August 5, 2008

Donkey Kong Would Be So Ashamed

If I beat a man to death with a baseball bat, and then said that I did it because of watching the Yankees, would they disband the MLB?

I pose this idiotic question in response to this story from yesterday. In short, sales of the video game Grand Theft Auto IV have been halted in Thailand after an 18-year-old kid in Bangkok confessed to robbing and murdering a taxi driver while trying to recreate a scene from the game, which has long been known to feature, among other controversial elements, the ability to pull people out of cars and drive away. Apparently, the kid wanted to see "if it was as easy in real life to rob a taxi as it was in the game."

The accused

I've talked extensively about situations like this before, and although the above situation didn't take place in America, it's still reflective of America's (and especially the American media's) absolute need to find something/someone to place blame on following some sort of unexplainable tragedy.

Although I'm sure it's been around for much longer, this idea seemed to enter the phase that it currently sits in (and has damn-near perfected) following the Columbine shooting back in 1999. If you'll recall, following the events of that day, details about the shooters (the "Trenchcoat Mafia") slowly began to trickle out, and, not willing to do much digging into their personalities or psyches beyond a few surface details, the media began to build shabby character sketches of the shooters according to their hobbies, likes, and activities.

Thus began the irreversible torrent of blame by politicians, parent groups, and generally uninformed talking heads on news show after news show:
"It's heavy metal's fault."
"Blame South Park."
"It's because of those violent video games."
"It's because of this Marilyn Manson freak."

If you'll remember, Manson took a particularly heavy amount of blame for the Columbine massacre because all of the shooters happened to be big fans of his music. Protests were quickly assembled wherever Manson was holding a concert (infringing on the turf of the already-in-place Christian groups who'd already been protesting Manson). Being that he was already known for his controversial lyrics, anti-religion ways, and just looked like enough of a threat to these people, Manson was an easy target. After a while, people dumb enough not to know any better and possessing attention spans short enough to not care anymore just sort of reserved to go ahead and blame Manson or just chalk the whole thing up to, "Boy, sometimes I just don't understand this world..."

What was lost in either the ignorance or apathy of these people, though, was the need to understand why people do things like this, and to assume that it wasn't merely a piece of pop culture or absolute randomness that caused a tragedy like Columbine. Luckily, people still forged ahead with investigations, and discovered that there was more than just the black-and-white. Sadly, though, it took too long, and it wasn't as sexy of a news story as blaming Manson or a video game or something simple that doesn't require people to ponder anything beyond what the news ticker has just told them.

Does the damnation of a piece of entertainment/art really trump holding one responsible for one's own actions? Are we that desperate to find a scapegoat for all of society's ills?

Apparently, yes, we are.

What bothers me most about this situation in Thailand is that the kid could've named just about anything as the reason why he attacked the taxi driver, and the backlash would've shifted to that instead. Another video game, a FOX special on crazy car chases, Robert De Niro's performance in Taxi Driver, Danny Devito's role in the sitcom Taxi, etc etc etc.

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
The sad inevitability of Super Mario emulation

Anyone savvy enough to be aware of modern media coverage could pull something like this Thai kid did and find himself free of at least a portion of the blame. Sure, it may not prevent a harsh sentence from being imposed, but you could follow up almost any sort of major crime -- violent or not -- by claiming that you were doing so because of the influence of a bevy of video games/movies/TV shows/musicians.

In all fairness, I own GTA IV, and it is an incredibly violent, racy, ADULT game. What I'm able to do, though, as a competent, level-headed, mature(ish) person, is separate what happens in this pixelated, fictional world from what's going on outside my window. If kids aren't grown-up enough (an oxymoron in itself, I know) to handle playing the game, it shouldn't be in their possession. It's an M-rated game, which means it can't legally be sold to anyone under 18, so if they own it, then someone in a position of authority bought it for them. Let's think about putting blame there, maybe, huh?

It used to be that parenting was always public enemy number one in situations like this. Beyond that, it would be the child's association with other kids, his environment, and ultimately, his own psyche. People tend to forget that sometimes, we're not just wired right. When someone secretly harbors homicidal or other dangerous tendencies, and then sees the sensationalism of media coverage that occurs when another, similar kid acts out (think of the Virginia Tech shootings, or any other event along those lines that's happened in the last 8 years or so), bad things can happen. It's an inevitability of the world we live in. It's dismissive to assume that we can blame it all on something as ultimately insignificant or ineffective as a video game.

Are we smart enough and dedicated enough as a society to begin to dig deeper when things like this happen, and not just for the purposes of stretching out the news story? Probably not. But hey, stranger things have happened, and not just in video games.

(Update: I'd like to think that this is just an isolated incident, that it'll go away. But just just today, three kids in Georgia firebombed a car and blamed GTA IV. It's already starting again...)