The most significant allure of gaming has always been escapism. The ability to manifest vicariously in a rudimentary world without the repressive boundaries of law and regulations. These are the required extremities of reality that enables humanity to sustain a semblance of moral equanimity, providing a safe moderated environment for communities to feel secure. For most of us committing a felony, however trivial are notions we wouldn’t dare consider in the real world. We are aware of our limitations in a civilised society and are dependent on the continued complicity of these rules to enforce stability. Which is why the absence of such measures provokes such shock, particularly when the circumstances are so unspeakably loathsome. Unfortunately the same outrage is often erroneously remonstrated against some inherently violent games, with a similar resentment applied to “Grand Theft Auto”. This particular series is in no way exclusively affiliated with media controversy, as many games that depict any kind of salacious content are adjudged as a corruptible influence on encouragable youths, which is like blaming performance enhancing drugs rather than Lance Armstrong for cheating. If someone crashes their car because they were speeding you blame the individual, not the vehicle for enabling them to drive so dangerously?! You can’t plead innocence when it was an entirely intentional decision, especially one bred from your own selfish volition. Call of Duty has been reproached for glorifying modern conflicts and war in general. Manhunt apparently encouraged a teenager to murder his friend, seemingly at the behest of an inanimate object. But there’s something more sensationalised about detailing the harmful influence an inert product has on an a kid, than the explicit behavioural deficiencies of one unstable individual that shouldn’t have been playing the game in the first place.
Gaming appears to ignite a very singular ignorance, with the media littered with heinous instances perpetrated by individuals with questionable psychological standings. Generating political interventions into matters that they don’t really understand. You then have inconclusive studies that suggest that these violent computer games “might” permanently afflict the fragile mind of a youth, but probably not. It’s hard to determine for certain that it doesn’t contribute at all, but when an incident does occur that can be attributed to a game, movie or television show – however tenuous the connection – it’s so highly publicised because of its unique severity that to me it’s blown out of all proportion. But any erstwhile censorship that is then applied to such content in an effort to regulate the distribution to under age consumers, only makes such games more enticing.
I purchased my first ever copy of GTA from a rather dubious retailer, that sadly went insolvent around 15 years ago. I was probably 11 or 12 years old at the time, when disclaimers and 18 certifications on a game were somewhat of an advisory stipulation rather than a law that you had to abide by. It was the original, top down view for the PS1 and I loved it. Played it for days. Not because it was violent or destructive, but because there was a free flowing environment for me to interact with, either positively or negatively. I was playing this series totally oblivious to the controversy surrounding it. Even at a young age I wasn’t concerned with the violence because I could discern between what was real or make believe. Here was a game that relished in exerting freedom, creating an affluent depiction of crime and rewarding mischievous behaviour. You could be considerate to pedestrians lives or callously run them down with a chuckle, before being pursued by cops that shoot first and read you your rights while you lie in a pool of your own excrement. Sure games are dictated by their own maniacal rules, the dutiful caveats of virtual reality like invisible walls, but rarely is that due to litigation or the enforcement of the law. Personally I don’t relish killing innocents or necessarily condone the reprehensible acts that you are encouraged to perpetrate in order to survive, but that’s kind of the point. GTA has always enforced a world without limitations, where you decide just how bad you can be. There’s something so effusive about severing the directorial shackles of mundane life that bounds us. To be uninhibited by the strict regulations of reality and embrace a skewed adherence to the formalities of perceived reality and just go a little bonkers.
The so called controversy so often affiliated with games like this just makes them more alluring. And I mean how violent is it really? I’d argue that Super Mario is an inherently violent game, encouraging children to stamp on defenceless animals and rescue women from castles who are no more than plot devices?! The Goombas don’t even have any arms to defend themselves! And if someone decided to start imitating that, by jumping on the heads of old men at bus stop you’d say that they were one stick short of a bundle. What’s the point of playing GTA if you can’t indulge in your subverted sociopathic inclinations? If you are that concerned with moralising artificial deaths then a world where Donald Trump can be elected President must terrify you (it does me too). I think anything that encourages cognitive and creative versatility can only be therapeutic for the mind. It’s cathartic to exercise the freedom to act out scenarios you couldn’t – and wouldn’t in reality and revoke the confines of social civility. To act without sustained retaliation and inhabit an alluring persona you would never want to be for more than a fleeting period. Some would call this unhealthy or even dangerous, a negative conciliation of exposed brutality that amalgamates into an encouraged hostility towards others, outside the confines of a fictional world. I call it fun. Nurturing that slightly anarchic inclination that is a rooted psychology buried deep below the surface in all of us.
The visceral intensity is one partial factor that attracts me to games like GTA. Shattering the conventions of normality by letting you be as good or as naughty as you choose, allowing any pent up frustrations to release gradually in an environment that doesn’t hurt anyone. But I also tend to gravitate towards games with robust environments. A fully interactive world that can be traversed and explored at my leisure. That to me represents the fundamental principles of a perfect game. Investing hours of time dedicated to exploration is rather time consuming, so rather than confining myself to one arbitrary errand I’d like to just takes some time out, explore, and perhaps run down a few hookers. And an open world game provides me with a versatile platform to engage in those primal instincts that have been dulled by the arbitrary exploits of my boring day at work. I can understand, for the uninitiated that is, how being confronted with public victimisation of the citizens, depicted so blatantly in GTA may seem horrifying, especially when flaunted as a viable alternative for entertainment. The violence could be considered gratuitous or even vile, if it were real. But it isn’t. It’s a work of fiction, like a book or film that depicts similar fictitious scenarios. And it’s GTA’s rueful attitude towards controversy that has allowed it to maintain its popularity, despite its contentious place in modern culture. If you’re discerning with genres or applying limitations then that just seems like compromise rather than expression.
For all of its scrutiny, its harsh satirical themes and graphic tones, GTA continues to be a rewarding series with more heart and soul than many AAA games on the market. Long may its explicit violence, abundance of (somehow?) concealed weaponry, reckless driving, diverse range of playable characters and, above all, vehicular thievery continue.
What is your favourite GTA game? Let me know in the comments below. Cheers.