Grand Theft Conscience

There’s no denying the creative genius of Grand Theft Auto IV, but by playing the game, are we inadvertently supporting violence, over-sexualization, and desensitization? Alice Stanley kicks off The Bygone Bureau’s Submissions Week with a sharp critique of how various medias can challenge our moral backbone.

There’s nothing I appreciate less than those Bible-smacking folk who try to ban Harry Potter from middle school libraries (“Those kids are witches!”). As a general rule, I have always considered myself fairly liberal concerning media in society. My thoughts on controversial movies, books, and music have always been that forms of art should never be censored. Yet, when I saw the trailer for the Rockstar’s new videogame Grand Theft Auto IV a few weeks ago, I think I actually briefly considered setting flame to every copy of the game before it would be overturned to the youthful souls of the world.

In the trailer alone, there were numerous shots of animated ladies performing all kinds of sexual acts at the will of the player. I don’t think this is dirty; it’s the objectification of women. I have enough trouble getting society to see me as more than boobs and a vagina without an interactive Xbox game teaching people otherwise. Ultimately, I just had to accept that people have a right to enjoy and experience virtual hookers (complete with rumbling feelings on the controller to imitate an erection) and that arson, even with good reason, could lead to serious punishment.

I’m not criticizing anyone who likes Grand Theft Auto. I can’t even prove that the game affects kids’ perception of women. The trouble I have with the purchase of this title is simply the support that people indirectly offer for the lifestyle the game represents.

One of my close friends is strongly against the rising over-sexualization of our society. If there were a jar near a cash register labeled “Over-sexualization Fund,” he would never drop any cash in—who would? Even if we had spare change and no pockets, most of us would rather throw the money on the ground than contribute to a charitable organization that promised to “Increase insecurity in our youth,” “Contribute to rising STD numbers,” or “Bring Britney Spears back into the spotlight.” Yet, that same friend bought GTAIV, a videogame that encourages the idea of sex as an impersonal, recreational activity. Not only did he theoretically support over-sexualization through experience and enjoyment of the game, he actually paid money for it, offering the most tangible kind of support to something he actually hates.

The idea of inadvertent support goes way beyond this videogame. Our support for things runs deep, but frequently, we don’t even think about it. I don’t support over-sexualization; I don’t support the devaluation of women; and I don’t support twelve-year-old girls wearing hoochie shirts and hanging out at the Dairy Queen to lament that they’ll never lose their virginity at this rate (true story).

But, back to Grand Theft Auto IV, I didn’t buy the game. I have, however, bought close to one hundred issues of Cosmopolitan in my lifetime. Cosmo is read by millions of women and girls every month, and most of the magazine is completely focused on materialism. There is clothing to buy and makeup to cake on, work-outs to try and kinky sex tips for all. Such a publication is not healthy for young women learning their place in society. Yet, my friends and I all read Cosmo in the 7th grade. I don’t support the negative ideas from the magazine, but I already have. I’ve actually given money to companies that want to tell growing girls that there is a right body type, being single is irregular, and you need a pair of Apple Bottom jeans if Billy is ever going to ask you to the Valentine’s dance.

Sometimes it’s easy to identify our adverse support. In alliance with the recent green trend, more people are kicking old habits to the curb in order to be environmentally friendly. Let’s look at vegetarianism for instance. By eating meat, people are unintentionally supporting animal cruelty, energy and water waste, excessive consumerism, and pollution-heavy production. Therefore, to become a vegetarian means making an agreement to not support those things—at least in one form or another. A question I find myself asking quite frequently, “What am I supporting?”. It’s a great reminder that my indulgences are not only self-destructive. They affect all of society.

Unfortunately, having a supportive epiphany only lasts so long. In order to understand the appeal of Grand Theft Auto IV, I played it. For two hours. It’s awful, but certainly one of the more creative media outputs I’ve ever seen. And it is so freaking addicting! Every little thing about this game is hyper-detailed. As a pixilated thug, you can even choose which radio stations to play in your hijacked car. The relationships you have with people–while frequently dark and disturbing–are realistic in that you have to treat humans like humans; you have to call your pals every once in while if you want to stay pals. While you can bang a street-walker as you please, you have to quasi-woo other women in the game. You have to make money to go out. And while it’s never as severe as it would be in real life, breaking laws does invite the police to chase you. This game cannot be contested as a very unique art form. Sure, the purchase of this game supports those negative aspects of life I have already beat to the ground, but it also supports creativity, innovation, and even a certain level of intelligence.

By examining almost anything we support, it’s impossible to find entirely good or bad things. For instance, those devilish issues of Cosmopolitan are supported high-powered female writers. Cosmo has established women as working powers to be reckoned with, and supports equality between sexes in a roundabout way. Being a vegetarian might not support animal cruelty, but I can recall many times vegetarianism has not helped me support hospitality and gratitude when I decline food from others. Some people have emotional ties to meat. To eat annual hot dogs on the Fourth of July is to support a type of tradition, love, and comfort.

Still, there are countless other aspects of life that are still on the fence for me. I believe that travel helps us understand other cultures, which makes for better politics and greater sociological gains; however, lots of travel means a greater carbon footprint, which I don’t want to support.

Ultimately though, I’ve decided that evaluating life choices is like voting in a presidential election. You’re never going to find a side that is completely in accordance with everything you want to support, but by seriously considering the weight of the support, we will give to what we believe is most important and will be able to do what’s best. In conclusion, Grand Theft Auto IV might not be my cup of virtual strip club, but at least I won’t be dousing Best Buy with gasoline and watching the video games blaze.

For now, at least.

Alice Stanley is an MFA candidate in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University. Follow her tweets or send her an email. She also has a website.