Video games are the place to be bad

January 11, 2002|By Crispin Sartwell

ON DEC. 25, with a grand flourish, my wife and I presented our innumerable children with a PlayStation 2 game system. They love Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder and Grand Turismo.

Perhaps the most popular game, however, is Grand Theft Auto III.

I sat for a few minutes and watched our 11-year-old play (admittedly the game was not rated for his age group). He stole cars. He got chased by police. He hopped out of his car and beat up a police officer, leaving him lying on the street in a pool of his own blood. Then he stole the police car and went on a rampage, killing pedestrians, doing drugs, picking up hookers, beating people with a baseball bat and taking their money.

I am not kidding about this. Once you picked up a prostitute, you pulled your stolen vehicle over and it started to bounce. Once you did your drugs, everything seemed to move in slow motion. You scored extra points for gratuitous, berserk violence directed at innocent bystanders.

Did I confiscate this game and launch a complaint with Sony?

Well, hate to admit it to you, but no. Actually, watching the kids play this thing was extremely entertaining, as they did all sorts of things we aren't supposed to do. The more they played, the more adept they became at eluding/destroying the authorities in their violent rampage through town. And the better they got, the more I laughed.

Vincie's verdict on the game? "Awesome ... the best." Why? Because Grand Theft Auto III is about the most transgressive video game it is possible to imagine. He was doing every possible thing he is not supposed to do, and loving every minute of it.

What we call "education" bears a striking similarity to what we also call "oppression." We concentrate children into large buildings, install surveillance cameras, post a guard at the door and demand their continual betrayal of themselves and one another. And we do that because we want what's good for our children. Our children might be forgiven, however, for thinking that what we call "good" is really pretty bad, and that by transposition what we call "bad" is pretty good.

That's why I don't think Middle School III - the game in which you sit quietly with your hands folded - is gonna sell.

It's no fun to do what everyone expects and intends and constrains you to do; it's fun to do what you're not supposed to do. That is adventure, rebellion, individuality, truth. And making people do what we all know is acceptable is essentially a road to boredom, redundancy, resentment and, finally, backlash.

It is essential to remember that this adventure is taking place on a big-screen television and not downtown. It is essential to remember that no child has beaten up a cop, had sex with a prostitute or done drugs when the game is over. They're simply playing with the idea of doing harmful things in a harmless context.

So as we think about Grand Theft Auto III and in general about much media aimed at children, I say to you: Lighten up. Think a bit about why pretending to do bad things is fun. And be grateful if the bad things children do are contained by a flickering, flat screen.

And perhaps I had better come clean: Grand Theft Auto III corresponds very closely to my own fantasy life.

Vincie. Dude. It's my turn.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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