The ravings of a mild-mannered maniac? No, the road diary of Grand Theft Auto V.
Why we backed down on having Grand Theft Auto 5 in the house
My son was stealthy. He knew his parents wouldn't buy it for him. So he called his guileless uncle, a father of little girls, and suggested the gift for his fourteenth birthday. Thus did GTA V materialize in the house. To be clear: we have multiple gaming platforms, and the A-to-Zombies of games. I've fought alongside my sons in campaigns against the Nazis, against legions of the undead, and undead Nazis. But GTA was strictly off-limits because of its exploitation of women. As one reviewer put it: "While most of Grand Theft Auto 5 feels like an evolution of the blockbuster video game, its treatment of women is a relic from the current generation." And now here it was in my house: the latest greatest iteration of the fearsome franchise.
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A friend said I should get rid of it. He was biblical in his denouncements. But he hadn't experienced it. And neither had I. But my son's friends had the game at their houses, and that's where he played it. And would presumably keep playing it.
So I made my son a challenge. I would ride along with him, like a driving instructor on the road of life, and see what he saw. And if I didn't approve, GTA V would have to go.
Off we drove, through the streets of Los Santos, a masterful microcosmic simulacrum of Los Angeles, with its sun-bleached stucco low-rise streetscape, all palm trees and stratified lives. I was dazzled by the visuals and then stunned by the sophistication of the story lines. The rich live behind walls, the poor shuffle around the fast-food parking lots, the criminals—oscillating between those two extremes daily—huddle in the alleyways, making plans to take other peoples' money. If you watch TV, there's nothing here you haven't seen vis-à-vis Man's inhumanity to Man. It's Breaking Bad but with a joystick; rather than filter your experience through the protagonist, GTA V puts you in the driver's seat. Unlike the default violence of Call of Duty or World At War, GTA V is as gory as you make it.
Once upon a time I was driving through LA, it was about 2 a.m. I was thinking, "Wow. I'm driving in LA" when, out of nowhere, two, three, four then six roaring police cars, all lights and sirens, materialized from every direction surrounding me and then passing me to converge like black and white hornets at the entrance to a freeway, before launching down the on ramp. And then I was alone again. I couldn't help channeling the mind-set of the driver those prowl cars were pursuing. I was safe inside my rolling cocoon and there was a whole city of crazy out there. Yin and yang. That's how GTA V feels.
"So why am I letting you play this?" I asked, after he accidentally punched someone. "I so did not mean to do that… I like to free roam. The possibilities are endless." This is almost true: as one reviewer writes, "Remarkably, we didn't see a single repeat of these little vignettes until about 40 hours in…" Let us pause to consider: Four zero.
The issue of time spent playing video games
Forty hours of reading. Forty hours of playing his guitar or piano. The father weeps at the passage of youth. The mother is appalled. But the youth is oblivious, plus he has "drifitability" – the game allows you to slow time to manouevre the car – and he has hacks: the back-door codes that allow players to push a video game's boundaries and explore the impossible.
"Watch this," he says, a few days later. He's free-falling over the coast. Everything about the moment is relentlessly real. Until he plunges into the surf and swims away unscathed. "Now watch this." A white shark emerges from the murky depths and he pulls a knife to confront it.
In English class he's been reading Ray Bradbury's The Veldt, a sci-fi dream that turns dystopian as a rec room's hyper-realistic special effects come murderously alive. The story's father is concerned his children are spending too much time playing in their electronic wonderland and forbids them to use it. It doesn't end well for dear old dad. I asked my son if he saw any potential parallels and he laughed a little too heartily. He got my drift: when the video games start to take over, we're all screwed.
Meanwhile, he keeps playing, and sometimes I ride along.
If you're looking for some fun, educational games to introduce to your children, here are some Educational games for kids and our Top 10 list of kid-friendly websites that feature fun games for your kids to enjoy.