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‘GTAV’ aggro-risks doubt

by Rowan Hooper

In the last week I’ve been drunk in a strip club, got shot at by gangsters and driven a sports car into the ocean — where, regretfully, my partner drowned. But that’s nothing compared to a friend of mine who has robbed a convenience store at gunpoint and broken into a military air base — then stolen a jet aircraft.

I am of course speaking of the megahit video game “Grand Theft Auto V” (“GTAV”), whose British designers, Rockstar, have created the biggest interactive environment — the largest “open world,” in the jargon — ever seen in a video game. It’s a compelling, beautifully rendered — and addictive — experience. But has the act of playing it changed my brain? Am I already more violent and evil than I was before? That’s what I want to explore this month.

As I write, “GTAV” has just been released in Japan, more than a month later than in most of the rest of the world. The venerable Japanese video-game magazine, Famitsu, has awarded “GTAV” a perfect 40/40 score in its review — only the second game from overseas accorded that honor. That’s quite a big deal in Japan, where fantasy and role- play adventures tend to dominate the market, and foreign games, even big-budget ones, make little impact.

And “GTAV” is certainly big budget. Though it’s been five years and some $270 million in the making, within 24 hours of its release, sales had grossed $800 million.

As when there is a controversial breakthrough hit in any entertainment genre — film, fiction, music — so there’s been an outcry about the violence in “GTAV,” with claims being made both explicitly and implicitly that playing violent games turns our children violent. But what does the data say about violence in video games? Let’s look at a study on the effect of violence in video games on aggression in students in Japan and the United States.

Craig Anderson of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, and Akira Sakamoto at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, and colleagues, looked at 181 Japanese school students aged from 12 to 15 years, another Japanese group of 1,050 students aged 13 to 18 and 364 American students aged 9 to 12. The students’ video-game habits and an assessment of their aggressiveness were measured at two points, separated by three to six months.

The researchers found that those who played a lot of violent video games did become more physically aggressive. The effect was similar in both U.S. and Japanese children — even despite the lower level of violence in Japanese society. Hence exposing younger children to this sort of video game should be avoided, the researchers said. Their results are to be found in the journal Pediatrics (DOI: 10.1542/ peds.2008-1425). Another study, as reported in Psychological Bulletin (DOI: 10.1037/a0018251), yielded similar cross-cultural results.

“Japanese television and movies are more likely than U.S. TV and movies to display the effects of violence on the victim, the victim’s family, friends and the perpetrator,” says Anderson. “In one sense, this reduces the glorification of violence that is so common in U.S. media.”

Anderson suspects that this cultural difference may also spread to video games in Japan, corresponding to the popularity of role-playing games.

But there are problems with studies like this. The measure of physical aggression is self-reported, so I’m not sure how reliable it is. And the apparent increase in aggression is only measured for a relatively short period — three to six months. Other studies have similar problems, sometimes using thoughts about aggression as a proxy for aggressive behavior.

So at best the data is unclear about any link between playing violent games and actual violent behavior. In any case, many violent games, including “GTAV,” have an 18 age-rating (or its equivalent in Japan). “There are studies linking violent video-game play to several mental-health problems, although considerably more research is needed on this,” says Anderson.

The debate will rumble on as more data is gathered. In the meantime, in the spirit of experimentation, I borrowed an Xbox and got myself a copy of the game.

I’ve not played video games seriously for years, since I used to go to arcades when I lived in Tokyo. My favorite was “The Keisatsukan,” a single-person shooter game aka “Police 911.” That used motion control, so to dodge a car or bullet you physically moved and your character on screen moved too. One thing I liked about that was how you were immersed in real-world settings — in that case, Tokyo’s central Shinjuku district. “GTAV,” however, takes immersion far beyond that in its fictional Los Santos, where I’ve already whiled away time watching a subtitled black-and-white French movie in a virtual cinema.

But to return to my question: How has playing this game affected me?

It’s the violence that makes the headlines, but what has struck me most, apart from the beauty of some of the outdoor scenes, is its wit. I had no idea “GTAV” was such a clever satire.

In the game, there’s an online social network called LifeInvader that’s a clear parody of Facebook. The characters chat in dialogue that feels like it’s from a Tarantino movie. The ads on radio shows — you listen to a lot of radio while driving in this game — often feel like short excerpts from a stand-up comedian’s show.

It’s a lot of fun. And since I’m an adult, and pretty responsible, I think I’m unlikely to start rolling with gangsters.

Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the News Editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”