The Rear-View Mirror: GTA V (2013)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

If I ever were to write a GTA-themed memoir of a gamer, it’d have to be titled Driving in Cars with Criminals.

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True West

I’ve made a couple of posts on the subject of games, films, art, yadda yadda yadda. Boring stuff, and anyway, who cares whether Roger Ebert knows a gamepad from a Wiimote?

Rockstar, the makers of the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, take a strange position in the whole game/film argument. There are few games that borrow as liberally, and as successfully, from the movies and from TV as Rockstar’s. This has never been as obvious as in their latest, Red Dead Redemption, which is in equal measures Once Upon a Time in the West and Deadwood. The ghost of Sergio Leone haunts the game’s arid landscapes. I’ve rarely seen as effective and evocative an interpretation of the West as the one Rockstar have conjured up. Yet their games never become that most frustrating of hybrids, the interactive movie. They are both grandly cinematic and great games.

More than anything else, Rockstar excels at creating worlds to explore that feel alive: the faux ’80s Miami of GTA: Vice City, the parallel LA, San Francisco and Las Vegas of San Andreas and the not-quite-NY that is Liberty City.

None of these measure up to the accomplishment of Red Dead Redemption, however. I’ve played the game for five to ten hours, and in terms of gameplay it’s nothing revolutionary – missions here, duels there, horse riding, cow herding and poker minigames elsewhere – but it creates a sense of place that is simply amazing, as the video of the game’s time-lapse day/night cycle shows:

John Hillcoat, director of Australian neo-western The Proposition and the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, was asked to direct a short film using footage from the game – possibly a gimmicky way of advertising its release, but one that’s pretty gutsy, speaking not only of Rockstar’s confidence in their creation but also in their chosen medium. Is Hillcoat’s half-hour take on Red Dead Redemption an overly idealistic barrage in the Great Movie/Videogame War of the ’00s? Is it just something to do in between directing grim, gritty and depressing movies? Judge for yourselves.

Manhunt 2… Something for the kids, honey?

Okay, I have to warn you. This is not one of those “I like game/movie/book XYZ enough to bore you with the details” posts. It’s an opinion piece. And it’s about one of those boring topics that the media keep coming back to, usually in the most facile, over-the-top way possible. Especially in the German media, you often get the equation: video gamer = potential murderer and sadist.

Which ticks me off. But what ticks me off just as much are gamers who aren’t able to look at the issue with some critical distance. You can’t have a decent discussion with the likes of Jack Thompson, people who believe that games train you to kill and maim (the word “murder simulator” pops up in their rhetoric), but it’s just as impossible to have a decent discussion with people who don’t have any second thoughts about a game where you’re rewarded for stealthy behaviour with extra-gory executions, and that’s part of the fun. (Warning: the video, showing Manhunt, is quite explicit.)

The people who think that any depictions of violence in games are fair game usually bring up three arguments: 1) “Movies such as Saw or Hostel are just as violent, they’re more realistic than pixellated polygon carnage, and adults can watch them, so it’s hypocritical to want to censor games!” 2) “It’s just a game, and personally I can tell the difference between a game and reality. If you can’t, that says more about you…” 3) “Censorship is a restriction of free speech! And that’s un-American! Why don’t you go back to Russia, commie?”

1) “Many movies are just as violent, but you don’t see them being banned, do you?”

It’s definitely true that films such as Saw or Hostel are at least as violent. They’re also more realistic, because while games have advanced quite amazingly in terms of visual representation, you still wouldn’t mistake a game’s version of reality for the Real Thing(tm). (One point that’s often raised together with this one is that games aren’t kiddies stuff per se. I agree with that – just like not all animation is Disney fare but may be aimed at an adult audience, not every game is Super Mario World.) However, it’s silly to ignore the fact that games are interactive, whereas films aren’t. Quite often, game violence is inflicted by the player’s avatar, controlled by the player. It’s too simplistic to say that you, the gamer, are committing the violent acts, but there’s obviously a causal link between your actions and the on-screen violence.

I’m not saying that this automatically programs gamers to become murderers, or simply to become more violent and aggressive. Most of the studies I’ve seen that suggest such a correlation are questionable in terms of methodology – for instance, they measure an increase in aggressivity in ways that would apply to football or any other competitive sports as well. On the other hand, though, there aren’t that many good studies that show the violence in games to have no effect whatsoever. Until there’s more, and especially better, unbiased research, the argument simply doesn’t hold. And just because individual gamer X who’s been playing violent games since he was 12 hasn’t taken a knife to his parents yet (you gotta love anecdotal evidence!), that doesn’t mean that there might not be other, more subtle effects.

Does this mean we should prohibit all violence in video games? No – but it does suggest that we, critics as well as defenders,  should keep a more open mind.

2) “It’s just a game, man! Ever heard of fiction? It’s this thing that isn’t reality!”

