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Grand Larceny
From The American Spectator June 30, 2008.

Released at the end of April, Grand Theft Auto IV (retail price, $60), received a full-blown "video game review" in The New York Times, which called it "a violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun. It calls to mind a rollicking R-rated version of Mad magazine featuring Dave Chappelle and Quentin Tarantino, and sets a new standard for what is possible in interactive arts." Sounds absolutely awful, doesn’t it? But in the pages of The New York Times — meaning depends on context — that counts as a rave. It was far from being the only one. Clearly the Times reviewer, Seth Schiesel, is very much of the mind of the British magazine, ShortList which points out that the projected first-week sales of GTA IV of $400 million is roughly ten times that of the opening weekend of what at the time was the biggest grossing movie so far this year (Horton Hears a Who). "You can see why video games — in both sales and production budgets — are quickly becoming the new cinema."

Which would be a more interesting thing to say if the cinema hadn’t already done just about all it could to convert itself into glorified video games.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Conservative Tastes don’t quite approve of this enlistment of video games in the ranks of "the arts" — even as limited to "interactive" ones. In fact, "interactive art" to Conservative Tastes seems a contradiction in terms. Art presupposes an artist, and where there is an artist there must also be a distinction between him (or, of course, her) and the non-artist. Otherwise he couldn’t be an artist. Now interactive art, if there were or could be such a thing, must abolish this distinction between artist and non-artist. Everyone involved in the creation of that mythical thing, interactive art, would have to be an artist — but, logically, everyone couldn’t be an artist because then no one would be an artist. No artist, no art.

This is not logical hair-splitting. Well, it is logical hair-splitting but that’s not all it is. It is in addition a reminder that what musicians were calling the "aleatoric" principle — named for the Latin word for dice, alea — long before there were any such things as computer games is a fence too far in the steeplechase of modernist artistic progress. Aleatoric composers like John Cage or the late Karlheinz Stockhausen delighted in introducing the element of chance into their compositions by, for example, writing a number of short pieces and then allowing the performers to decide in what order to play them, or, in Cage’s case, using the I Ching to decide what notes should be played and when. That was just one of this composer’s attempts to erase the distinction between art and life — and so to put an end to composition itself.

But art can no more abolish the distinction between art and nature than it can the distinction between artist and non-artist. In doing so it abolishes itself. For art to be art, it must represent nature. If art ceases to represent nature and becomes nature, then it ceases to be art. Once again, the breaking down of distinctions only creates intellectual muddle. If everything is art, nothing is art. Postmodernism attempts to save the appearance of art by the use of irony — another way of saying that meaning depends on context. A pile of bricks on a building site or an unmade bed in your home is just a pile of bricks or an unmade bed; put them in a museum and they become works of art. Or "art," since it is art shorn of any meaning apart from an assertion of its own cleverness. No one’s thought of doing that before — and once someone does it, no one will think of doing it again. Its meaning is exhausted with the mere thought of it, which is why they call it conceptual art.

Here’s where we come back to Grand Theft Auto. The idea of this and other games that have now graduated to become "interactive arts" is to put their players in a movie. The things that go on in them — stealing cars, shooting at cops, making drug deals — are things that in real life are wicked, fraught with peril and almost certainly unfamiliar to more than a tiny number of those who play the games except through having seen them in movies or on TV. Change the context and they become, simply, fun, first as movies and then ten times more fun as movies in which any dorky funster can be the star. All the terrors of crime and violence, moral and physical, are taken away. No one need fear being shot at in return or banged up in jail for engaging in such exciting activities — which, in consequence, must become somewhat less exciting.

That’s why I think those who complain that playing these games will lead people to go out and do the things represented in them are missing the point a little. A few weeks before Grand Theft Auto IV made its debut, a British sociologist, Dr. Tanya Byron, produced an official government report which, while noting that the literature is divided on the question of adverse social effects to be expected from young people’s consumption of violent images, seemed to come down on the side of warning against the dangers of such consumption. Dr. Byron (and just about everybody else who commented on her report) apparently assumed that it was perfectly OK for adults. But the problem is not that people of any age will play these games and then become criminals. The problem is, in a way, that they won’t. If they became criminals they would be forcibly reminded of the moral dimensions of their behavior; when they don’t they can go on living in a fantasy world without any moral dimensions.

And that’s bad because? Well, because it allows us to forget what real life looks like, and therefore what it demands of us. The Times’s Mr Schiesel believes that "the game’s streets and alleys ooze a stylized yet unmistakable authenticity," yet this is exactly the reverse of the truth — at least if by "authenticity" we mean truth-to-life. It is, rather, true to movies and TV and, ultimately, to comic books. But so thoroughly have our ideas of reality been molded by movies and TV — in shows like "The Wire" which wrapped up its final season a few weeks earlier — and, through them, by comic books that now a writer in the newspaper of record can mistake the comic book world for, of all things, "unmistakable authenticity." Another Times article — the release of this video game must have been a matter of considerable excitement to the Gray Lady — tells us that "video game industry executives and analysts — and, more important, consumers — say the devotion to the hobby is driven by a peculiarity of games: they can be addictive. ‘When gamers are in it, it’s like a druglike state. It feels so good,’ said Jennifer Aaker, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley."

Do we have to spell out what’s wrong with spending much of one’s time in a drugged-out haze? The effects these games and the movies they are based on have on people may be too subtle for social scientists to measure, but that doesn’t mean that they have no effects. Fifteen-year-old Miley Cyrus posing (artfully) nude in Vanity Fair while her father, Mr. "Achy, Breaky Heart" looks on approvingly, or banks having to be rescued by the government from their own profligacy with bad loans — these are social epiphenomena that won’t show up on the sociologists’ graphs, but they are no less indicators of a regrettable moral breakdown than the crime rate among the young. And it beggars belief to suppose that this moral breakdown can be unrelated to the popular culture’s abundant provision of opportunities to escape from the world of moral consequence.

Among the ill-effects of video games, I think, we must be entitled to put a lack of shame among adults for spending any significant amount of time playing them — and therefore living in a fantasy world. Or for watching the almost equally fantastical movies and TV shows that are now the norm. How can these things be socially healthy? To blur the distinction — among the many blurred distinctions of our era — between fantasy and reality is by definition a bad thing. It means that we choose deception and lies over truth. And there’s where the real Conservative Tastes draw their line in the sand. Truth is different from falsehood. And better. That’s our critical bottom line. Astonishing, isn’t it, that it should have become controversial — or, worse, political to say so. If we can’t agree on that, or if we mark ourselves out as "conservative" or "right-wing" by holding out for some truth so obvious, the culture wars have already been lost.




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