When video games imitate life, fuddy-duddies beware
With August well advanced it's been a blessed relief to return to peace and tranquillity here in London after the recent rioting.
In place of the mayhem, football, phone hacking and the tottering financial markets have returned to prominence in the news.
That's not to say the consequences of the recent violence aren't still resonating throughout society. If anyone needed reminding that the collective madness wasn't merely a game that got out of hand, in Birmingham 10,000 members of the local Asian community gathered to mourn the deaths of three of their own, killed by a speeding car while trying to protect their possessions from looters.
So it was with a sense of pleasure that I accepted an offer on Thursday from an old school chum to pop over to a hotel in west London where he's currently staying with his Slovakian wife, to meet their ten year-old son Dominik. Not having kids of my own such interludes are doubly delightful, and having been introduced to the little chap I happily accepted his offer to demonstrate his newest, latest gadget - a computer game called Grand Theft Auto.
It sounded fun. After all, there's nothing so jolly as a game of cops and robbers, and while I knew this video game would be more sophisticated than anything from my childhood, goodies and baddies are the same whatever your age or nationality.
In any case (or so I Imagined) the chance to play a virtual policeman attempting to track down virtual motor thieves was just what I needed. Given my sense of powerlessness during the actual riots, I reckoned I could give myself a lift by arresting a few virtual miscreants.
In fact the hero of Dominik's Grand Theft Auto was not the stolid constable of my fancy, but a thuggish individual whose only aim in life seemed to be to steal and crash as many cars as he could lay his hands on. Within seconds I was gazing down at a simulated city, not unlike London, as his fluttering fingers directed his anti-hero through the streets and alleyways on the lookout to hijack a vehicle.
He soon found one. The only problem was, someone was already at the wheel. No matter. With a twitch of a digit Dominik ensured the driver had been pulled out, kicked, and left prostrate in the road, after which Dominik's virtual representative drove off at high speed.
This dismal process was repeated many times in the next few minutes, until we eventually turned into a street in which rival gangs were conducting a fire-fight. Yet with a single bound Dominik was off and away once more, this time by mowing down two of the gang members.
Call me old-fashioned but I was utterly unprepared for this depiction of casual, graphic violence. The baddies were everywhere you looked - but where were the goodies? Dominik meanwhile was enjoying it immensely, not only his trail of virtual mayhem, but also my wide-eyed outrage.
To be fair, it was difficult to imagine such simulated savagery ever influencing the behaviour of the cherubic ten-year-old sitting next to me. After all, it was just a bit of fun. Yet a glance at his mother, sitting on the other side of him, told a less reassuring story.
"These games, they teach no morals," she whispered over her son's head. "They proclaim the message, if you want something it's alright to go out and get it." She sighed wistfully and ruffled his forehead. It makes parenting very difficult."
In the days since, I've found myself pondering such games and the message they espouse. I'm not the only one. An unnamed London policeman, speaking in the wake of the rioting, blamed computer games and Grand Theft Auto in particular.
The reaction of the gaming community is one of weary resignation. "Here we go again" they say - the moral majority blaming them for the collapse of western civilisation. It's an argument that has raged ever since a villain first pulled a gun in a silent movie.
Perhaps I'm finally becoming the old fuddy-duddy I always promised myself I'd avoid. But if it is indeed true that we learn our morality in the first few years of our lives, maybe we should be taking as much care over what we put into our children's' heads as we do their stomachs.
Little Dominik's night of mayhem may have been quickly halted by the arrival of a plate of mini-kebabs and a glass of squash. But as the violence demonstrated, the remedy may not always be quite so simple.
Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London
Published: August 21, 2011 04:00 AM