My worrying virtual life as a gansta
Almost a month since my last posting. Why is that? I've been busier than usual at work. But also, I wonder if blogging is "wearing off". I suspect that many people who read blogs are now ensconced in Facebook these days - it certainly feels a lot quieter in some of the parts of the web that I often visit. And I refuse to have anything to do with Facebook - collecting "friends" seems like a silly waste of time. I've always maintained I'd rather have 1 good friend (or none at all) than 100 crappy ones.
I've been spending a lot of time in the virtual world Grand Theft Auto IV lately, which also probably explains my absence. I put off buying the game for a long time, after reading reports about how violent and amoral it is. But eventually, I was seducted by the beautiful graphics and the fact that they're rendering an approximate version of my favorite city in the world - New York. Also, I didn't want to fall into the trap of being one of those people who complain about something having never actually seen it. So I rather shamefully bought it. At least I can complain about it now with a little bit of credibility.
It is beautiful and absorbing. And I haven't even reached the "Manhattan" bit of the game, still stuck in the Brooklyn equivalent. And it's also wonderfully cynical and parodic of American society. If you get bored with car chases you can go and sit in your apartment and watch tv for hours (of real time), viewing shows like "I'm Rich!" which is a humorously nasty take on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And on many of the radio shows that are available when you drive around, kicks are made of aspects of American life and politics - mobility carts for obese people, the war on terror, homophobia, election campaigns etc. Right-wing attitudes have never looked so hilarious.
Yet it's a worrying game in other ways. The central themes are violence and crime. Even though the character you play is a (relatively) good guy, as the story develops, he quickly gets involved in organised crime, which means that in order to "succeed" in the challenges, you have to smash up people's property, steal cars, beat people up and kill them. When the game began, for example, I was determined to try and maintain some degree of moral integrity. I wasn't going to go through red lights or run over the pedestrians on the street. I wasn't going to steal a car to get somewhere. I would be a good boy. But as the game progressed, I realised that you couldn't compelte some tasks without stealing cars and driving through the lights. And soon it becomes too tempting to drive around without paying attention to the Highway Code. At one point, when my character got drunk, I got to experience what it was like to go drink-driving, with the screen wobbling around and fading in and out of focus.
I don't have any desire or curiousity about what it would feel like to go around running over pedestrians, attacking random people in the street or buying a prositute and then killing her. But if that's what you want to do, then the game allows you to do it. And that's utterly disturbing. I don't believe that doing such things will make people go out and commit those sorts of crimes themselves (although maybe a very small minority will). But I think it does lead to a desensitisation of violence and more acceptance of crime as a "lifestyle choice".
Additionally, the characters in the game swear almost constantly, and homophobia is frequently used as a way that characters interact - with comments like "Your father takes it up the ass", "How's your boyfriend?" being frequently heard etc. Interestingly, other than the main character being referred to as a peasant because he is from Eastern Europe, there is very little overt racism in the game. Perhaps this is because racism is now viewed as unacceptable in American culture (despite the fact that structurally the country is one of the most racist in the world, and no amount of positive representation in the media will help lift all those millions of black people and Latinos out of poverty and give them access to better health and education). Additionally, some stereotypical aspects of black culture are now viewed as glamorous by (some) white people - and it is precisely that which the game seems to embrace. Drugs, gun crime, prostitution, bling etc - GTA gives middle-class white boys (of all ages) the chance to experience the surface aspects of that culture in a consequence-free and commodified way. They can listen to radio stations that blast out the N word and engage in violent crime, but once their PS3 is switched off, they can walk away from it all, in exactly the way that a black person growing up in the projects cannot.
With a game which is so completely beautiful to look at, it's a shame that its content is so ugly. Just like the complicated maze of streets in the game, in terms of morality, there's a similar amount of confusion, ambivalence and contradiction in GTA IV.