If you haven’t been living in a bomb shelter, you probably know by now that Rockstar Games released the latest installment in its Grand Theft Auto series this fall. Like its predecessors, it’s an M-rated open-world third-person shooter set in a fictionalized version of a major American city, where the player assumes the role of a criminal who must plan six major heists to win the game.
One of the franchise’s most devoted, outspoken and widely read players is Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Bissell played through the new GTA in four days and then unloaded his thoughts into a piece at Grantland, styled as a letter to one of the series’ criminal characters, Nico Bellic. Bissell’s responses, as always, provide key insight into the appeal of this series (once labeled by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most controversial franchise), of video games in general, and of how they came to be so maligned:
Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. Niko, I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.
I don’t think playing video games makes people more violent. You of all people should know that. I do, however, believe playing video games turns people into bigger assholes than they would otherwise feel comfortable being. Games are founded upon competition and confrontation. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that a large and extremely vocal part of the video-game audience responds to arguments with which it disagrees by lashing out. One reviewer of GTA V, Carolyn Petit of GameSpot, said the game was “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic,” which is very much a defensible position. Petit also made it clear she loved GTA V. Twenty thousand irate comments piled up beneath her review, many of them violent and hateful. Is this reasonable behavior? Sure, if you’ve come to regard anything that stands in perceived opposition to you as in dire need of eradication. What is that if not video-game logic in its purest, most distilled form?
Bissell’s take on the franchise — and the videogame industry — has changed over the years, as he details in his letter. In fact, he’s gotten downright cynical about it. The whole letter is worth a read. Make a cup of coffee and enjoy.