. No one mourns for the robots in Robotron, after all.

Instances of player-sponsored cruelty in the game, however, turn me off. They do in literature, too. I don't cheer on anti-social, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" Misfit-type characters. Indeed, an instance like the one described in the prior post, about the butcher and the sausages, would probably be one of those excuses my brain is constantly seeking to turn off the game and never play it again.

But is this really true? I still like the other elements of GTA games. They have a solid design after all, there's a HUGE number of things you can do--like play Taxi--but isn't it possible that I'm just a sadist in disguise?

Well, I answer this with a thought experiment. What if someone separated all the gameplay elements out of a GTA game, and all the thematic elements of a GTA game, into their own, separate experiences. Which one would I rather play?

Well, in a way I've already played the gameplay version: it sounds a lot like Zelda. GTA games are a subclass of Zelda-style gameplay, after all. While GTA tends to focus more on interacting with automated systems within each area more than the raw exploration of territory, the two games are similar in many ways.

I don't have a ready example of the all-violence experience on hand, but I'm sure that if you browse long enough, you'll find several. I have a DVD around somewhere that's composed entirely of 100 trailers for movies D-rate movies, and some of them also look like they'd fit the bill. I would never, ever, want to watch any of them.

Every time I've seen something that contains copious violence that's also admired beyond a certain unsettling fringe of people, it's because it contains excellent qualities other than the violence.

Which is not to say that the violence doesn't play a role at times... but I think it's pretty obvious that in all these cases, for it to work, the violence has to arise from the other elements of the work in an organic, non-overwhelming manner.

That's a line that different people draw at different places. The butcher/sausage example, for me, is over the line, and if I had encountered something like that in my prior, minimal experiences with GTA, I would probably be less interested in it. Having people get hurt in Taxi Mode, instead of just frantically running out of the way as in Crazy Taxi, is not.

By Blogger JohnH, at 26 November, 2005 14:38  

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