[1 May 2008]
It’s no secret that Grand Theft Auto IV is, at this point, an utter phenomenon, not just a gaming entity but a media entity that is currently, in the few days following its release, destroying every other form of entertainment in terms of popularity, interest, and commentary. On one hand, we have the side of 99% of the gamers who have bought it: basically, that it’s the best damn thing since San Andreas came out. Then, there are those who are utterly and unequivocally against its release, suggesting that it should be locked behind counters or banned outright. There is very little in-between to be found, which makes for a dearth of common ground from which intelligent discussion of the merits and flaws in the game can appear.
Buzz vs. Will, Round 1…FIGHT
(Image courtesy of AOL Fanhouse)
Interestingly, this particular split is happening just as another such split is popping up and threatening to consume the media: blogs vs. the mainstream (read: print) media. It’s a split that had been brewing for some time, but it all seems to have come to a head now that Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights himself, relentlessly browbeat Deadspin.com progenitor Will Leitch all over Bob Costas’ HBO show the other night. The divide is framed as such: those who have spent their life cutting their teeth on print media can’t stand the brash, brazenly amateur tone favored by the majority of blogs (and have no trouble saying so via endlessly trotting out the tired “living in their moms’ basements” line), and blogs are dismissing those criticisms as baseless and completely without merit (often by indulging in exactly the sort of bottom-feeding that the “old guard” is criticizing). Much like the split inspired by Grand Theft Auto, sanity can only be found somewhere in between those two arguments, but let’s face it: arguments that try to reconcile two sides of a very tall fence are a) difficult to present, and b) bound to be slammed to death by both sides of that fence.
Something that Leitch said before he got mauled Tuesday night was striking, however, in that it sheds some light on both of these debates. In responding to charges of the lack of accountability of blogs in general, Leitch mentioned that “There are many things that we might say in an e-mail or might say in a comment section…that we would not say in real life.” One could presume that he would expand that to blog posts as well. The point is that the anonymity afforded to us by the internet allows us a sort of freedom to speak without consequence; the web allows people, who would never dream of acting this way in any sort of “real life” venue, the freedom to be racist, sexist, and just plain mean in a place where the ultimate punishment is merely to be banned or ignored.
Such freedom comes with a price, and the price that we pay for that freedom is to be presented with a series of difficult decisions every time we indulge in this new sort of journalism. Specifically, we are forced to either accept that with most of the new voices we choose to read there may well be some modicum of disagreeable behavior attached, or we severely limit the scope of the points of view that we allow ourselves to partake in. There are a lot of merits to the most popular sports and gaming blogs on the internet, but by patronizing a Kotaku or a Deadspin, even if we choose to ignore those articles that we find troubling, we are passively supporting a community that contains commenters (and sometimes writers) who espouse sexist, racist, and even classist ideals.
I tend to find that there are enough good bits to many of these blogs and websites, especially the ones mentioned, to more than mitigate the detriment that certain users and attitudes in the communities built by them happen to have. Still, the mere fact that the dross can be published—and, often, celebrated—understandably scares the hell out of people who have been protected by editors for their entire working lives.
In examining the parallel divide presented by Grand Theft Auto, we find that we are faced with many of the same sorts of decisions. There are, obviously, many positives to be gleaned from the Grand Theft Auto experience, not least of which is the ability to explore something new, a fully-realized world that you simply can’t get to by hopping in your car and driving there. You can interact with the population however you like, you can drive pretty much whatever kind of car you want, and you can evoke new experience after new experience in a way that will far exceed anything else that $60 will buy you.
Still, in order to partake in this new, beautifully rendered world, you must accept that it will contain elements that are sexist, racist, and incredibly, unforgivably violent. You must also accept that in order to play the game as it is intended, you must in fact take part in many of the worst elements of this virtual world. What scares people about this particular mechanic is that it seems to confirm many of our worst fears about people and how they function in society; that, left to their own devices, people choose to be evil. Even this, however, is a jump in logic—Grand Theft Auto actually rewards for much of the evil we choose to do as part of its world, so it’s not necessarily an indictment or a window into much of anything other than what Rockstar developers assume we want out of a game. A medium that was once protected by the famous Nintendo Seal of Quality is no longer “safe”, and this is a scary concept.
In both the Grand Theft Auto divide and the journalism divide, the fear is predominantly that of a generation used to functioning in a certain way, not ready to adapt to the new way. This group of people is battling against a new generation, largely unwilling to accept that anything could possibly be wrong with the way things are now developing.
Millions of people love pop music, despite the fact that much of it glamorizes hedonism and excess. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood won Academy Awards despite the fact that the most memorable characters in both were morally reprehensible men. Many blogs will continue to cater to a largely *ist (and sometimes proud of it) constituency (where ‘*’ could be ‘sex’, ‘rac’, or any of the other “ists”, a designation which changes or disappears depending on the blog), and Grand Theft Auto, currently projected to be the biggest selling game of the year, is quite obviously here to stay. The thing is, despite the completely valid point that each of these things portrays and often glamorizes attitudes and ideas that, quite frankly, we should be trying to avoid, each of them also have merit, sometimes in ways that goes far beyond anything that preceded them in their respective mediums. The opposing sides will never agree on who’s right and who’s wrong; what we should strive for, however, is measured and intelligent discussion, and perhaps we can at least gain an understanding of and respect for viewpoints that don’t necessarily agree with our own. From there…well, maybe we’ll just have to agree to disagree.