For a while, I was delivering pizzas from the back of my motor scooter. Eventually that got boring, so I decided to do some drive-by shootings instead. Pulling up alongside a cluster of oblivious pedestrians, I took out my Uzi and casually diced them into a pudding of writhing limbs and spattered blood. Then I stole a police car.
It might reassure you to know that I've been playing a video game--specifically, one called Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Released in October, GTA (as it's universally known among fans) is expected to sell four million copies by Christmas, making it the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster for the $10 billion-a-year video-game industry. In it, players are rewarded for all manner of criminal conduct: car theft, gunpoint robbery, contract killing, drug dealing, running a porn-film studio, and retaining the services of prostitutes. But lest you assume that the game's aficionados hail exclusively from the dank teen netherworld of the stringy-haired and acne-scarred, a recent survey noted that the average American video-game player is 28 years of age.
Steeped as it is in formless mayhem, GTA has been greeted by the expected chorus of clucking. In an apparent spasm of election-year rectitude, Sen. Joseph Lieberman singled it out for reprimand: "Games like Grand Theft Auto are particularly troubling because they go beyond just celebrating violence generally and actually reward players for engaging in organized crime, murdering innocent people, and other forms of perverse, antisocial behavior." (This from a man who later lent his support to the potential, though very real, slaughter of innocents abroad. Speaking of which, the cartoonishly lurid GTA strikes me as exponentially less pernicious than the government-sponsored America's Army--an ultra-realistic, violent "shooter" game marketed to teenagers--which is really a military recruiting tool.)
For their part, the game's developers, New York- and Scotland-based Rockstar Games, certainly market themselves as subversive ironists. One of their previous efforts, State of Emergency, invited players to stage a WTO-style riot in a suburban shopping mall. And the bloodshed in GTA is leavened by the developers' fondness for caustic parody. As you zip around the game's bustling cityscape in a stolen car, for instance, you can listen to radio commercials for SUVs or soul-deadening pharmaceuticals or, if you happen to tune in to public radio, an endless pledge drive. Most of the game's best in-jokes are in its casting, though: Ray Liotta of GoodFellas fame voices the main character; Dennis Hopper plays a coke-addled Hollywood sociopath; porn star Jenna Jameson appears as porn star Candy Suxxx; and, in a stroke of genius (or cruelty), Liotta's sidekick is Philip Michael Thomas, formerly of Miami Vice, Michael Mann's tone poem on the subject of fast cars and pastel sport jackets.
Vice City is actually the fourth game in a series, and the plot (such as it is--most of the fun is just roaming around and causing chaos) is similar to that of its predecessors: a small-time Mafia thug's rise to the top of his profession. Though set in a garish vision of mid-'80s Miami, the game's milieu bears some similarity to that of The Sopranos, also the story of a violent antihero who thumbs his nose at social pieties like the injunction against murder. The difference is that instead of merely identifying vicariously with Tony Soprano, GTA players walk in his virtual shoes--and who, in darker flights of fantasy, has not wished that all of life's petty tribulations might be resolved with a gun or a garrote?
Yet to ascribe GTA's phenomenal popularity to a mini-craze for Mafioso romance would seem to miss America's endless appetite for "celebrating violence generally," as Senator Lieberman puts it. In short, GTA is about organized crime for the same reason Arnold Schwarzenegger never plays an accountant and the cops on Law & Order don't spend their days prosecuting jaywalkers.
Which isn't to say that violence is without consequences in the game's universe: If you squash too many pedestrians, you'll attract the attention of Vice City's finest. The game offers players a simple solution, though: Kill them. Then steal their cars.