Grand Theft Auto and Me

THERE IS A bloodied woman lying on the ground with stacks of $20 bills floating around her. We’ve just had sex in my Campari red supercar, I’ve got a sniper in my hands and Bryan Adams is playing from the car radio. I had you fooled for a minute, didn’t I – though I have to admit it isn’t a real scene from my own experiences, but a one from arguably one of the greatest series of video games there’s been: Grand Theft Auto.

I blame a babysitter for my introduction to GTA. Yes, a babysitter did allow my 10-year-old self and younger brother to sit and join in with his Certificate 18 PS2 game (although I think my parents would rather he showed us that than his other Certificate 18 stuff, but enough said). We played Grand Theft Auto III and, although its graphics were slightly blocky for today’s standards, it had me engrossed. I’d not seen anything like it before – my gaming experiences were about Spyro and PacMan up until this point – and to escape into a fully-developed sprawling world like Liberty City was something completely different. And naturally, as CGI and I matured over time, the appeal of Grand Theft Auto did, too. It gives hundreds of thousands of people an almost ‘retro’ and brassily-exaggerated views of 1980s Miami in Vice City and ’90s Los Angeles in San Andreas respectively and, whether or not they’re wholly accurate portrayals I’m not sure, but it makes for addictive gaming. I’d waste so much time attempting the complex and Bond-like missions, or (as I’m sure you all did, too) spend hours stealing convertibles or tractors or helicopters and running over hookers.

But let’s put the fun stuff aside for a moment; one can’t ignore the controversy surrounding Grand Theft Auto. My knowledge of weapons comes almost exclusively from these games – in fact, I’d never heard of a machete or a rocket launcher or half of the featured weapons until I played it. And, once your character’s got a gun in his hand, the gory visuals that ensue are especially detailed. I suppose it’s frightening how much I learned just from one video game – and I’m not really all that interested in guns. There are endless arguments about the correlation between violent games and real-life violence, including if there even is a correlation at all. Certainly, the amount of money spent on video games and the levels of gun crime in the United States are considerably higher than somewhere like Australia or here in the UK. We shouldn’t forget the facts, however: the USA has a population nearly 14 times that of Australia and its laws regarding guns are much more complex and controversial. So with that in mind, and in light of events we hear in the news, as well as the enduring popularity of the vast array of gunfire games available, is it any wonder that critics are quick to point out a link between the two? And is there any credibility in that link anyway?

These types of games seem to be universally popular, not least in Grand Theft Auto’s homeland of the UK. Is there a correlation here? No. The UK still maintains one of the world’ lowest rates of gun violence, despite the millions spent on such video games every year. It’s likely got something to do with the strong control on firearms ownership – that’s hard to deny – such that I wouldn’t have any idea how to get hold of a gun even if I wanted to. Perhaps this is the issue that needs adressing rather than the prevalence of video games, but let’s save that topic for the experts.

Yet why do people spend so much money on Grand Theft Auto and its cousins in the first place? You probably know the answer anyway and in fact, I think I’ve already answered the question: to escape. They’re both hugely critically and commercially successful because they allow the player to escape. Video games – just as books, films, theatre, music, model railways, jam-making, cross-stitch – are a means of escapism. Whether they’re the healthiest means of doing so for the mind and body is a different matter, but what’s the harm in exploring a fictional city blowing up speedboats if you’re enjoying it? What’s the harm in fantasising over Mr D’Arcy? Or listening to Genesis on repeat? If that’s where you find escape, then good. Most people (including myself, I hasten to add) are law-abiding citizens, and will stay so. We have no intention of bringing the world of GTA to our own worlds and are quite happy to leave it well inside its box.

With the imminent release of the Grand Theft Auto V this month, what can we expect? If the trailer is anything to go by, the game seems to have completely superceded itself. It’s as if they’ve taken the free-roam RPG by the scruff of the neck and wrung it until every drop of computer-generated blood has been squeezed out of it. Plus, it’s got a touch of The Sims about it – no bad thing. And an intricate plot, true-to-life characters, mind-blowing graphics, snazzy cars and funky music, the tiniest of tiny details, parodies here and there, a staggeringly-realistic backdrop of an American-inspired city, too, I expect, but most likely blood, sex, drugs, guns, knuckledusters, theft and murder as well. So where can they go from here? I for one expect a perfectly-rendered replica of Planet Earth by Grand Theft Auto IX,  but whatever the outcome, I can definitely guarantee droves of hard-boiled teenage boys (and probably their dads, too) descending on the shops. Unfortunately, games consoles and I drifted apart a couple of years ago but that’s not to say I wouldn’t go back. A bit like how I imagine drug addicts on the streets of Vice City, maybe – the draw is there, and when it’s had you as GTA had me, then it’ll always have an allure.

If you’ve not seen said trailer… http://www.rockstargames.com/videos/video/8001

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