Five Quick Thoughts on Grand Theft Auto 5

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“Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.

For those of us who understand the importance of the keys “Q”, “A”, “O”, “P” and “space” or who got excited when Spectrum produced an affordable home computer with 124 kB of RAM, the world of the modern gamer is an alien and awe-inspiring environment. The modern video game has production values to match a Hollywood blockbuster. Grand Theft Auto 5’s budget stretched to $265 million; it went on to raise $800 million of revenue on the first day of sales.

In one generation two-dimensional platform – and- ladders games have been replaced by three-dimensional worlds populated with three-dimensional characters, complex plots and exquisitely detailed graphics. Of necessity, as modern games depict the world more realistically, the depictions of violence become more realistic. Therefore, modern third-person shooter games have been blamed for mass shootings. However, whatever the relationship between media violence and actual violence is, it is complex, and it would be foolish to look for one simple cause for the horror of Columbine or Virgina Tech.

Still, there is something disturbing about the moral worlds that attract many gamers. It is only play, to be sure, and most gamers can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Yet, the world of a game like Grand Theft Auto Five must be sufficiently inviting to generate enough sales to repay a breathtaking level of investment. So, it is worth taking a few moments to reflect on the world of GTA5; after all, this world appeals to the fantasies of many affluent young people.

1)      It’s worth noting the creativity and craft of the game’s designers. While no one can (yet) cite a game worthy of comparison with the great filmmakers, we can safely compare the thought and direction put into GTA5 with “popcorn” films like Olympus Has Fallen or Battleships. Games might not be great art but, when considered as visual experiences, they qualify as art nonetheless. So, if we can critically appreciate the medium of GTA5, it follows that we should ask if the game has a message which also deserves critical attention.

2)      The world of GTA 5 is brutal and amoral. One plays as a retired thief returning for ‘one last score’; a young gang-banger and car-thief looking to break into big crime; or “a redneck psychopath and sexual deviant…an extraordinarily nasty piece of work and Grand Theft Auto’s most disturbing character.” In one mission you must choose how to torture an innocent captive, either breaking bone or searing flesh, until he gives up a target for assassination. You can beat and lacerate this man to the edge of death, then restore his life with a shot of adrenaline to the heart, and begin the torture once more.

Perhaps  we should not be that surprised at this level of violence. When people reject moral absolutes they can no longer believe that anything is absolutely evil. When we don’t believe in evil we can laugh at the monstrous and appreciate sadism for its entertainment value.

3)      However, while they might disapprove of the violence and apparent misogyny, some critics have noted GTA 5’s inability to shock.

 “I’m bored, more than anything, as well as irritated that another generation of young players isn’t being offered something more exciting than this. – Helen Young, The Guardian

“Grand Theft Auto is great at world-building, but not so great at making you care about what goes on in that world. – Ryan Vogt, Slate Magazine

 This game gives me everything, and yet I can’t stop feeling sad. Trapped.  … I want new monsters..I want to be shocked again. – Leigh Alexander, Slate Magazine

This is not at all surprising. Filmmakers long ago abandoned the belief that moral evil is a threat to society; censorship has become taboo. Therefore, there are few constraints on what a director can represent in a film. Films have pummelled, flayed and eviscerated scores of beautiful and helpless victims; as a consequence, audiences are desensitized to brutality.  Violence has become comedic: Kill Bill fries a head for laughs; Kick-Ass abuses childhood with a nod and a wink. The images of films remain more realistic than those in video-games; little wonder, then, that the representation of violence in GTA5 can no longer horrify or captivate.

4)      This illustrates a problem with amorality – it is boring. Evil can only destroy and desecrate ; it is powerless to create or build. With enough exposure, evil ceases to appall us; once every good thing has been defiled amorality has nothing left to say and evil has nothing left to do.

No good can come out of the mindless destruction portrayed in GTA5. The characters have no hope of redemption; there are no morals for the gamer to learn. But, if there is no greater good to be gained, the questions arise for the game’s characters: “why bother? Why not give up? Why not accept a mundane life?”  Gamers can immerse themselves in a distracting experience. But is that sufficient pay-off for hours of game play? Are there no better ways of connecting with the world? Is there nothing more exciting to be learned? And why do we need constant, instantaneous, meaningless trivial distractions?

“Thus so wretched is man that he would weary even without any cause for weariness from the peculiar state of his disposition; and so frivolous is he, that, though full of a thousand reasons for weariness, the least thing, such as playing billiards or hitting a ball, is sufficient to amuse him. Pascal Pensees, 139

5)      It is instructive to wonder how Pascal would have answered.  After all, he was one of the first philosophers to diagnose our addiction to distractions as a symptom of a deeper problem. Pascal believed that humanity was “deposed royalty”; we were meant for greatness but our decisions have ruined us, and left us wretched. We are only vaguely aware of this wretchedness; a mute protestation in our bones tells us that we were made for something better, that life ought not to be like this.

However, to consciously admit this to ourselves might lead us to examine our own faults; that might lead us to acknowledge some responsibility for our own misery; and that might lead to repentance and a cry for salvation. So we distract ourselves with entertainments; we do whatever it takes to keep true self-knowledge at bay.

“Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched. Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is a greatness in knowing one is wretched. Pascal Pensee 114

Pascal practically prophesied the era of mass entertainment. Perhaps, then, we ought to take his warnings seriously.



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