The Times sticks up for GTA IV

National Newspaper The Times has printed an opinion piece pleading that GTA IV should not be ‘controlled by officialdom’, admitting that Tuesday’s release is the ‘cultural event of the week’.

However, a basic error has sneaked into the editorial which may seem laughable to anyone involved in the video games industry – referencing ‘the latest games designed for the Sony Wii console’.

Aside from this blunder, the article celebrates the market value of the games industry, and the creative talent at the heart of UK games development. The piece even goes so far as to call Rockstar ‘as inventive as it is controversial’.

The editorial makes a nice change from Giles Whittell’s recent column in the newspaper, in which he declared that he ‘hated’ games.

The full opinion piece, which was printed in Saturday’s edition, reads:

Opera-lovers may not know it, but the cultural event of the coming week is not the opening of The Merry Widow at the Coliseum on Monday. It is the launch, on Tuesday, in formats to suit all consoles, of a long-awaited video game that casts the player as a criminal fleeing from a violent past into an even more violent present.

The game is Grand Theft Auto IV. The result of three years’ work by 150 developers”, it will draw tens of millions of users into an urban dystopia modelled closely on New York and realised in such staggering detail that the protagonist can relax between sessions spent prowling the city’s virtual streets by walking into virtual cybercafs and logging on to the game’s own version of the internet.

Previous editions of this game have prompted furious claims that they glorify crime and encourage real-life mimicry. This version will be no exception.

But demands for wholesale censorship should be resisted. Grand Theft Auto, which already carries a certificate banning its sale to children, is at the cutting edge of social acceptability, but also of the fastest-growing sector of the entertainment industry – a sector that comprises arcade-style banality, intensely creative story-driven fantasies and astonishingly realistic sports-based games that can bring Arsenal fans closer than any generation of their forebears to playing with their idols. The latest games designed for the Sony Wii console can even force players to break sweat.

British talent is at the forefront of this creative explosion. As a territory the UK is the world’s fourth-ranked game developer by revenue, but that excludes the contribution of the Grand Theft Auto creators, based in Dundee, Rockstar Games, whose US owner is now contemplating a $2 billion takeover bid.

Rockstar is as inventive as it is controversial. It has earned its creative freedom and deserves to go on flourishing as long as it retains the knack of testing social limits without breaking them.

Hollywood has long since recognised that console-based games can rival its films for production values, mischief and wit. But even without these qualities they would have forced their way into the pop cultural mainstream through sheer turnover.

The global games industry is worth 18 billion a year and rising. Grand Theft Auto IV is expected to make $400 million in its first week. It may prove unsettling and even addictive, and controlling youngsters’ access to it raises vital questions for society and, above all, parents. But these questions are secondary to the larger issue of such games’ right to exist.

They are journeys of the imagination, more detailed and perhaps more shocking than previous equivalents, but in the same broad genre of escapism as comic books, westerns, Bond films and watching James May reach 250mph in a Bugatti Veyron on Top Gear.

The mind has always been diverted by fantasy and the forbidden. It cannot – should not – be controlled by officialdom or cowed by fear of the new. But individuals need to know the difference between digital games and real life. And they must ask themselves, now as much as ever, the essential question: how do you want to spend your time here, in the real world?

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