Did you know you can kill hookers in Grand Theft Auto? Of course you did. Everybody knows that. People who know nothing else about Grand Theft Auto know you can kill hookers in it. The murder of prostitutes in GTA is cultural shorthand for all that is immoral and depraved about modern video games. Whenever the U.S. Congress holds a hearing on video games it’s guaranteed to come up.
It’s rich hearing outrage-peddlers mourn Liberty City’s hos. Who knew there was so much concern for the plight of sex workers in America? Non-polygonal flesh-and-blood prostitutes are killed all the time by abusive pimps and johns, largely owing to our Taliban-like criminalization of prostitution, which denies hookers the protection of the police. We arrest thousands of prostitutes — locking them in cages, breaking up their families and destroying their lives — for something that’s not even a crime in most other countries. So if violence against women is what you’re concerned about, forget regulating video games; legalize prostitution.
In Grand Theft Auto 5 there’s a torture scene. It prompted some rote outrage, but the reaction was mostly subdued. Why? Because in America, we’re okay with torture. No one in charge of our torture program went to prison; they went on book tours and talk shows and bragged about their crimes. The current administration promised not to punish them. We didn’t even close Guantanamo Bay, our most notorious torture site, the symbol of our national disgrace. Americans can’t object to video game torture, we’d look like assholes.
Oh and in GTA 5, you torture one guy. Dick Cheney implemented a world-wide torture regime. When it comes to violence, vidya just can’t compete with the U.S. government.
Take another outrage-prompting Grand Theft Auto game, GTA: Vice City (national controversies are the easter eggs of GTA). Here the protagonist feuds with a Haitian gang. At one point the indelicately-phrased objective “KILL ALL THE HAITIANS!” flashes onscreen. Haitian groups protested, and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to investigate the game’s developer for human rights violations.
Video games are always more humane than the U.S. when it comes to war. In video games, U.S. soldiers only kill evil people who can fight back. Nazis are a popular foe, or Nazi zombies, or Mecha-Hitler. But players in military shooters almost never kill defenseless civilians. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 made headlines in 2009 when it allowed players to participate in a civilian massacre. Your character is a CIA operative in deep-cover and helpless to stop the killing. The level came with a warning and the option to skip it.
Even the Osama bin Ladenraid was less violent in video games. In Fugitive Hunter: War on Terror players fight the surprisingly spry Al-Qaeda leader mano-a-mano. You capture Bin Laden alive and fly him to the U.S. for trial and sentencing, demonstrating the respect for the sanctity of human life that supposedly separates us from mujahideen. In real life of course we shot the unarmed washed-up masturbating old geezer in the head and dumped his body in the ocean, like Tony Soprano did to Big Pussy. U-S-A! U-S-A!
There is one game that doesn’t whitewash U.S. history: a deranged no-budget porno Western for the Atari 2600 called Custer’s Revenge. The game’s sole objective is to rape a squaw tied to a post. That’s it. You walk across the screen naked, with an erection, and violate the indigenous peoples of America. The symbolism is blunt, and quite effective. Our tumescent anti-hero embodies centuries of genocide, broken treaties, stolen land, military equipment named after exterminated tribes and sports teams named after racial slurs. Such honest self-reflection should be applauded. I’d say it was time for a critical re-evaluation of Custer’s Revenge if the game didn’t suck so goddamn bad.
Finally, here’s then-Senator Hillary Clinton warning us that violent video games hurt children:
You’re worried video games will make us violent, Hillary? Don’t make me laugh. I’ve never played a video game where you execute mentally-handicapped people, like Texas does. Or a game where you stalk and murder black kids legally, like in Florida. This savagery doesn’t come from video games. It comes from a nation convinced that everyone it kills by definition deserves to die.
So, everyone decrying game violence: please blow me. There will never be a video game as destructive and morally-monstrous as the United States of America.