When Goethe published his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther which ends with the protagonist’s suicide (yeah, I’ve just spoiled the novel’s ending for you! deal with it!), there was a rash of copycat suicides. People cheer when bad guys get killed in movies. They cry when their favourite characters in a series die. Yes, the emotional reaction is safe to some extent because it’s based on fiction – but it is nevertheless an emotional reaction.

And while the relationship between fictional representations and the reality they represent is highly complex, would anyone really, honestly deny that there is a relationship? Horror movies scare – why else would people watch them? Romantic comedies make you all warm and fuzzy. How many people sit in their seats thinking “Yeah, right, but it’s not real, is it? That’s just an actor, that’s ketchup, and those are digital effects.” Much of the time we watch fiction in order to get lost in it. Fiction can have a real effect on us, so saying that when you put a virtual knife in some poor virtual henchman’s virtual eyesocket it’s just fiction strikes me as naive at best, and disingenuous at worst.

Again, this doesn’t mean that violence in games should be made illegal outright. It just means that the argument is becoming increasingly facile.

3) “Freedom of speech, yadda yadda yadda…!”

Okay, I’m going to out myself here. I don’t necessarily believe that absolute freedom of speech is such a great thing. In the best of all possible worlds it is. In a world filled with responsible, mature people who can look at themselves and their own actions with a minimum of critical distance, free speech would be one of the greatest goods.

In a world where people think that just because you’re allowed to say something it’s right to say it, and where people don’t think that every now and then it’s better not to say something… well, in such a world, I must say that I can live with restrictions to free speech. There is no such thing as absolutely free speech anyway – there are always limits imposed by others. Sometimes these limits are institutionalised (for instance when the government issues laws against hate speech), sometimes they’re internalised. (“You don’t say XYZ because…”.)

I often find that you can’t really talk to people who act on pure principles – because principles, if applied as purely as they’re usually argued, ignore context. And that’s what is woefully missing from this entire debate: people fight over examples of videogame violence, but they don’t really look at the individual contexts. Do I think it’s right that the BBFC denied Manhunt 2 a certificate, in effect banning it in the UK? I don’t think it’s wrong, although I think this sort of thing should be applied only after a lot of consideration, and it should be open to appeal. I think it’s important to discuss whether “freedom of speech” means such games should be made and sold. I think it’s important that the in-game context of violence should be looked at critically. Who is the player character, what does the violence consist of? How is it integrated into a plot? Who is it committed against? Does the game reward violence, does it punish it, or does it simply show it? All of these are interesting, important questions that are so often ignored by both sides of the debate. The same act of violence may mean something vastly different depending on context.

If anything should go in games, because they’re fictional and because artistic freedom should be absolute (i.e. it should include such things as gamers being able to chainsaw their opponents in the throat and then dismember the corpses – it’s art, innit?), then there’s nothing wrong with rape games or concentration camp simulators. These games exist (they’re amateur productions), and they won’t stop existing if there’s legislation. But unless the defenders of videogame violence are willing to have an mature, differentiated debate about the issue, acknowledging its complexity, I can live with limits to what is acceptable in games.

Until a game is banned that I really like, and that’s when I’ll probably be shouting the loudest.

(Note: That last sentence is there to acknowledge the contradiction in me advertising GTA: San Andreas one day and ranting against violence in games the next. Hey, I’m a contrary bastard! Also, I’d rather continue the discussion in the Comments, if anyone’s interested. This issue should be debated, and not just in black/white terms.)

Are you going to San Andreas?

Okay, it’s “Plug an old game” time. Yesterday I finished my second or third playthrough of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. And it’s still one of the most versatile games I know – it’s probably the truest “sandbox game” that’s out there. For those of you who aren’t computer game nerds like myself, here’s a handy definition from Wikipedia:

A sandbox-style video game (or a video game with an optional sandbox mode) is a video game with an open-ended and non-linear style of gameplay, or a mode of gameplay within a game that is more often played in a goal-directed manner. The sandbox analogy is used to describe this style of gaming because, as with a physical sandbox, the user is simply allowed to do what he or she wishes (with the available game elements and within the limitations of the game engine — the metaphoric toys within, and boundaries of, the sandbox).

Now, what does that mean in concrete terms? San Andreas is a story-heavy game, it’s “played in a goal-directed manner”, but it gives you a lot of freedom in a) how you go about achieving the goal and b) how you spend your time in between missions. The game world is huge – you’re given three virtual cities/states to play around in: LA-inspired Los Santos, San Fierro (based on San Francisco) and Las Venturas, which is eerily similar to a certain desert city replete with casinos and organised crime. And while the story itself is enjoyable enough, some of the most fun can be had just boarding one of the many vehicles (cars, bikes, boats, planes) and zooming around. Personally, I get most of a kick out of navigating the hills of San Fierro on my trusty BMX bike, but here’s some of the fun’n’games that others came up with.

Crazy jumps 

Bike stunts 

Base jumping