Gordon Brown should play GTA IV

A prominent opinion article in Sunday’s Observer newspaper attacked politicians who criticise violent video games – and suggested that UK PM Gordon Brown would benefit from playing GTA IV.

Catherine Bennett’s article, entitled ‘I’m game for Grand Theft Auto. You should be too’, pointed the finger at the likes of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Keith Vaz for attacking violent games without having played them.

Bennett then wrote at length about her experiences with GTA IV. Despite struggling with the title, she wrote:

‘Were it not for its fearsome lewdness, many parents might prefer to help their children, too, to explore GTA’s satirical universe, rather than waste time on CBBC’s ever more dismaying offerings, from the dystopic filth that is Tracy Beaker to those twin triumphs of moronic nihilism, Prank Patrol and Hider in the House.’

She also discussed the stress and anger-relieving qualities of certain video games – suggesting that the under-pressure Gordon Brown may well benefit from a session on an Xbox 360 or PS3.

The full opinion article can be read below or on the Observer website.

Reasonably enough, when politicians expatiate on the dangers of video games, video-game players are apt to ask if they have ever actually played one. Had Hillary Clinton, for instance, subjected herself to Grand Theft Auto before she fingered it, in 2005, as a ‘major’ moral threat to Americans? ‘This is a silent epic of media desensitisation,’ she declared, ‘that teaches kids it’s OK to diss people because they are a woman, they’re a different colour or they’re from a different place.’ It is thought that, under a Clinton administration, her husband’s very first mission would be to address the game damage sustained by Americans in each of these moral categories.

More recently, Barack Obama has also jeopardised his popularity among gamers, calling on them to ‘turn off the TV and stop playing Game Boy’ and to go out campaigning for him instead. Alternatively, he proposed last week, when the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV met with international lamentation, young people might prefer to spend the time saved on homework.

‘These video games are raising our kids,’ he declared. ‘Across the board, middle-class, upper-class, working-class kids, they’re spending a huge amount of their time not on their studies, but on entertainment.’ Had he ever played a video game? No, gamers suspect, given his obsolete references, any more than David Cameron had last year, when his party attacked their ‘extreme, casual and callous violence in a context of social indifference and social ambiguity’; or Gordon Brown, who recently told the Sun, after a series of stabbings: ‘I am very worried about video and computer games … the industry has some responsibility to society and needs to exercise that.’

No doubt that industry is, even now, going through a period of strenuous self-examination following a stabbing last week, somewhere near one of the queues for Grand Theft Auto IV. Although the attack could not, entirely, be blamed on the new game, the alleged knifer not having had the opportunity to be depraved by it yet, the eruption of violence in a queue of people who like playing violent video games was depicted in many reports as the most natural thing in the world. This analysis was duly endorsed by the MP and critic of video games Keith Vaz, who told one newspaper: ‘It doesn’t surprise me that some of those who play it behave in this way’, since Grand Theft Auto is a ‘violent and nasty’ game.

Is it? The principal difficulty, for any non-gamer hoping to discover which is more extraordinary – that such evidently pernicious material should be on sale or that most of its thousands of affectless victims should be prepared to form an orderly queue – is the attainment of Vaz-like expertise about the medium.

With a violent and nasty movie, or corrupting literature, the thing is simple. You merely have to buy a ticket for, say, No Country for Old Men, or There Will be Blood, and watch it, with a keen eye for anything that might be violent or nasty. With books, you simply open, then read a copy of The Catcher in the Rye or, to go back a bit, Lady Chatterley’s Lover or a bit further, one of those 18th-century courtship novels whose potential to enervate young virgins was discernible, apparently, within just a few minutes of scholarly inspection.

How different for the mature student of Grand Theft Auto IV, who discovers that acquisition of the game, an Xbox 360 and a working television will not be nearly enough to expose the sickening extent of its moral bankruptcy. For that, you need time, skill, dedication and, I suspect, youth. In fact, it would probably be cheaper, and easier, for any averagely underqualified adult who craves the excitement of casual violence in a context of social indifference to make your way to somewhere like Borough Market and snarl: ‘Out of the way, bitch’ at every double buggy.

For this novice, a piercing lack of physical/mental agility made the first, laborious experience of GTA IV recall, more than anything, the story of Groundhog Day, with almost every attempt to propel our hero, the ill-natured immigrant Niko to his next destination ending with him at the hospital, where we would enjoy the occasional fight, in which he would again be bloodily felled, leaving him back at the hospital.

On the positive side, this lack of forward progress allowed for some entertainingly picaresque journeys around the umbrageous streets of Liberty City, in which Niko, for want of anything more productive to do, ran about – in the comical, low crouch he likes to affect – picking on innocent pedestrians, failing to say please and thank you in restaurants, hi-jacking cars, flattening lamp posts and innumerable fellow citizens (death toll a modest four) and provoking police firefights leading to his death, followed by yet another miraculous reincarnation outside A&E.

Breaking off now, I can only say that it seems rather unfair that my entire cohort should be expected, where recreation is concerned, to get by with Pilates. Were it not for its fearsome lewdness, many parents might prefer to help their children, too, to explore GTA’s satirical universe, rather than waste time on CBBC’s ever more dismaying offerings, from the dystopic filth that is Tracy Beaker to those twin triumphs of moronic nihilism, Prank Patrol and Hider in the House.

In fact, if a new book on gaming, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games, is to be believed, there may exist hardly anyone in sound mind who might not, from time to stressful time, benefit from an hour or two of moderately violent gaming. The authors, two Harvard psychiatrists, Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K Olson, were told by many young players that they played violent games to ‘relax’ or to ‘get my anger out’. Should we not, as a matter of urgency, implore Gordon Brown to escape into GTA IV over the bank holiday? Or would the experience make an already vulnerable and solitary Prime Minister more likely to aim his car, la Niko, at cyclists such as David Cameron?

The experts think not. Not only must we trust Brown to retain, even at this dark time, the ability to distinguish between a Tourettic cartoon character and David Cameron, but there appears to be no evidence to support the Clinton/Obama/Vaz line on game-enhanced violence or underachievement. On the contrary, this moral panic appears to owe much to myths about high-school killers, while plenty of research suggests, as a Commons select committee has just heard, that gaming can improve children’s ‘confidence, their sense of social standing, their ability to multitask, their ability to receive conflicting bits of information’.

None the less, the clinicians stress, the price of video games is eternal parental vigilance and not only to the British Board of Film Classification’s age strictures. As hard as it might be, say Kutner and Olson, parents should immerse themselves in gaming and then ‘encourage critical thinking’ about storylines. Of course, it’s a brilliant idea, like asking concerned parents of the past to wear flowers in their hair or sing along with Sid Vicious. Try asking your teen: ‘What might have happened to Niko to make him so angry?’ or: ‘How do you think that lady would feel if he did that in real life?’

Gamers beware. If there is one thing worse than the middle-aged gaming ignoramus, it will shortly be the middle-aged gaming know-it-all, who’s discovered that, misogyny aside, they’re really quite an art form.

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