The release of Grand Theft Auto IV has received significant media attention in the recent weeks. Critics are hailing the game as one of the best in industry history. For those of us who are not video game aficionados, Grand Theft Auto IV is a game where, according to IGN reviewer Hillary Goldstein, players will “blow up cop cars, run down innocent civilians, bang hookers, assist drug dealers and lowlifes and do many, many other bad deeds.”
Players assume the role of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who has arrived in Liberty City hoping to realize the American Dream. He is “a killer and enforcer, a bad-ass foreigner who appears to have no morals.” But, according to Goldstein’s review, players are meant to understand that Bellic possesses a damaged and troubled spirit and is hindered by his own moral corruption. The game’s aim is to resemble the drama and intensity of a standard Hollywood action film. However, there is one crucial difference between an action-movie and a video game; an action-movie requires the viewer’s observation whereas Grand Theft Auto requires active participation.
Goldstein’s sub headline on the review reads, “This is the American Dream.” What follows is a violently graphic set of circumstances that shows the game’s main character as a blood thirsty and relentless criminal. How does this reflect the American Dream? The game’s suggestion that an immigrant can only “get by” with the use of violence perpetuates stereotypes of mob role, coming at a time when people’s minds are at a heightened sensitivity for immigrant rights. This game defines the American Dream as violent, morally corrupt, dangerous, “anything for a buck” lifestyle. The American dream suggests happiness; but the environment of prevalent violence and moral degradation instead resembles a nightmare.
Games such as Grand Theft Auto IV remind us that violence is considered a highly profitable and popular form of entertainment in our society, even in the simulated form. Herein lies a problem with the technology of a video game. A video game presents fiction, and yet because it is so effectively able to imitate reality, the line between what is “real” and what is “fiction” becomes increasingly blurred. As an interactive form of entertainment, the player becomes an integral participant in this fictional story.
Also problematic is the game’s tendency to glorify and romanticize extreme violence throughout the various levels of play. While the game attempts to demonstrate the consequences of violence through the moral deterioration of the main character, players still identify with a cold-blooded killer. This creates a troubling intimacy between violence as entertainment and the participant.
We cannot yet determine the consequence of a social attitude that too closely connects reality, violence and entertainment. The extreme popularity of this game is symptomatic of society that is becoming increasingly desensitized and accepting of violence. If this is the American Dream, wake us up.