The crime rate is about to skyrocket in Liberty City. Car-jackings, muggings, even thrill killings will sweep the streets, and in the process turn a generation of young people into glassy-eyed, violence-for-pleasure-seeking zombies. At least, that’s what critics of Grand Theft Auto IV would have you believe.
Popular culture has always had a bogeyman. In the 1950s, it was comic books. In the 1980s, the graphic lyrics of gangsta rap and the satanic imagery of heavy metal were separately blamed for inciting violence. These days, it’s most often video games being accused of leading the nation’s youth astray. Whether it’s pundits blaming Doom for the Columbine massacre, or Wal-Mart refusing to sell Manhunt 2 with its gruesome execution scenes intact, games have become the new front in the cross-cultural battle about the limits of expression.
The release of Grand Theft Auto IV on April 29 will, inevitably, be another flash point. And the latest installment of the controversial franchise ups the ante: its Liberty City is an almost exact recreation of New York, including four boroughs and part of New Jersey. Previews have shown landmarks bearing resemblances to such famous places as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Far from swaddling itself in the cloak of fantasy, Grand Theft Auto IV seems to be daring critics to attack its nakedly authentic setting.
It’s worked. Florida attorney Jack Thompson, one of the most strident anti-games voices around, described the newest GTA installment as “a murder simulator for violence against women, cops, and innocent bystanders” and promised to bring legal action against the game’s publisher, Rockstar Games, and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive, if any copies of the game were sold to minors.
And it’s not just graphic violence. Game-industry critics object to any overt or implied elements of sex or racism that crop up in the course of play. Often, the gaming community’s knee-jerk defense against these critics is to contend that they don’t know what they’re talking about. In many cases, this is true. But in their haste to polish their pet medium’s reputation, gamers ignore the other side of the coin — namely that, in some instances, the bluenoses have a point.
The truth is that some games are irresponsible in regard to the fantasies they effectively promote. But instead of arguing for the validity of games on their merits, gamers may blindly lash out at their critics. Passionate advocacy means engaging our antagonists, not attacking them. It means not taking the bait. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
This isn’t the first time Thompson has spoken out against the GTA series. He was also among the first to condemn the “Hot Coffee” modification for the PC version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas — the user-created download that unlocked a mini-game in which the protagonist was shown having sex with his girlfriend. Surprisingly, this sparked a greater uproar than the series’ violence ever had. (A recent survey by whattheyplay.com, a gaming-advocacy Web site, found that more parents were worried about their children encountering a sex scene in a game than a severed head.)