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‘Grand Theft Auto V’: thinking anew about violence

Rockstar Games/Courtesy of Rockstar Games.

Rockstar Games’ “Grand Theft Auto V” came out for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 last week, and it has garnered the usual praise from a variety of outlets. I’ve been traveling and haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but it looks extremely impressive — a massive game that allows players to, if they so desire, neglect the comprehensive story line and simply drive (a car, boat, plane, or mountain bike) around a meticulously rendered world, causing trouble and having fun.

Then, of course, there’s the violence. Plenty of games are violent, but by dint of their open-world, flexible nature, games in the “GTA” series have violence of a more random, haphazard sort. In “GTA V,” as in its predecessors, you can go anywhere you want (the setting this time around is a Los-Angeles-ish city and the nearby countryside) and start gunning down innocent civilians. Then, when the police respond, you can kill them.


This is why critics seem to single out the “GTA” series for condemnation. There are few games that allow the player to indulge in such pointless violence. When “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” was released in 2009, there was an uproar over a level in which the player participates in a massacre of civilians in an airport. That’s just another day at the office in “GTA.” And in the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting in the national headlines — this time, at the Washington Navy Yard — scrutiny of “GTA V” is bound to be intense.

The weird part is that I’m saying all of this as a fan of the series. I’ve logged serious hours in “GTA III” and “IV,” and I plan on doing the same in “V” as soon as I get a chance. The games are huge, extremely entertaining playgrounds, and Rockstar Games has become remarkably good at designing realistic cities (I remember zooming around one neighborhood in the very New-York-esque Liberty City of “GTA IV” and thinking to myself, Oh, that’s supposed to be Washington Heights! Oh, that’s supposed to be Brighton Beach!)


But my attitude toward the games has evolved in recent years, as I’ve found myself getting strangely resensitized to violence. I can’t watch or read about characters dying in films or books the way I used to. Sure, I still watch plenty of such shows (I’ve been on the edge of my seat about “Breaking Bad” for weeks now), but these events hit me in a more visceral way. And gore, which has never hugely bothered me, has started to have more of an imprint on me than it used to. I’m not sure what accounts for this change, but it’s made my feelings on video game violence more complicated than they used to be. I’d like to think I’m better at empathizing with anti-violent-game folks than I used to be.

Part of the reason my feelings are complicated rather than simply negative is that games like “GTA” don’t really appear to affect players the way we might fear they would. There have now been a host of studies on violence in video games and how it connects to its real-world counterpart, and the results — when there are noteworthy results at all — are muddled. A February survey in The New York Times of research into the effects of video game violence concluded that over the short term, such games can promote hostile urges, rudeness, and “mildly aggressive behavior” in players, but that over the long term, “It is far harder to determine whether cumulative exposure leads to real-world hostility.” The survey also noted that while video game sales have sharply increased since the mid-1990s — a period that has seen the rise of violent, graphically sophisticated, blockbuster games — the number of violent youth offenders has declined dramatically.


This is an extremely thorny social scientific question, not least because it’s hard to unravel whether already-violent kids are drawn to video games (rather than video games causing them to become more violent). It’s also impossible to know whether, in the absence of video games, certain kids would simply get riled up by some other sort of media.

We can say, however, that at the moment there isn’t solid evidence for a direct link between games like those in the “GTA” series and awful acts of real-world violence. That’s a good thing, given how widely played they are.

But the newly resensitized part of me responds: Well, OK. But all this violence has to mean something. The fact that we can simulate massacres has to mean something. Yes, there’s been a wrongheaded movement to demonize video games — a movement that is predictably similar to earlier anti-youth-culture movements geared at comic books, movies, and even “Dungeons & Dragons.” A depressing number of the culture warriors who go on TV to decry violence in video games have never played the games in question and make embarrassing factual errors about them. But just because the anti-gamers are mostly wrong doesn’t mean the gamers are completely right.


What does it mean that you can simulate a massacre in a pretty realistic way? That you can camp yourself out on top of a building, pick off civilians one by one, and lie in wait for the first responders who arrive shortly thereafter? No, these activities aren’t turning gamers into violent monsters. No, they’re not the reason for Columbine or Sandy Hook or last week’s horrors in Washington, D.C. But they have to be doing something. Given how visceral, how detailed these images are, it’s hard to view them as simply another form of entertainment, as a variant of guiding Mario over a piranha plant or a Tetris shape into a completed row.

And anyone, gamer or otherwise, who doesn’t think we should do a better job accounting for exactly what that something is isn’t giving this powerful medium its due.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.