Last week, we heard from one of the lab rats being subjected to contemporary “media effects” research. Near the end, there was a passing reference to the fact that the research was going to be used as part of a suit being brought against Grand Theft Auto 3.
The other shoe dropped later this week when we learned that a $246 million “wrongful death” suit was being brought against Walmart, Sony, and Rockstar Games for the manufacture and sale of the controversial game. The suit concerns an incident where two teenage boys in Tennessee borrowed their parent’s guns without permission, went out on a highway overpass, and open fire on people driving by, killing one and wounding another. The plaintiffs in the suit are suing because they claim the incident was “inspired” and “taught” by the video game.
Thankfully, in this case, the suit is also directed towards the shooter’s parents who apparently bought them a game which was rated for Mature players and paid no attention to what they were doing even to the point of allowing them to steal mom and dad’s guns (left laying around the house) and go out to play on a nearby highway. (I refuse to pit the First Amendment against the Fourth Amendment but giving the kids unlimited access to guns still seems a more serious risk factor here than giving them unlimited access to joysticks.)
GTA3 has been a controversial game from the get go. As a media scholar, I feel about it much like I feel about Birth of A Nation. In both cases, we have morally dubious works which literally transform their medium.
When the history of video games is written, the importance of this game to the refinement of the medium will be undeniable. It opens up a whole new model of what a game can be – one that includes an expansive and totally responsive environment which forces the players to make decisions and play out their consequences.
Unfortunately, the world was designed and populated by moral midgets whose idea of a good time is to allow players to bludgeon passers-by with baseball bats and to sleep with and then murder prostitutes for their money.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the game causes otherwise normal kids to go out and kill people. I’ve already spelled out my concerns about media effects research but I don’t think you will find any serious researcher who believes in and of itself playing video games will turn good kids into psycho killers. The strongest claim is apt to be that the games reinforce violent tendencies or that they are one risk factor among many. The most compelling evidence so far about the effects of violent entertainment suggest that consuming it makes us more timid and anxious, more certain that the world is a dangerous place, rather than more dangerous to other people.
Suits like this one inflate those findings beyond recognition and operate with an extraordinarily literal minded view of the world where to represent something is to endorse it and to endorse it is to cause it. The evidence and the methods behind it are shakey as hell, but the ways they get used in situations like this are even more dubious.
I draw a distinction between effects, which in the rhetoric of media reform, are assumed to be involuntary responses to a kind of media brainwashing (a silly theory) and meanings, which has to do with the active interpretations we form when we consume a work of culture. Games certainly produce meanings about violence and many other matters. We can be moved to think about the world in new ways by reading a book, listening to a song, or watching a movie. The same thing can happen from playing a video game.
My own position is not that we should sue game companies or regulate violence; rather, we should demand of game designers what we demand of any other artist – that they think about what meanings they communicate through their work.
The problem with most games is not that they cause real world violence – I remain unconvinced that in any strong sense of the word, that’s the case. The problem is that they trivialize violence by not dealing seriously with its causes and consequences. In doing so, they cheapen the medium in which they work, which is at its heart one of the most powerful tools for representing choice and consequence ever produced.
Of course, this suit will fail as so many others before it which have tried to pursue a ‘media made me do it” model have failed. Even if you believe that a work like GTA3 influences us, it doesn’t brainwash us and at the end of the day, the responsibility lies with the parents and with the kids and not with some game company half way across the world.
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