Video games are a big industry. Tens of billions of dollars are spent annually on the latest games and the demographics for gamers grow wider and more inclusive of older players and women. Indie and retro games are making strides, providing old-school platforming fun to audiences scooping up pixelated classics with 8-bit soundtracks for a fraction of the cost of big-budget titles with immersive 3D. I’ve been playing video games since I first rode out of the mall on my father’s shoulders with our family’s Atari 2600 in tow. There are times when I’ve played too much, and years when I haven’t played at all. I truly believe that the video game industry is rife with talented, creative people who are crafting experiences that are, with increasing frequency, a form of art.
But there is a darker side to the video game industry. First and foremost is the problem of addiction. I’m no psychologist, but the endorphin-inducing effects of challenging-but-not-impossible tasks that lead to rewards and ever-increasing status is a profound lure that can suck away many hours of time. A well-crafted game is every bit as compelling, if not moreso, than a page-turning novel that keeps you up half the night to find out what happens next. I sometimes wonder how many more things I might have accomplished if I had spent less time playing and more time doing.
For some, the addictive characteristics of gaming can be more problematic. Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard killer, had a reputation for playing first-person shooters like Call of Duty up to 16-hours a day. That is an astonishing amount of time, and I say this as someone who once upon a time pulled an occasional 8-hour session myself.
Do I blame Call of Duty for Alexis’s actions? Absolutely not. Do I think people who play first person shooters are training for psychopathic rampages? Not remotely. But for those who are already suffering from mental illness, who fail to see the difference between fiction and reality, the sort of games Alexis was obsessed with could have troubling effects. Still, I have no great sense of concern about games that simulate warfare. Every young boy with red blood in his veins has done as much, whether in the yard with sticks and water pistols or through the lens of a video game developer’s dramatization. War is a part of the human experience, and in every young man there is, to some degree, an innate idolization of the soldier. Soldiers are often heroes, and our study of history tells us as much. (That they are sometimes also villains is a less-contemplated truth, but few games appeal to this less pleasant reality.)
On the other hand, I find it deeply troubling when games simulate what it is like to immerse oneself in evil. I have always cast a wary eye at games like Grand Theft Auto for their glorification of all that is criminal and wrong in society. Some will claim that it is harmless, an escapist fantasy that allows people to find out what it would be like to follow no rules but those of cruel and capricious whim, fulfilling without consequence the (apocryphal) Dostoyevskian mantra that “if God is not, then everything is permissible.” But I never personally felt comfortable with that. Out of curiosity, I once tried playing an earlier installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise and found myself becoming increasingly disgusted. I could not find enjoyment in earning points through maiming, cop-killing, and mayhem. I quit in the middle of a particularly distasteful mission and never looked back.
It is with great disappointment, then, that I read the headlines about the stunning success of Grand Theft Auto V upon its release. In a mere 24-hour period, the game has earned its publishers nearly a billion dollars. Not even Joss Whedon’s amazingly successful The Avengers could hit that mark in its entire domestic theatrical run. In the US, that film made a total of just over $600 million in theaters, and it was the highest-grossing film of 2012.
What does GTA V offer that is so compelling that it drives such sales in a recovering economy? The latest graphics, yes. The best lighting engine. Immersive gameplay, no doubt. But at the heart of this game lies the allure of a festering pit of degeneracy. On his radio show yesterday, Glenn Beck read a letter he received from an executive in the entertainment industry about his own experience with the game:
I don’t know if anybody really knows how bad Grand Theft Auto V really is, but it is the most degenerate game I’ve ever played, Glenn. I mean, I’m really hard to shock, but even I am shocked by this game. There is almost no storyline. It is just crack-smoking, lap dances and strip clubs and crime. Not only is there graphic sex with hookers in cars, but they even upsell specific services. One of the missions you have to shoot is a video of a young actress extremely graphically having sex on a picnic table, and your job is to shoot it for the paparazzi. The “N” word is used every ten seconds. The whole game is a string of expletives for the sake of using them as many times as possible. There is also no way to tone down or turn off the language. Oh, and then there’s all the killing, but that’s an afterthought to everything else….The sad thing is there are children crying to play this game. No child, anywhere, should ever be playing this game. Ever…Please make sure everyone knows, this is not just another game.
Looking at the scandals wracking the country, the precarious economic state of our nation, the spectre of unjust war, and an encroaching totalitarian, surveillance state, I cannot help but feel that we are once again seeing the rise of conditions akin to Nero’s “bread and circuses.” It starts with games like this, but when does fantasy turn into a taste for more? When do pixels fail to suffice, and the people instead clamor for real bloodsport?
In my experience, it is very hard for a person of moral character to play through a game as a villain. When at critical junctures in the plot opportunities are offered that allow you, as some games do, to choose good or evil, it is tremendously difficult for a person of well-formed conscience to choose evil, even to see how it will affect the story. It leaves a bad taste and a feeling of regret that haunts you through the narrative.
That Grand Theft Auto V offers no “good path” for the choosing, that it centers on the commission of evil, degrading acts as the means of in-game accomplishment, that it has been so resoundingly successful so soon — all of these factors paint a frightening picture about our culture. This is an unsuitable game — not just for children, but for decent human beings. I believe in the First Amendment, and that people should be free to make the choice to play such a game. But I am appalled that so many have done so. It does not bode well for us, or for our future.