A Violent Pornography
I need to open with an emphasis on what I’m not. I am not an easily shocked, shy retiring spinster type of prude. I am not a self-important, do-gooding, fascist type who wishes to control the minds of those I deem ignorant. I’m not living in a bubble cut-off from the realities of what life has become in the 21st century’s developed world. Generally I dismiss complaints against extreme art with a shake of my head and a quick “they’re missing the point”; I am, however, speaking to you today in the guise of Concerned of Birmingham, outraged by some violent ‘art’.
I rate A Clockwork Orange*, Goodfellas**, and City of God*** among my favourite movies, all unflinchingly violent but, as with the obscenity distinction between pornography and art, they offer something else. I have delved into the darker parts of my personality playing violent video games (such as The Simpsons Hit and Run) where I see that violence and competitiveness provide the entertainment. Entertainment becomes dangerous when a me me me greedy culture is the immoral substructure of an explicitly violent, and outstandingly realistic entertainment package.
So I am grasping this opportunity to slap, or slapportunity if you will, to drown the makers of Grand Theft Auto, the many sequels and the many imitators with oceans of shame. These are the games of speeding in shiny cars, of theft, violence and all manner of anti-social behaviour presented in such a slick and stylish way that one cannot help but be seduced by the glamour. Entertainment aimed, allegedly at an adult market that know better, glorifying a self-centred, materialistic and utterly selfish mode of living. Not only do these games miss the intended audience influencing small minds, they also normalise violence, bringing the act of killing into people’s homes, influencing grown minds.
The blurb says:
Five years ago Carl Johnson escaped from the pressures of life in Los Santos, San Andreas... a city tearing itself apart with gang trouble, drugs and corruption. Where film stars and millionaires do their best to avoid the dealers and gang bangers.I have always been a little troubled by the ultra violent, but believe in free speech, the right to choose, individual responsibility, yadda yadda. During a Circle Time session when we were discussing activities we enjoy (in an effort to help the children see their shared humanity, their similarities and thus to make friends more readily) I became concerned. It turns out almost all the boys have played the GTA San Andreas game, adore it, and would defend it passionately. Interesting that I’ve had a lot of problems with violence and fighting from this group also. So many of them seem to have unlimited access to play unsupervised. So many struggle to draw any distinction between reality and the fantasy painted in the 18 films and games. They are unsupported, having no guidance to consider the moral implications of visiting prostitutes and carrying weapons.
Now, it's the early 90s. Carl's got to go home. His mother has been murdered, his family has fallen apart and his childhood friends are all heading towards disaster.
On his return to the neighborhood, a couple of corrupt cops frame him for homicide. CJ is forced on a journey that takes him across the entire state of San Andreas, to save his family and to take control of the streets.
Liberty City. Vice City. Now San Andreas, a new chapter in the legendary series.
The violent cinema causes violence argument is an old and not especially convincing. Clearly many people see violence and do not react violently, The Crusaders, Genghis Khan and Jack the Ripper didn’t rely on cinema to get their passion for violence flowing. It is not as simple as that. I have to draw a distinction between passively viewing violence and taking an active role, even as far as holding a replica gun, and pulling a replica trigger in some games. The added level of involvement has to go some way to normalise violent acts and make them seem an every day occurrence. How much easier it would be to pull the trigger when faced with a violent situation, when you’ve simulated it a thousand times and become acclimatised to the consequences of a gun shot. Don’t forget Grand Theft Auto’s verisimilitude resulted in a shortlist in The Culture Show’s Design Quest.
The websites I visited made a show of their adults only policy. These games are Rated m for Mature, but this is no protection. Options of “Click here if you are British and under 18”, “click here if you’re from the rest of the world and really mature”, enter your date of birth. Why do they even bother with this? If I’m a bloodthirsty ten year old with no one watching my online activities, my conscience isn’t going to stop me entering the site I’ve been warned is unsuitable. At a Parents’ Evening one mother reported how she resorted to breaking the PlayStation in order to get her sons (and husband) away from the violent DVDs and games they shared. Dad liked to share. Mom was powerless. This horrified me, and is probably a whole other gender-culture related slap.
The children, my dearly loved students, have no concerns for their own safety. They believe in Grand Theft Auto, see truths and validation that are lost on me. Ok, so they’re happy to inhabit this world, happy for our world to become more like it, thrilled by the Ray-Ban glamour, high-speed excitement, the fashion and passion. But, ah-hah, “What if someone wanted to hurt you?” asks the naïve teacher. Haven’t I warned them a thousand times of the cycle of violence and suffering that result from an act of anger? “I’d kill them first,” comes the instinctive reply. The wrongness of killing is absent. The likelihood of being caught off guard, overpowered or punished is less real than their sense of potency and the safeguard that a raft of extra lives confers. There is no danger and no conscience. I feebly quote The Qur’an, The Bible, The Torah to impress on these children who spend maybe ten hours a week in religious instruction, that every religion is certain on the question of the sanctity of life, but it is way too late. They have lived the GTA life, the thrills much more alive than tales of angels and damnation meant to scare them into submission.
I am not going to slap those who find violence and crime exciting or alluring. We are usually not responsible for our passions and interests, an attraction to that which is forbidden or dangerous is common and understandable. I am slapping parents and other carers who are so irresponsible they allow unlimited access to age inappropriate material, to the media machine that looks at success in terms of sales and not the effects on society and to a company that throws all its expertise into making their interactive violence as realistic and alluring as is technically possible. These games are not art, offering nothing more than pleasure taken in the pain of (simulated) others, they are the trigger on a time bomb that will inflict needless suffering on an already pain-weary populace.
Thanks to System of a Down for lending me the title, although I didn’t actually ask permission, so technically it’s theft: see what happens to my moral fibre when I start researching these games. All quotations and images from: www.rockstargames.com/sanandreas
*A Clockwork Orange has young people dancing with violence as a symptom of a decaying society. It is a warning, a futureshock, with exquisite photography, soundtrack and utterly thought provoking. Youthful attraction to ultraviolence is shown as a phase we can outgrow.
**Goodfellas explores the attraction to crime and violence of the poor and impressionable. The consequences are shown. And it is also exquisite in visual and audio terms.
***Again a decaying society, of haves and have nots, a dog eat dog world that anyone with a brain and some luck would seek to extricate themselves from. A wake up call to those who close their eyes to the favelas and see the poor as subhuman and far away. It too has high standards for the sights and sounds.
****Cartoon violence. A yellow, non-realistic, humorous, humanistic icon is in no way similar to any aspect of the world I know. Probably quite a bad influence on the youth, but at least they know it’s not real. Then again, my youngest believed visiting Disneyland would result in her being transported into an actual cartoon where everything and everyone would look like they do in the animations, so can I really assert non-realistic violence is safe?