One of the hallmarks of a healthy consumer society is that its older generation habitually despises and decries the entertainments of the young.
The young, in turn, elevate their aesthetic rebellion to respectability over time. Thus, the Victorians -- those proto-capitalists -- denounced the youthful affinity for pre-Raphaelite emotional extravagance. Now it is the stuff of greeting-card cliche. Jazz spilled out of the brothel parlor as satanic barbarism and an incitement to miscegenation; now it’s the authentic American art music. Bob Dylan just won a Pulitzer Prize.
So what about today’s youthful diversion of choice -- the video game, which this week crossed some sort of pop cultural threshold when the year’s big release, “Grand Theft Auto IV,” was reviewed seriously on the covers of The Times’ Calendar section and the New York Times’ Arts section.
Both pieces engaged the game pretty much on their own terms. In the New York Times, Seth Schiesel described “Grand Theft Auto IV” as a “violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun. It calls to mind a rollicking R-rated version of Mad magazine featuring Dave Chappelle and Quentin Tarantino.”
In The Times’ Calendar section, Pete Metzger wrote that “while some might argue that games as morally bankrupt as the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series are leading to the demise of society, those who can appreciate decency-eschewing escapism will find nothing better than this one.”
Andrew Reiner of the Game Informer -- something of a bible for people of a certain age -- was far less restrained. “I now know how film critics felt after screening ‘The Godfather.’ It’s been days since ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’s’ credits rolled, yet I can’t seem to construct a coherent thought without my mind wandering off into a daydream about the game. I just want to drop everything in my life so I can play it again.”
Hmmm. Maybe that’s what eschewing decency for obnoxious, intelligent violence will do for you. It’s also going to make its corporate distributor, Take-Two Interactive Software, and its creator, Rockstar Games, a great deal of money. A number of Wall Street analysts believe that the game -- priced at about $60 per copy -- may earn more than $500 million during its first week of release. One analyst estimates that by January, purchases of “Grand Theft Auto IV” may represent more than 3% of all U.S. and European software sales in 2008. (These are the sorts of numbers that have sent Hollywood into free-fall panic ever since global video game revenues surpassed annual expenditures on film tickets a couple of years ago.)
There’s a new world of entertainment here, proceeding under its own power and following its own stars. But what does it contain? In this case, the story of a former Serbian militiaman (the protagonist through whom the players act) who is lured to a fictional version of New York. He kills, maims, has sex, then kills and maims some more, while also stealing various forms of transportation, all with a nifty range of music channels on their radios. (Available for download.)
The graphics are stunningly realistic, and the opportunities for a player to interact with the characters and the physical setting are quite gripping. Still, where earlier generations of youthful art crossed boundaries -- the critics call that being “transgressive” -- they also affirmed something else, some alternative or countercultural value. The Beat generation, just to take one example, rejected middle-class morality and aesthetics for Buddhism, ecstasy and sexual expression.
What “Grand Theft Auto IV” affirms is the pleasure of eschewing decency for obnoxious violence. That’s why Australia and New Zealand are forcing the game’s makers to distribute edited copies there, and a spokesman for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacted with horror over the use of that city as a backdrop. The mayor, he said, “does not support any video game where you earn points for injuring or killing police officers.”
One of the most interesting things about this game is that it’s the product of a global youth culture whose frame of reference has been shaped by mindless American action films, by post-apocalyptic Euro-American fantasy fiction and Japanese graphic novels. “Grand Theft Auto’s” “authors” are a pair of young Englishmen, and the technical crew that put it together is in Scotland. They’ve thrust their Balkan protagonist into an America of the imagination that exists nowhere and, in a virtual sense, everywhere.
Censorship will not avail against this kind of compelling cultural shift -- nor should it. “Grand Theft Auto IV” is a work of genius -- but it’s genius in the service of nothing more than sensation and profit. With this game, the interactive video industry has turned an aesthetic corner and is now an art form in search of an artist.