The video game "Grand Theft Auto IV" arrived in stores April 29, accompanied by the usual outrage. The new game is part of a series in which players control a villain and guide him through a life of crime. Players are rewarded for stealing cars, murdering civilians, killing police officers, and other acts of mayhem.
The games are not designed around a linear story: Players are given access to large virtual cities and are encouraged to poke around, exploring, manipulating a cast of characters. Which gives players an enormous amount of free will. For instance, you may approach a prostitute and purchase her services. It is then possible to kill the prostitute to recover your money.
All of which is to acknowledge that "Grand Theft Auto" is not an exercise in enlightenment.
The latest installment, "GTA IV," is reportedly filled with more — much more — of the same. Slate's Chris Barker reports that the "violence is no longer cartoonish. Shoot an innocent bystander, and you see his face contort in agony. He'll clutch at the wound and begin to stagger away, desperately seeking safety. ... The physics of death feel shockingly real — bodies can't be blown apart or torn to pieces, but they react convincingly to explosions and severe impacts."
Other early testers have registered similar amazement at the realism of the violence.
I haven't yet been able to fiddle with the new game, but I've spent more than a little time with its predecessors. And while the concerns about the pernicious effects of "GTA" are not ridiculous, they do seem misplaced.
There are two reasons to worry about games such as "Grand Theft Auto": (1) They're a reflection of something rotten in the culture; and (2) they're a harmful influence on the same. On the surface, both charges seem like slam dunks. But when they're examined more closely, they don't hold up.
Popular culture is pretty rotten. But that's hardly new. Like everything else, culture is subject to the second law of thermodynamics: It tends inexorably toward lesser levels of sophistication. This was true before "Grand Theft Auto," and it will be true 20 years from now when "GTA" is regarded as a quaint bit of nostalgia, like Ms. Pac-Man.
Yet leaving the constant decline of culture aside, there's a practical reason "Grand Theft Auto IV" features graphic depictions of death and the wanton killing of prostitutes: Moore's Law.
Named for microchip pioneer Gordon Moore, Moore's Law posits that the number of transistors you can fit on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. In nontechnical terms, this means that computing power increases exponentially, not linearly. It extends to nearly all parts of the computer. Roughly every two years, both the cost of units of processing speed and the cost of memory are cut in half.
For video game designers and programmers, this practically demands a game like "GTA IV." Killing has been big in video games since "Space Invaders" (an early video classic that dates to 1978), but as computing power increases, realism in games necessarily increases, too. It took every bit of power to render the two-dimensional aliens, shields and missiles in "Space Invaders." As computing power grew, programmers were able to construct backgrounds, and then three-dimensional spaces, and then realistic physics within games. If video games are going to feature violence — and again, they always have — the ever-increasing power of computers begs programmers to give us the details, "GTA"-style. If you got it, you got to use it.
As for the open architecture of the game — the kind of freedom that allows you to kill prostitutes — that, too, reflects Moore's Law more than any moral depravity on the part of the programmers. The less powerful a computer is, the more rules a game must have. As computers became more powerful, games became less like puzzles needing to be solved and more like sandboxes to be played in.
It's not that the designers of "Grand Theft Auto" want you to kill that hooker — they're just using all of the power available to them to make the game as free-form as possible. Which means removing the strictures that would keep you from picking up a random object. Or offing some poor innocent.
So is "Grand Theft Auto" contributing to the coarseness of our culture? Short answer: probably no more than other mass entertainments.
Some think of video games as the province of children. That isn't quite right. The first video games were designed and played mostly by grad students in their 20s and 30s. Video games didn't filter down to teenagers, even, until arcades became popular in the late 1970s. And they didn't reach the hands of kids until home consoles caught on in the early 1980s.
So video games are no more "age-specific" entertainments than movies. "The Little Mermaid" is suitable for 6-year-olds; "The Departed" is not. Nowadays, video games carry a rating system like movies. "Grand Theft Auto IV" is rated M, meaning you have to be 17 or older to purchase it. As long as violent, adult games like "GTA" are kept mostly out of the hands of kids, it's not clear why they would be any more deleterious than violent adult movies.
Video-game anxiety arises because many still see them as toys, not as a form of media. Yet we are rapidly approaching the time when they will be understood as just another type of artistic entertainment, like television programs or movies. And once we reach that point, people will view video games like "Grand Theft Auto" with a measure of sangfroid.
After all, the culture's only going to get worse anyway.
Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by e-mail at jlastphillynews.com.