As expected, the latest installment in the Rockstar Games franchise, “Grand Theft Auto V” (GTA V), has received mouth-foamingly rabid praise from critics and gamers alike.
The word “masterpiece” is being tossed around quite a bit. GTA V is breaking all sorts of sales records too: the game raked in over $1 billion after just three days on the market.
Also as expected, the game has attracted a fair bit of controversy.
As it goes with a GTA release, the pundits have been taking issue with the usual suspects: the ubiquitous violence, the dubious attitudes toward women and the nihilistic black-comedy tone, to name a few.
In one scene that has drawn criticism, gamers must torture an innocent man. To accomplish the deed, players can remove the victim’s teeth, waterboard him and more.
Violence sells. As evidenced by GTA V, it sells big time.
This is not to say GTA V is not a work of art: it undeniably is. Like all GTA games, the writing, design, music and gameplay are nothing short of immaculate. Despite the game’s artistic merits, elements of the game like the torture scene have caused some, even within the gamer blogosphere, to take a critical look at the ethics of games like GTA V.
The classic argument deployed by defenders of violent video games is that such games are simply cathartic fantasy.
This line leaves unanswered an even more troubling question: Why do so many of us enjoy engaging in fantasies as nasty as yanking teeth out of a crying man’s skull?
In Rockstar’s 2003 release “Manhunt,” gamers play a character participating in a snuff film. Players must conduct stealth executions with the likes of plastic bags, glass bottles and nail guns, all while being filmed, encouraged, and instructed by a perverse director. The game caused a sizeable stir, even within the game’s creative team. Former Rockstar employee Jeff Williams wrote that the game “just made us all feel icky. It was all about the violence. We all knew there was no way we could explain away that game. We were crossing a line.”
But many praised “Manhunt” as a cultural touchstone, calling the game meta-commentary on America’s obsession with reality television and bloodshed. Levi Buchanan’s review of the game in the Chicago Tribune noted, “‘Manhunt’ is easily the most violent game ever made … But it also is the ‘Clockwork Orange’ of video games, holding your eyes open so as to not miss a single splatter — asking you, is this really what you enjoy watching?”
Similar to “Manhunt,” some argue that the carnage in GTA V lampoons our hyper-violent culture in the same way the game pokes fun at many other aspects of modern living.
In an article concerning GTA V’s infamous torture scene for the video game site Polygon, Russ Pitts claims the scene “is designed to provoke shame. Perhaps regret. Maybe fury. But definitely and absolutely not pleasure.” Pitts concludes that the scene purposefully disturbs players, probing them to consider the ethics of the various atrocities they committed, and will continue to commit, throughout the game.
Is the violence in GTA V making a statement? Do gruesome games really cause gamers to wax philosophically about the role of violence in society?
One thing is almost certain: GTA V’s astronomical success probably makes a more telling statement about our fascination with violence than any pundit — or even the game’s creators — ever could.