Hands up if you bought GTA V this week. Of course you did. Rockstar's latest do-whatever-you-want-'em-up is probably the most eagerly-awaited Grand Theft Auto to date, causing a frenzy amongst gamers unlike anything seen before. But while you spend the coming weekend in an orgy of carjacking, robberies and mindless slaughter, ask yourself one question: Am I cool with all of this?
First of all, I'd like to say that I am an avid gamer -- a geek to rival the best of them. I pledged my allegiance to the console back in 1993 when I got my first Mega Drive one glorious Christmas morning. Since then, there's always been one gaming system or another in my life, and watching them make the transition from niche to mainstream is something I've enjoyed immensely.
The release of Grand Theft Auto V is something that I, like millions of others, have been looking forward to for years. This week, after what seemed like the biggest absence in gaming history (excluding a certain Valve game), we finally got our hands on Rockstar's latest masterpiece. Much as expected, it came with generous lashings of violence and controversy.
I'm no stranger to video game violence. I've shot more people to shit in Call of Duty than I care to count; I've garrotted countless goons in Hitman, and used all manner of grizzly implements of death in the highly gruesome Manhunt. But have I ever questioned my in-game actions? Of course not, because it's just that: a game. At least, not until recently.
Gamers are unfortunate in that they're usually at the forefront of the debate on violence in the media. Part of the reason Grand Theft Auto is so globally-recognised is because of the shitstorm each release brings in tow, without fail. It's become the go-to target for anti-violence campaigns, and is usually the first suspect to be dragged before the media when delusional youngsters turn to guns to vent their frustrations on society.
Fortunately, the majority of gamers have been blessed with a level head, balanced conscience and well-defined set of morals. We also don't find it hard to separate fantasy from reality: we're not going to spend hours playing GTA then hop into a car and drive around mindlessly mowing down pedestrians. In the same way, we're not going to absorb the attitudes, beliefs and social conventions depicted in video games like some moronic sponge and act them out in the real world.
Still, I managed to blunder blindly into a Facebook debate on Rockstar's latest blockbuster recently, one that left me questioning my own attitudes towards games and the reflection they have on me as a person. A friend of mine had raised the issue of violence and misogyny within GTA V, to which my knee-jerk reaction was essentially "it's only a game, it's fun, get over it".
Predictably, I was lambasted by my friend and several of her own, who pointed out that game or not, finding fun in carrying out activities that in reality are utterly deplorable is really not cool.
Though the concept of video games breeding killers has become a tired old mantra and one I staunchly disagree with, I would agree that some games forgo sensitivity and tact in favour of shock value. I challenge any well-rounded, reasonable person to look me in the eye and tell me that suffocating someone with a plastic bag in Manhunt, or setting someone on fire then urinating on them to put it out a la Postal 2 isn't excessive.
And it's not just the violence either. Games like Leisure Suit Larry, which display all the tact and sensitivity surrounding gender issues of the Benny Hill Show, paint a shocking picture about what some developers -- and gamers -- are happy to label as "fun".
Of course, the same could be said for other forms of media. There are myriad films, plays, books and music out there that contain content on par with, if not more extreme than some of the most mature 18+ games on the market. But does the role-playing factor of games make our enjoyment of them all the more contentious?
This isn't a "holier than thou" stab at gamers from a self-confessed reformist. My copy of GTA V is loaded in my drive, and I'm already running riot in Los Santos causing all manner of wanton destruction and violence. Because, at the end of the day, Grand Theft Auto is just a game. It's a fantasy world that takes a satirical, tongue-in-cheek stab at modern society, and similar justifications can and will be made for the plethora of other games that task players with carrying out questionable acts.
But it begs the question: if we're willing to overlook and take enjoyment in games based on attitudes we'd deem taboo in the real world, what does this say about us?
Owen is a writer and multimedia reporter for TechRadar UK. Other than gadgets and video games, he also loves food, beer, house music and everything to do with outer space.
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