The shocking truth is that this notorious video game is no longer shocking

Opinion: Grand Theft Auto, now defanged, has sunk into the cultural mainstream

Onee used to feel guilty about playing a game about street hoodlums.

Onee used to feel guilty about playing a game about street hoodlums.


There’s more to Grand Theft Auto V than driving fire engines over school children. You can play golf. You can run a triathlon. You can shop for clothes. Indeed, every now and then, you get the feeling you are vicariously living a life somewhat less interesting than your own.

One thing you can’t do is read newspaper columns about how video games are turning children into sociopaths. So, it’s not much like the real world at all.

If you have been above ground within the last week, you will be aware that the latest game in the hugely popular Daily Mail-poking franchise has just made its way into stores. The figures are staggering. In its first day alone, the extravaganza took in $800 million. As Variety magazine noted, that is more than Man of Steel, the latest Superman movie, generated in its entire theatrical run.

The fans do still seem to be on board. It does, however, look as if the fulminators are struggling to stoke the fires of righteousness. It wouldn’t be a Grand Theft Auto release without some sort of scandal. In the early years – the first version emerged in1997 – most of the bellowing came from the post-Whitehouse right.

The news that players were being invited to break the law as they robbed banks, hot-wired cars and drove enthusiastically through spiralling Hare Krishnas inspired oceans of prose concerning lost generations and moral plagues.

As time moved on, warriors against misogyny and racism – disproportionately skewed towards the left – became more prominent in campaigns against the current release.

The game has, for paid-up, spectacled lefties such as your current correspondent, always poised slippery dilemmas.

Do we really believe the extreme violence offers a commentary on society or are we using that argument to excuse our own bloodlust? I can’t think about that now. I have to steal a taxi and rendezvous at the strip club before Big Luther plugs my homie.

Guilty pangs
Later, more complex versions of the game triggered very modern, previously unimaginable guilty pangs. One felt uncomfortable because, rather than writing facetious columns, delivering babies or doing whatever it was you do, you were playing a video game about American street hoodlums.

Then one felt nested guilt because, rather than carrying out the designated missions, you were driving around aimlessly, picking fights with passing coppers or playing darts at one of the game’s virtual bars. In retrospect, it was a little like a dosser’s version of Christopher Nolan’s Inception: distractions within distractions within distractions.

Anyway, the prophets of catastrophe have had their work cut out generating fresh controversy about Grand Theft Auto V. An early Twitter storm about a phrase – uttered on one of the game’s talk radio stations – apparently recommending the lavatorial debasement of women seemed to miss the fact that the segment was a sharp, entirely right-on satire of the ludicrous 50 Shades of Grey. Complaints about a sequence that found one of the heroes torturing a rival have found more traction.

In the mission, information is successfully extracted using the same sort of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – that’s to say villainous thuggery – allegedly employed by the CIA in its war on terror. As is often the case with this game, the invitation to identify with the sadist does cause the skin to crawl somewhat. But the association of government operatives with urban hoodlums surely counts as implicit condemnation of the suspected practices. Does it not?

That row has already died down. The relative calm surrounding the emergence of the new game confirms that, like so many other sources of outrage down through the decades, Grand Theft Auto has now sunk, largely defanged into the cultural mainstream.

Over the last century or so, furious moralists have repeatedly offered two slightly contradictory prophecies about the latest pop-cultural atrocity: the entity will quickly be forgotten, but it will also somehow bring about the complete corruption of society.

Young eat old
The first happens surprisingly rarely. The second has never happened. Video games were, like rock ‘n’ roll, abstract art and denim jeans, supposed to go the same way as phrenology and Morris dancing. They would become the preserve of re-enactment societies and museums of the antique bizarre. Meanwhile the young would set to eating the old.

A similar conversation is going on about the internet in general and about social media in particular. Initially, the medium obliged speakers of the first prophecy by annihilating its agents in double-quick time.

Friends Reunited, Bebo and MySpace were barely in the pan long enough to emit a flash. But Facebook and Twitter have stubbornly refused to die. We may be stuck with them forever. Society will surely survive their presence.

You want evidence that Grand Theft Auto is now an old man’s game? A large part of the game involves withering satire of a company that looks awfully like Facebook. Modern life is confusing.

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