Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA V) has hit the shelves, shocking parents, teachers and gamers with its most brutal game yet. In particular, there has been an outcry surrounding the mission ‘By the Book’, where the player must torture a man in a variety of gruesome ways. Two days after the release of the game, Freedom from Torture, Amnesty International and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers joined MP Keith Vaz in condemning the mission (and the game), saying it glorified torture. Many reviews on gaming websites expressed disgust at the mission, which must be completed to advance the story. Some investigation into why such an element would be deliberately introduced reveals a level of the Grand Theft Auto series which is less well documented: ‘By the Book’ continues the franchise’s tradition of critiquing American policies alongside its adult themes.
Like other games in the series, GTA V has strong language, gratuitous violence, questionable representations of women and drug-related content. The games have always received an ‘18’ rating, and its developer, Rockstar North, has always been clear about that.
Critics of violent games argue that GTA V and similar games are contributing to the moral deterioration of society. They claim the series’ glamorous representation of criminality makes it directly responsible for ‘copycat’ crimes and violent antisocial behaviour. They are also concerned about the influence of such violent games on children, since they are to likely imitate what they have seen. These arguments are often linked to the idea that such games are part of a media that lacks adequate regulation. This belief, or a variation, is even held at the top of government: During his weekly radio show on LBC Radio, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg claimed that computer games such as GTA V can have a “corrosive effect” on players.
Paradoxically, GTA V (and other games like it), directly benefits from the exposure such controversy generates. The more scathing the review, the more it is proclaimed unsuitable for children, the more desirable it becomes. These critics are inadvertently helping to give the product the edgy image of criminality Rockstar North uses as its major selling point. In this sense, the fiercest critic can function as a promoter for the game.
This outrage over GTA V’s presumed effect on children is part of the wider moral panic about violent computer games. Moral panics are the hysteria that accompanies the appearance of a phenomenon which appears to threaten the existing hegemony. They are not new: moral panics can be traced as far back as Plato, who was concerned about the effect the arts could have on a person’s formation. Likewise, inquisitions, witch-hunts and the Red Scare all saw overreactions from segments of the general public, who were scared of the mysterious new ‘Other’ and what contemporary experts and governments claimed it could do.
Fears over new phenomena (especially trends in the media) continued, and parents, teachers and censors attempted at various points to end rock ‘n’ roll, comic books and Dungeons and Dragons. Contemporary moral panics generally involve security of personal data online and terrorism.
Neither is there anything new in the arguments for the existence of ‘copycat’ crimes. Simply because young people are exposed to, and ‘participate’ in, violent media it is claimed they will imitate it. There have been studies which have tried to prove the existence of the ‘copycat effect’, though they are not taken seriously by many contemporary psychologists. These studies still inform many who would take the view that human beings are passive media consumers: we don’t think about messages given to us by the media, we mindlessly act on them.
Like so many who would subscribe to the ideas contained within this moral panic, many have missed the point ‘By the Book’ is trying to make (albeit tastelessly). Grand Theft Auto games have always provided a critique of contemporary society as part of the gameplay. There is a parody of Fox News called ‘Weasel News’ (“confirming your prejudices”) and a social networking site called Lifeinvader. Its tagline? “Where Your Personal Information Becomes A Marketing Profile (That We Can Sell)”
The background to ‘By the Book’ is that Trevor Philips, an amoral career criminal, has been commissioned by the manipulative FIB (the game’s take on the American Secret Service, the FBI) to torture a man to retrieve information on someone hiding in the fictional city of Los Santos. While Trevor tortures the victim, another character disapproves from a distance. Since Trevor is unpopular with many gamers due to his amorality and deviant psychopathy, the player is being encouraged to identify with the victim. After the mission, Trevor launches into a lengthy monologue on the ineffectiveness of torture as a means of retrieving information, concluding that torture is just a grotesque hobby for evil people to inflict pain others. The mission is a critique of American state-sponsored torture.
Though the mission’s premise was good, the gameplay proved a step too far, even for gamers. Keith Best, CEO of Freedom from Torture, said: “If Rockstar North’s message is a satirical critique of the practice of torture, it’s lost on us.” But worst of all, just like much of the other carnage you create, the game soon resets and the victim has no more involvement in the narrative.
This element of gameplay can desensitise a player to violence, causing them to lose the ability to form a link between their actions and consequences. Grand Theft Auto never lets the player see the full extent of their actions because everything returns to normal a few minutes later, or a cheat code can be put in to restore normality. The psychological implication is therefore that players do not make the link between actions and (lasting) consequences in real life. It’s the ability of games to desensitise people to violence which is so dangerous. In this way, violent games like GTA V can act as a catalyst for those who are already violent for whatever reason; and that is troubling.
Society does need to be vigilant about some issues that have caused moral panics in the past, such as concerns over the availability of drugs or the ability of paedophiles to be able to work in schools. These must be reasonably debated, however, rather than plastered on the front page of a tabloid as a hysterical, knee-jerk reaction. Claiming a video game will turn its players into mass murderers misses the more subtle messages these games are trying to put out.