This article was previously entitled Why I'm Not Playing Grand Theft Auto IV. I've changed the name because I have in fact, since writing the article, played the game. And enjoyed it. As far as I'm concerned, my enjoyment of the game does not invalidate what I say below. This article, though about GTA IV, is really a criticism of gaming itself. That said, perhaps I'm just a hypocrite.
In the last little while, I've got myself into a few discussions, some of which were rather heated, about Rockstar's latest release, the controversial and much-hyped Grand Theft Auto IV. Let me be clear about myself: I am a gamer but I am also a critic of the arts and sometimes I think those two are mutually exclusive. I've been playing video games for many, many years now and I think it's generally expected that all gamers, in some ill-defined act of solidarity and affirmation, will always rise up and defend a game like Grand Theft Auto against such critics as the now-famous Jack Thompson on the grounds that it's fun, dammit. However, I don't defend GTA. I do think gaming can be intelligently and critically defended against its many vehement critics but I do not think that Grand Theft Auto is the platform upon which such a defense can be successfully mounted.
These days anyone in the gaming community who challenges the merits of a video game is considered a puritanical, raving fundamentalist. It does not really matter if you are talking about Manhunt or Halo: if you suggest that some violence is too excessive or that some scenarios go too far you are ridiculed, ostracized and ignored. Not even film critics are this blindly devoted to their chosen art form; most will have the honesty to say that not every film is justifiable or healthy regardless of the ideology they embrace. Gamers, on the other hard, perhaps betraying a deep-seated anxiety about their chosen form of entertainment, see every single game as a representative symbol of gaming as a whole. It's as if censoring one game will lead to the censoring of all video games. The mainstream media outlets do not help on this point since as soon as a particularly violent video game is released they use it as an opportunity to attack all of gaming instead of the game in question.
Now, I'm not really a fundamentalist or a radical conservative; at least, I don't think of myself as one. I am not particularly bothered by depictions of either extreme violence or sexuality when both are connected to artistic and metaphoric purposes. I just finished a Takashi Miike marathon, for crying out loud. My shelves are filled with the movies of David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, etc, etc. As I see it, film, along with most of the art forms working with the concepts of narrative or character, is built upon fundamental notions of irony and detachment. It's one of the first things you learn as an English student: don't confuse the narrator with the author; don't mistake the main character's views with the author's. There's a fundamental disconnect between what happens in a poem, a novel, or a film and between what the author or the text actually means. This disconnect is called irony and it is perhaps the most important hermeneutical principle any critic should recognize. Video games, however, lack irony. Actions are not connected to a larger metaphoric scheme; stories, most often lacking real characterization or narrative innovation, are simply pretenses for gameplay. This is true of almost every video game, not just Grand Theft Auto. There is no moral disconnect between a players actions and a game's "artistic" purpose.
What makes Grand Theft Auto such a lightning rod for controversy is that, unlike most games, the gameplay is based upon criminal action. Players, instead of taking on the role of a superhero, cop, soldier, whatever, take on the role of a criminal who, through murder, robbery, arson, etc, rises through the ranks of a particular criminal organization. This sort of gameplay, severed from ironic or metaphoric intentions, becomes extremely hard to justify. It is, perhaps, unjustifiable. In GTA, there's no moral disconnect between the crimes performed by the protagonists and the financial rewards derived with those actions. This is different, much different, from the depiction of crime in cinema. In a crime or gangster movie, the idea that crime destroys lives is built into the very narrative framework. It may be exciting to see Ray Liotta in Goodfellas gain mafia power but we know that it's all going to end badly for him because of it and we know that it's right that it should end badly. It is this moral disconnect, the ability for the audience to recognize the inverse relationship between crime and mental or moral health, that makes films such as Goodfellas and The Godfather justifiable, compelling and important. In video games, however, there is no moral disconnect; there certainly has never been one in and of the GTA games. The player takes on the role of a criminal and never once is encouraged to think reflectively or critically about this.
(I don't agree with everything Glen Beck says in the video above, but I do think that his point about the desensitizing program used by the military and how that relates to video games should be thought about quite seriously.)
I haven't played Grand Theft Auto IV yet so perhaps I'm not qualified to comment on the game like this. I am a gamer, however, and I have played most of the games in the series that came before it, though I never really found any of them to be all that compelling. So I think I'm qualified to say that unless GTA IV is so radical in its narrative presentation that the player, instead of feeling rewarded for his actions, feels like his character should die or spend the rest of his life in jail, then it is once again just another un-ironic glorification of criminal action.
If there is one thing that in my mind could invalidate gaming as a legitimate form of entertainment and that could challenge the notion that games are art it is this lack of irony. Roger Ebert has famously said that video games are not art and, frankly, I'm inclined to agree with him. For every Bioshock that gets released (which is perhaps the closest that a game has ever come to being a work of art) there are a hundred games like Grand Theft Auto released. They may be entertaining, and games like Grand Theft Auto may be entertaining in a very prurient, misogynistic way, but as long as they lack irony, mere entertainment is all that they will remain and it should never enter into our minds to call them art.
And, since I'm not entertained by 30+ hours of mindless and un-ironic crime, I've decided not to play Grand Theft Auto IV.