The other night, the journalistic resting home that is 60 Minutes aired a story concerning the video game Grand Theft Auto and its supposed link to a multiple murder in Alabama. Having had some experience with Grand Theft Auto, my wife and I invested fifteen minutes of our lives with Ed Bradley, who joins Harrison Ford in the Pantheon of Men Too Elderly to Wear an Earring.
As Bradley bravely exposed GTA’s violent nature to an innocent nation, Meghan shook her head and muttered, “Why would anybody play this game?”
“Because, it’s like, you’re really there, doing that stuff,” I said briskly, as I watched a college kid on TV demonstrating a crimson potpourri of mass cop killings and sniper headshots.
“Why is that fun?” she said darkly.
Normally, I’d have delivered a well-crafted response like “Grand Theft Auto’s unique first-person roll play allows humanity to temporary put aside the unnatural shackles of civilization created by more than 200 years of feminist psycho-jargon.” But instead, the Angry Czeck was uncharacteristically slack-jawed.
When my son was born, I was granted two weeks of paternity leave (courtesy of 200 years of feminist psycho-jargon). The first two-weeks of raising a child is much like the old Indian ritual where a teenage boy is stripped naked in the snow and thrown out of the tribe until he returns with an eagle’s feather. It’s a rough two weeks, but upon its conclusion, you’re a man. I spent the odd hours of Introductory Fatherhood playing Grand Theft Auto, Vice City.
On the surface, the game play is horrendously mundane. You walk around. You find a car. You spend a great deal of time learning to drive the car without rolling into the river. But the mundane aspect of GTA quickly becomes its strength. I mean, after all, what’s more interesting? Changing a runny diaper at 3 a.m.? Or cold-cocking a pedestrian for his pocket change? Pretty soon, it’s four in the morning and your cruising the streets of Vice City without any agenda. Just cruising, baby. You get extra points for running over civilians and the avoiding the subsequent cop chase.
Eventually, the game play picks up. You’re assigned little missions from local thugs with more street cred than you. Like picking up hookers for the boss (extra points for scoring a quickie in route) or murdering punks who aren’t paying their bookies. For extra scratch, you might challenge some gang-bangers to a no-holds barred street race or beat a hooker to death with a baseball bat.
One of the finer aspects of Grand Theft Auto is its attention to detail. You feel the difference between driving a stolen fire truck and driving a stolen Corvette. Same with a sniper rifle or a bazooka or the pistol you lifted off a dead police officer. Too easily you ignore the brightly chromatic color scheme and flat dimensions of Vice City, and your brain begins to make unauthorized cut-and-pastes onto your memory. Once thrust back into the world of three dimensions, you pass by a school bus and think, “I stole one of those last week.” Then you vigorously shake your head and continue on to work, momentarily troubled that the membrane between fiction and reality had been punctured.
The weeks passed in Vice City, and I began to climb the underworld’s blood-slimed ladder. No longer was I a street thug eeking out a living boosting cars and planting bombs in police stations. I was a player, mingling with the Russian Mob, the Italian Mafia, the Japenese Yakuza, and a smattering of street gangs. I made more money killing one mobster than a school teacher makes her entire life. I tossed a Molitov cocktail at a college student and burned her to death, just for the kicks.
It wasn’t long (or was it too long?) that I began to realize that the video game had begun to color my moral judgment. Walking the streets during lunchtime, I’d follow people at random, wondering what it might be like to punch them in the back of the head. Kick them in the stomach. Relieve them of their money as they writhed in fear and agony. My eyes trolled across rooftops, seeking an ideal sniping location.
Meghan didn’t like the look on my face when I’d empty my Nine at a busy cross street. She’d ask me to turn off the PlayStation and come to bed. Just a minute, honey. I’m reloading.
Three weeks after my son’s birth, I had reached the criminal pinnacle of Vice City. I was hunched behind a convenient pile of bulletproof packing crates, an M-16 in hand and three rockets left in my bazooka. Overhead, a helicopter hovered, taking pot shots at me with a heavy machine gun. The kind of gun that takes out tanks and school children. It had already killed me a dozen times. Good thing thirteen was my lucky number. Calmly, I waited for the chopper to make a pass. I stepped out from behind by sanctuary, aimed my bazooka and shot that bastard out of the sky. All my enemies were dead. I was Lord of Vice City.
Several nights later, well past midnight, sitting in a rocking chair and feeding my infant son, I’d think about that day when, after I’d messily taken out the head of the Vice City Yakuza mob, I climbed up to the highest point of Vice City, taken out my sniper rifle, and practiced my head shots. Bagged nine civvies before the cops even knew what was happening. Bagged a couple of them before I had to scram. That was a good day.