It was a big week for computer games. Playing one, Call of Duty, was allegedly responsible for Aaron Alexis going on a killing spree at a naval base in the US.
At the same time the biggest ever game launch in the history of biggest ever game launches saw Grand Theft Auto (GTA) V released.
The Daily Mirror shouted on its front “Driven to kill by Call of Duty”. That Alexis was a former naval gunman with mental health problems and a history of shooting at his neighbours was disregarded.
The growth of the games industry has changed the culture of gaming. The biggest shift is probably the growth of “casual games”—Angry Birds and the like.
Even politicians now reference them when they want to appear down to earth. Another aspect has been the element of player control of narrative.
The Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht suggested that radio and cinema, by opening up mass consumerism of culture, also opened up the possibility of mass participation.
Open-ended games give the impression of freedom from plot. The player doesn’t have to passively watch and empathise with the hero—they can control them.
In the GTA franchise this is combined with prejudice, unsubtle satire and a great deal of cathartic violence. In the current release, among much else, players have to grope strippers while avoiding the bouncer’s attention.
As a review by Carolyn Petit rightly said, “These are exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones. With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism.”
Her review received over 20,000 comments, most of them abusive, for awarding the game a mere nine out of ten rating.
The inclusion of a torture scene is less a matter of clumsy satire than planting controversy in the game to gain publicity. This is deliberately provocative. It gives an “edge” to what is in reality about as secure a corporate product as there is—hence the much hyped £170 million budget.
It is on sale everywhere, but it is a bit risky too.
Earlier incantations of the GTA franchise used publicist Max Clifford to plant stories in the tabloids about how harmful and outrageous the game was. The drive to profit from the commodification of our entertainment has pushed games in different directions.
“Freemium” games that push the player to spend money to progress is one pernicious model. The other is ever expanding more realistic and immersive games.
Both can be brilliant, rubbish or overhyped. But none of them make you kill people.