Grant Woodward: The mean streets of video games’ moral wasteland

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WELL done Target. The Australian retail chain has announced that it is pulling a controversial video game from its shelves in what might just be a world first.

“We’ve been speaking to many customers about the game and there is a significant level of concern about the game’s content,” explained a company spokesman.

“We’ve also had customer feedback in support of us selling the game, and we respect their perspective on the issue. However, we feel the decision to stop selling Grand Theft Auto V is in line with the majority view of our customers.”

To some this might seem an over-reaction. It’s a video game for goodness sakes, not Ebola. But have you seen video games these days? Have you actually played any of them? Put it this way, Pac Man they most certainly are not.

I own a smattering of them, they came with a games console I got free with a mobile phone contract several years ago and which is now quietly gathering dust in the corner of our spare room.

And let me tell you, the games are a whole lot more exciting than anything I ever loaded up on my Sinclair Spectrum as a youngster. Instead of looking as though they’ve been hastily sketched by a small child, the graphics thrust you into strange and thrilling new worlds that feel real enough to reach out and touch.

Once you see for yourself how immersive they are, it’s easy to understand how teenagers can spend days glued in front of them.

But the trouble is that an awful lot of these games are really quite violent. Terrifyingly so. If I were to tell you that this Christmas thousands of children across Yorkshire were going to be dealing drugs, stealing cars and stabbing people in the street, you’d be a bit alarmed too, wouldn’t you?

And yet this is exactly what will be happening in homes where a copy of Grand Theft Auto V is unwrapped on December 25. The game’s aim is to carry out various horrific crimes while trying not to get caught by the police. You stalk the streets of Los Santos, a seedy, sprawling parody of Los Angeles, carjacking, selling crystal meth and killing people.

In one scene you torture another character. That’s right, torture him. You can clamp a car battery to his nipples and electrocute him, attack him with a heavy wrench, forcefully yank a tooth out with pliers or kick his chair over and waterboard him. When that’s all over you can let off a bit of steam by having sex with a prostitute and then robbing and killing her.

The video game defenders will trot out the usual line that none of this is any different from what you will see at the movies. But it is. Rather than watching something unfold on the screen while you munch on your popcorn, you’re the one playing the lead role. Once inside a video game, you can make these invented worlds bend to your whim. And in this case that means deciding how to inflict maximum pain on another human being, even if they do happen to be in the form of a bundle of pixels. How can that fail to affect youngsters in some way?

I can’t help but think back to an old schoolmate of mine. We used to have a chuckle at poor Anthony’s expense because his mum had banned him from watching the Rambo or Rocky films. We all thought this was a bit weird. Now I have children of my own, I’m starting to see where she was coming from. And if she thought watching Sylvester Stallone slug it out with cartoon Russians was a corrupting influence on her son, I dread to think what she would have made of the likes of Grand Theft Auto or Call Of Duty, the war simulator where you creep up on the enemy to slash their throats before joining a group of terrorists to enact an airport massacre.

I’m not saying that a boy of 12 (because despite these games having a notional age rating of 18, a combination of peer pressure and parental ignorance means they’re rarely adhered to) will walk out of his front door after playing these games and immediately start randomly knifing complete strangers.

But there is a darkness at the heart of games such as Grand Theft Auto that frightens me. It speaks to a culture where violence and criminal behaviour are dished up as entertainment and games are geared in a way that means young children get a kick out of indulging in them. Most troubling of all is the complete absence of any force for good, something that offers players a shot at redemption amid the bleak, moral bankruptcy on show.

Instead the overriding message is that money and “bling” are king – and you grab them however you can, even if this means cheating, stealing and killing or torturing others. Am I wrong to be concerned about the sort of future society this might create and the influence it could have on my young children? Like Target and its customers, I don’t think I am. The question is, will other retailers now have the courage to follow suit?