People have been playing since before they were even people. It’s built into mammalian DNA – as instinctive as breathing – and animals that aren’t too stressed or too hungry will generally find the time for it. Kittens play with balls of string, elephants bash into each other and splash about, and the famously-peaceful bonobos will fuck each other for almost any tenuous reason you can think of, from general sex-sex to make-up sex, all the way through to, "Hey look, I found some food!" sex.
GTA V represents the latest pinnacle in mammalian evolution. We no longer have to punch each other, roll in mud, have lots of sex or play GTA IV. Instead, we have a huge chunk of San Andreas and its virtual residents to play with, lovingly voice-acted and HD-rendered. You’d think this would signal that now is the time for humanity to gather together and rejoice, perhaps taunting an elephant or kitten along the way. But it turns out that not everyone is happy with our evolutionary path.
Of course, play isn’t all fun and games; it can be costly and dangerous, too. One day, as a very small child, I decided that I was a rhinoceros. My dad was building a brick wall in the garden and I figured that I could probably knock it over with my big, solid, rhinoceros head. To give me an even better chance, I decided to take a run up at it. This, in hindsight, was a mistake. I woke up on the car seat on the way to the hospital, covered in towels, blood running down my chin. Play can cause serious harm, and it uses time and energy that could be spent on more important things, like survival or homework. So much so, in fact, that – to this day – researchers are struggling to pin down why animals do it so much.
GTA V isn’t immune from these problems, of course. One day – yesterday, in fact – I decided to play a couple of missions as part of my "research" for this article. This, in hindsight, was a mistake. I woke up on the sofa hours later, covered in Doritos powder and pizza slices, with dribble running down my face.
But there are those who have spent the past decade or so suggesting that games like the GTA series could have far more serious effects than a damp chin. These voices have become a lot quieter in the 12 years since the release of GTA III, with gaming establishing itself firmly in the media mainstream, but they’re still there. There’s Susan Greenfield, whose research output in recent years seems to have dwindled to Daily Mail headlines, as well as Peter Hitchens and James Delingpole, who both contributed to the Mail’s recent half-hearted attempts to manufacture a controversy around GTA V.
"If the devil had to invent a game," Hitchens thundered, "it would be this one." Not to be outdone, Delingpole suggested we were witnessing something akin to the last days of the Roman Empire. But is GTA V really the giant sin-packed threat to our moral fiber that they claim?
The first point to make here is that the game is nowhere near as amoral as you’d expect from these hugely misleading reviews. The now infamous torture scene – in which (playing as Trevor, a livewire meth and guns dealer) you have to extract information from a suspect with an array of devices – is a case in point. Delingpole describes pulling out his tooth with a pair of pliers and suggests the game invites you to "revel in every moment".
Far from revelling in it, I was squirming in my seat; and what Delingpole neglects to mention is that the whole mission is actually a pretty heavy-handed lecture on the ultimate stupidity and futility of torture. The information extracted turns out to be completely useless, since the subject simply tells his interrogator what he wants to hear. An innocent man is killed as a result, and Trevor – a filthy and unpleasant psychopath – later comments that the only reason to torture someone is for the fun of it.
In fact, much of the game is a comment on the ultimately self-perpetuating and self-defeating nature of violence. Actions regularly have consequences, even outside of the main storyline. The characters blunder from crisis to crisis, battered, bleeding and miserable. A mission I played last night has you accompanying a paparazzi photographer who hurls insults at a "bitch" celebrity he’s trying to take photos of, stopping only to wail, "I love you!" at the back of the limo as it speeds off. The police are corrupt, the town’s obsession with celebrity is revealed to be as pathologically unhealthy as our own. The characters you play aren’t remotely aspirational – like Los Santos itself, they’re circling the drain.
Could the violent content have some kind of influence on us? Delingpole suggests we should "pray that the violence on the screen doesn’t bleed into Britain’s streets", while Hitchens points with the subtlety of a child pretending to be a rhinoceros at Aaron Alexis, a man who killed 12 people in a shooting in Washington DC recently and apparently played Call of Duty. He was also a troubled man with a history of violence and paranoia who believed he was being controlled by electromagnetic waves and had been trained to kill by the US Navy, but – in Hitchens' world – that’s just incidental information, an afterthought to the video game that dictated his every move.
Daphne Bavalier’s review of the impacts of technology on children suggested that violent games had an impact that was statistically significant, but so small and uncertain it was debatable whether it was of any real importance. In truth, the research we have on video games and violence is pretty low in quality and riddled with fundamental problems – the most obvious being how exactly do you define violence in the first place?
The game Angry Birds encourages you to smash animals into each other to kill them, but we've never seen gangs of commuters hurling blue tits at farms. Worms had no point to it beyond killing your opponents and blowing up terrain in the most creative and spectacular ways you could think of. However, very few people would consider either of these games to be "violent" in the sense that GTA is. So what is it about GTA that makes it more "dangerous" to our fragile minds? The realism? The juxtaposition of real-life situations and scenarios? Few critics seem willing to tackle this question, but until they do, their concerns are vague and impossible to prove. If you can’t coherently define what is and isn’t a "violent video game", how can you have an intelligent discussion about them?
Of course, it’s impossible to say for certain that video games don’t cause violence. What we do know is that studies have found no strong evidence that they do, and given the lack of any rise in violence in the video game era it seems any effect would have to be pretty tiny.
As I pointed out last year, "In 1993 Doom was launched, and by the 1995 release of Worms, violent crime in the UK stood at over four million cases per year. In 1997, Carmageddon was launched, and violent crime dropped by half a million or so. In 1999, Counter-Strike was launched and violent crime dropped to below 3.5 million cases per year. In 2001, Halo and GTA III were launched, and violent crime fell below three million. In 2003, Manhunt was launched, and violent crime fell to just over 2.5 million. In 2005, F.E.A.R. was launched, and violent crime fell to just under 2.5 million. In 2007, Manhunt 2 was launched, and violent crime fell to just over two million. Over roughly the same period, video games grew from a minority interest to more than 40 percent of the UK entertainment market."
That’s not really surprising – play is an essential part of a healthy life, people generally understand the difference between fantasy and reality, and they know that a fictional character on a computer screen is not the same as a real person. Though, as a committed Christian, it’s understandable if Hitchens struggles to make that distinction. All play has some cost involved, but it also has huge benefits – for humans and other animals – and there's no reason to suggest these are any different for GTA V than playing a board game.
It’s not unreasonable to ask the question, of course, but that’s not what these critics are doing. This debate never really has been about evidence, it’s about a conflict between the imaginary conservative utopia that Peter Hitchens and others want to live in and the nasty drug-and-violence-filled world they wrongly assume that Rockstar are trying to encourage. The irony they fail to grasp is that GTA V is a far more effective critique of the modern world than Hitchens or Delingpole could ever come up with themselves.
Illustration by Cei Willis.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins
Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a column that explores denial, conflict and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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