This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Grand Theft Auto

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“I am not as good of a person because I play that game,” I confessed to a colleague earlier this week in reference to Grand Theft Auto V, the latest iteration of the boundary-pushing franchise which moral crusaders love to hate. Its release served as one of two recent events which prompted me to reevaluate the effect of media upon minds young and old.

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The other event involved my four-year-old son, whose development has taken off over a summer at home with his mother on maternity leave. The previous year left us concerned, as he was slow to talk, reluctant to engage with other children, and prone to tantrums which defied our efforts at discipline. He now rattles on as if his life depended on it, communicating with increasing creativity and sophistication. That affords us a wider window into his developing mind which has revealed just how impressionable he — and presumably all children — can be.

The influence which media can have upon my son proved dramatic this week after he watched Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. A cartoon spin-off of the classic PBS series Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the new show chronicles the adventures of preschooler Daniel Tiger in the world of Make-Believe. Utilizing techniques which have become standard operating procedure in children’s programming, such as speaking directly to children through the camera and soliciting response, the show takes kids on a tour of new experiences like going to school or visiting the doctor.

Understand that my son has always been terrified of the doctor’s office. A dual ear infection which occurred earlier this year was torturous for all of us. My son has required reassurance to get him into a drug store, let alone a clinic. So imagine my surprise when, after journeying through the magic of television to the doctor’s office with Daniel Tiger, my son was suddenly eager to submit to an exam. He’s been stomping around enthusiastically all week, talking about sitting in the waiting room, reading books until the doctor comes, and getting to listen to his own heart.

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Daniel Tiger did in twenty-one minutes what his mother and I could not accomplish in four years. That’s the power of media.

An earlier game was criticized for a modification which enabled explicit sex scenes. Now, they're a standard feature.

An earlier game was criticized for a modification which enabled explicit sex scenes. Now, they’re a standard feature.

Of course, my son is an impressionable young boy, and I am a grown adult not so easily swayed. Right? After a few days sneaking in some stolen hours with Grand Theft Auto V, I’m not so sure.

The preeminent guilty pleasure of its medium, the Grand Theft Auto franchise has always pushed the limits of creativity, technical capability, and – most notably – taste. I recall reading about how morally provocative the original Grand Theft Auto was when first released in 1997. In those days, the game played as a top-down two-dimensional scroller with pixelated graphics. Much of its violence and debauchery was implied rather than explicitly portrayed. Even so, in a time when Mario and Sonic remained tent-pole franchises, running around a city wreaking criminal havoc was unprecedented, and unwelcomed by many who still considered video games to be the realm of children.

Grand Theft Auto III graduated the franchise to three dimensions and a much wider audience, enabling players to run around an impressively crafted city which felt like a living, breathing metropolis. I remember the twinge of guilt I felt upon first hitting a pedestrian while speeding down Liberty City’s streets, watching the person tumble over the hood and land among a trail of tire-tracked blood. Shocking at first, such violence soon became routine.

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Alongside the gore, Grand Theft Auto has always contained sex. Crusaders railing against the franchise most frequently cite its portrayal of prostitution, an activity the player may engage in as a john. Wait until the critics get a load of Grand Theft Auto V. What was once merely suggestive animation has become as explicit as anything on HBO. One mission has the player taking a job as a paparazzi sneaking onto a celebrity’s property to film footage of her engaged in an intimate act. To call the scene explicit would be an understatement, and that’s only one of many such scenes which pepper the game.

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Can’t… turn it off.

Not to be outdone, the violence has been dialed up as well. The Guardian reports on a “graphic torture scene” which has human rights groups up in arms:

Players of the 18-rated game become career criminal Trevor Phillips, and in a mission within the game called ‘By the Book’ are commanded by the FBI to torture an alleged terrorist for information.

Players must complete the scene to finish the game and are offered a selection of torture implements, including sledgehammers and electric cables to use on the victim. If his heart stops, a shot of adrenaline restarts it.

Okay. So, the game has sex and violence. What’s the problem? We’re all adults, right? We’ve been entertaining ourselves with such smut in film and television for years. What’s the big deal?

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Well, obviously, I’m playing the game. So I’m not going to sit here on a moral high horse and start barking about how the culture rockets toward hell in a hand basket. However, in light of the impressive effect Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood had on my young son, I wonder in my ripening adulthood whether anyone at any age can experience such elicit entertainment without being profoundly affected.

In a remarkable speech given during the closing session of this year’s RightOnline Conference and Defending the American Dream Summit, PJTV’s Bill Whittle demonstrated how effectively Hollywood manipulates our values and infects our deliberative process. We on the Right always bellyache about liberal bias in the media, on television, throughout movies, or in print. There wouldn’t be anything to lament if those mediums were not effective in shaping hearts and changing minds.

Add to that the effect of interactivity. Just as my son joined Daniel Tiger on a visit to the doctor, and thus became familiar and comfortable with a new activity, I join GTA’s Trevor Phillips in becoming familiar and comfortable with torture.

Forget me. I’m just one guy who at least feels conflicted about it. Grand Theft Auto V moved $800 million on its first day! To put that into perspective, consider that the highest-grossing film of the summer – Iron Man 3 – pulled in just $1.21 billion worldwide over its entire run. That translates to a lot of people playing this game by time the playing is done.

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So how will their hearts be shaped? Will their minds be changed about anything significant? Has mine? I will continue to ponder that question. So far, my tentative answer remains.

I am not as good of a person because I play that game.

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