Sometimes It's Necessary

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by James Cresswell

When Boris Karloff portrayed Frankenstein's monster in the 1931 film, Frankenstein, immortalizing the oblong-headed, neck-bolted beast from beyond the grave, an objectionable scene was removed. The monster comes across a young girl by a lake, and, surprisingly, she is not frightened of him. He approaches and plays with the girl, at one point throwing her into the lake with a wide, playful grin on his scarred visage. The girl laughs, and attempts to climb out. The monster, though, is enjoying his game, and keeps throwing her back in, until, inevitably, she drowns, leaving the pitiable creature saddened and wondering what has happened to his playmate. The scene demonstrated two things: first, that the monster was amoral, rather than evil, as it clearly showed his lack of understanding. Secondly, it showed the public what has long been considered the most objectionable of all images – violence directed towards children. It's removal from the final cut of the film resulted in a crucial absence of the monster's child-like innocence in his actions, while protecting the public from the powerful horror of the death of a small child. Clearly, though, the scene was crucial to the portrayal of that monster, and its removal transformed him from a confused creature who didn't know any better, to the vengeful beast that crept up on unsuspecting villagers. This raises the issue of whether violent video games can claim the same kind of intrinsic value in their violence.

The Grand Theft Auto series, in all its incarnations, has long been at the forefront of the anti-violent video game debate. Using the video game/movie parallel that is becoming increasingly more valid as games become more advanced, we can consider the story of the game, and wonder about the validity of its violence. First, consider the main character. Most directly, he's a criminal. He's a violent criminal. He steals cars, shoots people, mugs innocent passers-by, and gets heavily involved with gangs. It certainly seems that with a main character like that, violence is intrinsic. Could anyone do a movie about Al Capone without violence? Recall The Untouchables. Could the story really have been told without Sean Connery's character being torn to shreds by a tommy gun? Would it be more memorable to have someone sidle up to Eliot Ness and deliver a "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are dead," line? Of course not.

Let's try to guess the argument against this comparison: The Untouchables was based on factual events, Grand Theft Auto is the development of someone's sick imagination. There are plenty of movies containing violent scenes that are merely the figment of someone's imagination, sick or otherwise. Think about Pulp Fiction, with its cavalier attitude towards violence. I have yet to find anyone who has seen that movie and did not burst out laughing when John Travolta's character accidentally fires his gun into the back of his car and cries out, "I just shot Marvin's face off!" This is certainly violent, but the violence is inherent in the story telling. What made this movie acceptable was it's R-rating, preventing unsupervised, impressionable youths from seeing it.

Why is it, then, that people are refusing to accept ratings on video games? There is a rating system in place, Grand Theft Auto games are stamped with a clear "M" for "Mature", yet there is a profound demand that it be banned from people like Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post, who said, on his television show, "...the game should be banned, and the makers of the game should be stoned to death in the street." I won't get into how silly the statement is. Perhaps the problem lies in terminology. Movies can be for adults. Games, we have been conditioned, are for kids.

The word "game" takes its root in Old English, with its earliest recorded appearance in the epic poem, Beowulf, and means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "amusement, delight, fun, mirth, sport". In our world, so recently removed from the height of the Industrial Revolution, when no one over the age of 13 had time to do anything for amusement, delight, fun, mirth, or sport, the very word "game" has come to be something for that age group. The concept of leisure time is relatively new. Now we have nine-to-five jobs, leaving us 16 hours a day during which we are not working and have time to play games. It seems a large section of our populace has difficulty separating video games for adults from video games for children. One wonders if ratings would be accepted if these playable worlds in which we immersed ourselves were referred to as "interactive movies," rather than games.

Should young children, 8, 9, 10-years old, be playing Grand Theft Auto? Rather than saying a flat out, "No, idiot, it's obviously for adults!" it seems more fair to me to say it's up to that child's parents. The problem with this is that no parent wants to be put in the position of saying, "Sorry, Rob, you can't go play with your friend Kyle, because his parents let him play violent games, and you may be exposed." It's much easier on the parents to have those games unavailable for anybody, so that they aren't put in that position. Perhaps it represents further evidence that no one will take responsibility for any kind of negative criticism placed on a child. There are cries to outlaw dodge-ball. High School teams are being asked not to run timed distances, because of the untold damage to the psyches of the children finishing in last-place. I don't think I'd let my child play Grand Theft Auto until I thought they were old enough to handle it. But would it not be my right, as a parent, to decide when my child was old enough? Moreover, is it not my duty, as a parent, to prevent my child from playing it, if I felt he or she were not old enough, rather than leaving that decision up to a faceless committee? Essentially, it's a matter of judgement. For some reason, some people want to rely on the judgement of nine Supreme Court justices rather then on their own.

It's easy to expand the metaphor of Frankenstein when it comes to violent video games. Picture the angry mob of townspeople charging towards the castle, armed to the teeth with pitchforks and torches, not really taking time to understand that the monster isn't evil, by itself, only thinking to prevent the untold havoc it will rain in the future. It's easy for the violent mob to label the amoral monster as evil – much easier to find a target and burn it or stab it with a pitchfork than it is to accept that the monster is simply human, and following his very human instincts to play, to explore, to discover. Picture an angry group of protestors, decrying the latest controversial video game release, because they think the game is evil. It's easy for them to blame the video games, violent movies, and death metal songs for all the violent acts in America – much easier to come up with a neatly packaged, all-revealing explanation than to accept that human nature is, at times, inexplicable.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on January 2, 2003 4:15 PM.

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