GTA V: A fleeting distraction in our terrifying reality

After playing GTA V, the latest instalment of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, the Mail’s James Delingpole recently gave “his verdict” on the title. With thousands of frothy-mouthed gamers primed to ransack their local branch of Game, they waited expectantly for word from the great bespectacled one.

For the benefit of his eager readers, he launched straight into the action:

“Yesterday, in the process of robbing a bank, I beat up an elderly security guard before shooting dead perhaps 15 policemen, exulting in their murders with the flip dismissal: ‘Shouldn’t have been a cop.’ After that, I stole a succession of fast cars, evading my pursuers by driving on the wrong side of the road, mowing down passers-by and killing more police by ramming straight into them. Then I went home for a change of clothes, a nap, a beer and a joint before getting into my stolen vehicle to wreak more mayhem, pausing briefly to enjoy the services of a prostitute.”

When my wife used to take control of the CJ character – back in the old GTA: San Andreas days – she used to run everywhere because she flatly refused to carjack anyone. She would then spend two hours strapped into a jet pack, hovering high above the bustling streets of Las Venturas, quietly looking for horseshoes. A fun, non-violent way of making some money, and every bit as important as my ruthless gang-banging and thirst for fast cars.

My wife contributed to the game on her terms, only doing what she felt comfortable with (she also used to hit the gym and go shopping). Delingpole, on the other hand, sounded like he wanted to squeeze in as much violence and depravity as possible. He shot dead “perhaps 15 policeman”. He doesn’t know the exact figure because he was lost in the moment, happily spraying those uniformed visualisations of image data with cop-killing lead.

It certainly sounds like he’s improved since he played the first Grand Theft Auto back in 1997. “It involved an awful lot of driving around motorways and I crashed so often I kept failing in the missions the characters were supposed to carry out,” grumbled Delingpole, reminiscing about the time he played his stepson’s copy of the original game – and hated it. Perhaps if the gameplay had involved driving a Vauxhall Zafira around the Cotswolds (sensibly, at 50mph) with a mission to find a boutique hotel before nightfall, it might have been a more enjoyable experience.

Still, Delingpole’s “spree of orgiastic destruction and drug-fuelled violence” in GTA V left him in no doubt as to how gamers should approach the game, neatly observing: “The idea is that rather than disapprove of all the unpleasant things [the game characters] have to do in the course of their missions — drug deals, heists, assassinations — you should revel in every moment.”

Of course, there’s nothing to say that gamers can’t have the best of both worlds. In future, Rockstar might look to provide some kind of in-game Points of View programme, where people who hate GTA (but for some reason find themselves deeply engrossed in its gameplay) can complain about the missions they’re being asked to carry out. If a gamer would rather do a bake sale to raise funds for a local hospice instead of committing a violent armed robbery for kicks, they should rightly have the means of communicating their concerns.

But let’s face it, no one immerses themselves in a game world to disapprove of things that, here in the ‘real world’, we might consider unpleasant or amoral. We accept that our violent actions are confined to our games consoles, where we can commit the most appalling acts with impunity (and even a wry grin). We’re the stars of our own ridiculous comic.

Typically, Delingpole’s Mail Online article carried two prominent screenshots of GTA V’s interactive torture scene, which players have no choice but to confront. Every instalment of GTA always has a controversial, headline-grabbing element – and this is it.

In a 2009 Telegraph blog post about torture, Delingpole reminded us that he, too, believes that “full-on torture is basically wrong”. However, his reference to “full-on torture” suggests that he sees torture as a car wash-style menu of packaged options. He’s probably OK with ‘basic torture’ as it likely involves nothing more brutal than a light beating or flagellation with a bare flex. The next level up from that is probably just a few stress positions and some psychological torture, like forcing a man to listen to the sound of a squealing pig for 24hrs (looped endlessly over the title music to Last of the Summer Wine). So far, so good.

This psychological torment is actually known as ‘torture lite‘ in U.S. Military circles, so it’s perfectly acceptable! It’s like a spread or carbonated drink with all the evil taken out, then repackaged as the healthy option. But “full-on torture” – waterboarding, tooth/fingernail extraction, possibly even genital mutilation – well, that is basically wrong.

