Grand Theft Auto: the playing fields of Eton it ain’t

It’s generally believed that games have a formative influence on children’s upbringing. They probably do, though I suspect the influence games exert is mainly indirect.

Thus I don’t think that a boy playing rugby at school will necessarily grow up throwing flying tackles in Piccadilly. But he may learn to grin and bear it when things are tough, depend on others and let them depend on him, play fairly by the rules whatever the situation, not shy away from a challenge and so forth.

This is perhaps what the Duke of Wellington meant when revisiting his alma mater Eton towards the end of his life. Pointing at a playing field, the Duke is reported to have exclaimed, “It is here that the battle of Waterloo was won!”

When queried on this later, Wellington repudiated his own maxim: “The battle of Waterloo, Sir,” he said, “was won by the scum of the earth!” Presumably his two statements referred to different groups of people, though sometimes one wonders, especially when observing our PM in action.

Be that as it may, George Orwell who, apart from writing, dedicated his life to atoning for his Etonian childhood, put his customary socialist spin on the Iron Duke’s statement: “‘Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.”

Without disputing this statement, or indeed trying to understand it, let’s just say that one way or the other both men clearly believed that games are valuable educational tools.

Hence it’s interesting if futile to imagine what they’d make of Britain’s top-selling video game Grand Theft Auto.

What brought the game to my attention was a complaint by a friend who’s blessed (or, depending on your point of view, cursed) with having a small son. Since these days little tots can’t survive without computer games in general, and Grand Theft Auto in particular, she felt compelled to buy a version of the game.

One fine evening, however, she peeked over her son’s shoulder and immediately confiscated the DVD. This of course may be regarded as child abuse in some quarters, and my friend is lucky that her son seems to be too young to contact the authorities. Anyway, I decided to have a look.

The game unfolds in three cities, Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas, transparent aliases for New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Even though the game was put together mainly by British designers, the US flavour, apart from being essential to sales ($30 million so far), is usually seen as aspirational in Britain.

So what should the little ones aspire to? The principal character of the game either steals or, more typically, carjacks a vehicle.

In the latter case, the original owner is either shot point-blank with a sawn-off shotgun or else thrown out of the car once our hero has cranked it up to a speed guaranteed to cause serious injury, possibly death.

He then goes on a high-speed slalom compared to which the celebrated car-chase scene from The French Connection looks like an old woman driving her Morris Minor to a supermarket.

In the process the carjacker kills uncountable pedestrians, knocks babies’ prams up in the air, bounces off trees, pylons, other cars, ambulances and groups of schoolchildren.

Since such fun can’t be had in silence, he tunes the car radio to his favourite station, featuring mainly rap or some such. The words of his chosen masterpieces are hard to make out, except in one song, where the same line is repeated ad nauseam: “What the f*** is the problem?”

The question sounds rhetorical: the problem self-evidently is the stupefying tune that has none of the lyrics’ subtlety and aesthetic refinement. It’s good to see that music, or what passes for it nowadays, isn’t impervious to progress.

Moving right along, our hero’s rather eccentric driving (at times animated by the alcohol he consumes with relish) draws the attention of police, who give chase.

Undaunted, the children’s role model drives some cop cars off the road, where they explode with a satisfying bang, and fires his shotgun at others. His sawn-off doesn’t seem to need reloading, but this is a game after all – some poetic licence is to be expected.

In one instance the role model shakes his pursuers, stops by a phone booth and calls the police, reporting a fictitious crime and giving his address. When a police car arrives, he shoots the officers, hops into their car, turns the siren on and resumes the fun, with more pedestrians and pieces thereof hit 20 feet up in the air.

What I find especially attractive is the absence of any obvious pecuniary motive. By the end of the spin, the car is in no fit state to be sold for anything other than scrap. But our hero doesn’t care: no heartless materialist, he.

His payoff isn’t fiscal but amorous: he picks up a prostitute and consummates his pent-up passion in a refreshingly graphic way. One sequence features full-frontal male nudity; in another our hero saves himself some cash by killing the prostitute afterwards, as one does. Now I’ve heard of post-coital aggression, but this seems to be a bit excessive.

And so on. Grand Theft Auto continues its upward march through, and beyond, all the sales charts. This in spite of numerous lawsuits filed against the game in all sorts of countries – and variously imaginative crimes believed to have been inspired by Grand Theft Auto.

As I said before, I’m not sure if games or TV programmes can have such a direct effect. But even if Grand Theft Auto only has an indirect one, lock up your children, tell them to play hide and seek instead – and keep your fingers crossed that the social doesn’t hear about this. 
















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