A recent discussion at BoingBoing about the new Grand Theft Auto is an eclectic treatise on how hipster netizens view media ethics. The most interesting tension is between those making a feminist critique of the game's misogynistic tendencies and those calling the game social satire. I think the truth lies somewhere in-between, but the polarized discussion does demonstrate that in an age of postirony (irony with a faux critical pose lacking real substance) it's hard to be critical without coming across as anti-fun. People are ridiculed if they use big words and analytical tools to back up their ideas (some commentators derided the use of "patriarchy" which begs the question, when did being educated become so uncool?) Granted, academic jargon can be a kind of inarticulation that obscures a lack of creative thinking or good ideas (and also, frankly, has the effect of being quite boring), but we should be able to say things like patriarchy and militarism without seeming stuck-up.
GTA maneuvers social norms because postirony allows us to take pleasure in the politically incorrect, permitting us to dismiss without consequences our own moral standards as frivolous relics of the '60s. I'm for engaging fantasy as long as it's done mindfully–perhaps we're in need of a kind of post-postirony, which in the laws of logic makes a kind of double negative, and hence we return full circle to irony as a rhetoric of social critique (i.e. Dada, Situationism, punk). Irony and humor are often the only way corporate media take on serious issues while maintaining some emotional distance. The court jester was always the one person who could criticize the king without getting his or her head chopped off–compare this figure to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both satirists employed on a network owned by one of the world's biggest media companies, Viacom. And consider that their silly/serious media deconstructions educate the public on current events more than Fox News (as a PEW study showed).
Navigating the media landscape requires traversing a realm of double binds such as real news being fake, and fake news being real. You can add to the list just about every advertising message which has as its subtext the concept that commodities have utopian properties that will transform our mundane lives into magical realms of possibility. To stay sane we require cognitive dissonance, which means holding contradictory beliefs as true (like buying new designer jeans that look old or freedom equals militarism). Mental tools like "truthiness" help us seek moral clarity in a world that has little, yet we sill suffer greatly when we see acts of cruelty played out in the media. Video games are an easy target because we associate them with children, but we should be aware that talk about the media victimizing children is often a projection of adult anxieties about technology. Most media critics claiming to represent children are probably masking their own adult fears regarding rapid changes in society's engagement with new machines.
Is it possible to accept the existence of video games as a kind of phenomena on their own terms? Unlike traditional media video games contain problem solving tools that often require people to work together. Moreover, video games have depth and challenges that encourage transgression. In one anecdote from a friend who teaches digital media, he found a clever kid using his taxi in GTA to run over and kill as many people as possible. His rationale? He was testing the stupidity of the game's AI.
Can video games be used as tools to discover something important about how our minds operate, and where in the spectrum of moral critique our values come from? I don't suggest making them into Rorschach tests, although that is what GTA has become for many. Nor I'm I calling for solipsism, because we do need a moral compass and social norms that respect people's rights and integrity. I do feel in many respects that we are as much defined by community as we are by our own internal thought process. Perhaps we should go from the Western idea, "I think, therefore I am," to a more indigenous concept like, "It all thinks, therefore I am." As such, there should be a space for us to consider the intelligent aspects of video gaming, albeit with an eye towards critical engagement, and explore the potential holographic concepts contained within them.
(A recent book, Gamer Theory, takes a slightly different POV to argue that life in capitalist reality is in itself a gamespace, and that gaming reflects the ideological structure of our world.)
At one point research on the effects of media changed the question from, "What does media do to children?", to, "What do children do with media?" The latter question assumes a lot more agency on the user's behalf. Media products are not just ideological magic bullets that control our thoughts. They can also be a source of gratification. That in itself is not evil, despite what the religious fanatics want us to believe. Still, the rule of the playground stands: it's always fun until someone gets hurt.
So far, the only injury I can only vouch from this ideological back and forth is tennis elbow.
I don't think games like GTA pose a threat to society, but I do feel that their presence both enriches and further complicates the various entangled arguments that make up the debate concerning media effects. Yes, some people are prone to violence and can be pushed over the edge by certain heightened states of nerve stimulation, but I believe most people have a check against that. Similarly, we should also be able to criticize the game without being attacked as neo-Victorians.
When I go to teach my mass media class at the university, my bus passes the Roman Colosseum, built by Emperor Vespasian in his "bread and circuses" campaign to entertain and feed the masses in order to stave off social unrest. It's a reminder that in ancient times real people were killed for sport, and that was perfectly normal. Now virtual people are killed for entertainment which seems like progress (admittedly our method of aerial bombardment warfare is a kind of "virtual" killing that is very real for its victims, but our present example concerns killing for entertainment, not during warfare). Reflecting upon the Colosseum and all that went on there, I have the strange, if not naive sensation, that in general the world is a more moral place to live (albeit less than perfect and full of bloodthirsty lunatics supported by institutionalized violent pathology), and that it is in direct relationship to ideas about human rights disseminated and normalized by global media.
When reading the Buddha's sutas from over 2,500 hundred years ago, I find that people have not changed much. Back then the mind was just as susceptible to greed, ignorance, delusion and confusion as it is today. The difference now is that the feedback system is far greater and involves more people. Frankly, it's harder to get away with things. In terms of cosmic cycles, you could say that we're in a global phase of high spiritual metabolism. We amplify and burn more quickly. Trick is, at what point does the organism/system stabilize? Clearly a society that produces GTA for entertainment is in a highly volatile state. However, there are signs from the great GTA Debate that we are edging towards homeostasis. The fact that we have this instantaneous and massive societal discussion is certainly an important indication that rather than being brainwashed, many of us still care deeply about the world and we use the media to voice our opinions.
After Orson Welles' radio broadcast of War of the Worlds inadvertently produced a panic (recall that HG Well's classic was recast as a news report) social scientists went back and surveyed listeners to find out what happened. What emerged from their media effects study is that educated people were the least susceptible to believing the broadcast was of a real invasion. Those with strong religious convictions were the most vulnerable. That caveat should remind us that more often than not it's not the media itself but our own beliefs and education that produce the outcome.
Despite all of the meaning and outcomes we attempt to ascribe to it, an individual's experience with media is only one element of a far more complex mental ecology. If there is one sure thing to be gleaned from this whole exercise, however, it's that all of this debate equals free marketing for Rockstar, whose $100 million investment has already paled in relation to its profits.
P.S. Finally some sanity in the video game debate. In Grand Theft Childhood? some real researchers have actually looked at the evidence to see what is really happening with gamers. For a sneak peak. Definitely check out the "myths" page.