Given that the torture scene in GTA V sees the gamer’s character (Trevor Phillips) torturing a terrorist suspect for information at the behest of the FBI, I assumed it would’ve been right up Delingpole’s street. After all, his Telegraph blog questioned why “hand-wringing liberals” in the West spend so much time agonising over the human rights of various terrorist suspects “while giving scarcely a fig for the memory of the numerous innocents they have managed to wipe out by bullet, grenade or suicide bomb”. With this in mind, the opportunity to sharply twist the handheld controller and wrench out a tooth, roots and all, from a terrorist’s gaping, blood-filled mouth should have been quite appealing.

[Incidentally, if James Delingpole were ever to torture a man, he strikes me as someone who would go about the task with all the restrained unpredictability of Gus Fring.]

But it would be wrong of me to spend this entire blog post focusing solely on James Delingpole (992 words is more than enough). The GTA V torture scene has also caused outrage among human rights groups and teachers’ unions. (Oh, and also Labour’s Keith Vaz, who, let’s be honest, would probably describe a vigorous massage as one of the most sickeningly violent things he has ever experienced.)

Alison Sherratt, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned that young children watching their siblings play GTA V may not be able to tell that it’s fictional. “The graphics are so realistic that little ones don’t think what they’re watching is a game,” she said. “Four to five-year-olds have a tendency to copy what they see on TV, whether it’s this or Fireman Sam putting out fires.”

I assume that if a child copies Fireman Sam by extinguishing a fire – rather than hurling flammable cushions into the flames to accelerate the conflagration – that’s a GOOD thing. Forcefully extracting a friend’s milk tooth at playgroup, probably less so. But that’s not very likely.

Maybe I’m expecting too much for there to be a level of parental responsibility here, but parents shouldn’t be buying GTA V for children under 18 years of age anyway (plonked in front of a 50″ plasma TV, mouths agape, controllers in hand). And they and their 18+ teenage offspring should certainly know better than to allow their five-year-old children/siblings to be witnesses to their violent video game exploits. But people are fucking stupid, so I guess some do. That’s not the video game industry’s fault, though.

I also disagree with the view that inserting torture into a video game “glamourises” it in popular culture.

Few people bat an eyelid when storylines of kidnap, murder, violence and drug taking are ‘glamourised’ in prime-time soaps like Eastenders. In fact, the 2007 episode of Coronation Street, which saw womanising builder Charlie Stubbs tie up teenager David Platt and force his head under water, was deemed to be “editorially justified” by Ofcom “even if there were some risk of imitation”. TV audiences are obviously considered to be more sophisticated and intelligent than gamers, who are so backwards that they simply cannot distinguish between reality and digital fiction.

[There are exceptions, obviously, like 14-year-old soap fan Daniel Bartlam, who bludgeoned his mother to death with a hammer in 2011 in a reenactment of his ‘favourite’ Coronation Street storyline.]

Furthermore, beyond the open world of GTA V, in our terrifying reality, we’re already exposed to an unrelenting daily diet of some of the most appalling and inhumane acts of cruelty and barbarism imaginable. We see Syrian rebels eating the hearts of their enemies and beheading captured helicopter pilots for the benefit of the camera (all available on YouTube…or in multiple pixelated screenshots on the Mail Online); Syrian civilians left writhing in contorted agony following Sarin nerve gas attacks; and yet more mass-casualty shootings in America. Added to this, we hear harrowing details of defenceless children in our own communities, tortured and starved to death by the parents who should have loved and protected them. We have homicides casually posted to Facebook, teenagers bullied into suicide by callous online trolls, and people who will literally kill for a free breakfast.

James Delingpole prays that the on-screen violence in GTA V doesn’t “bleed into Britain’s streets”, which is a woefully simplistic view. A violent video game isn’t going to unleash a wave of heavily-armed, glassy-eyed imitators, hellbent on wreaking death and destruction. The world is a fucked up place already, with more than enough real violence and inhumanity to chill our bones. In the whole scheme of things, Grand Theft Auto is just a fleeting distraction.



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2 responses to “GTA V: A fleeting distraction in our terrifying reality

  1. Superb piece. Now back to the Game.. where did I put those pliers.

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