First, a disclaimer to my friends — I know you love this game. Don’t hate me for not loving the violence.
Grand Theft Auto IV, the most recent chapter of the acclaimed series launched a few weeks ago. It has sold a record number of copies and received an average press review score of 9.8 (out of 10). For the uninitiated, that is unheard of.
I have played about a fifth of the game (if you are wondering how I found the time, it is because I barely watch TV, sorry networks). Just like all the rest of the GTA games, it is violent. But it is no more violent than games like Halo or Call of Duty. Yet GTA is, at least to me, different.
GTA takes place in the real world and not some fictionalized alien planet like Halo or a fictionalized battlefield like CoD (although, I suspect, CoD might be more disturbing if we lived in a war zone). GTA takes place in “Liberty City,” which is a game version of New York City. You can steal cars, run people over, shoot, punch, kick anyone, etc. You can do all the things in the fake New York City that you should never do in the world that is driving by your window while you read this.
What disturbs me about GTA IV is that the graphics are so real (although I think the character models are weak) that it is easy to lose yourself in the fake world and potentially mistake it for the real world. You can’t turn off your TV and walk onto a Halo ring (however cool that would be) but you can do that with GTA IV. As graphics technology improves, so will the “virtual” reality created by games.
In GTA, I find it disturbing to kill people, steal their car, run them over, and so forth. Liberty City is supposed to be a living and breathing re-creation of reality. I don’t enjoy doing these activities to my fellow pixelated citizens (who are specifically made to look and act like my real-world peers). A lot (see GTA sales) of people do.
A large majority of society is logical, smart, decent, and mature and can distinguish between a fake world and a real world. However, there is a subset of people who can’t. The smart/decent people can easily become part of the subset if say, they have been drinking or are on some other substance. Plus, I imagine that kids would have an even more difficult time distinguishing between the two. Most everyone knows the difference between right and wrong but that difference is blurred in GTA. When you turn off the TV but the world of GTA continues in your imagination, what happens?
I have yet to read anything that actually ties GTA to real world violence. There likely is not a strong link. GTA is a game. Its creators should be commended for creating something brilliant. People have every right to buy whatever they want (legally, of course). However, ESRB should be enforced.
Go forth and enjoy destroying Liberty City but please, keep it in your Xbox, Playstation or online.
update on 6/26: Some teens went on a GTA IV wannabe rampage. Check it here.