I love playing video games, but I often feel bad when I do. They’re unproductive, and I’ve been led to believe that anything unproductive is bad. Even during lockdown, when I didn’t have a job, I’d get pangs of guilt when I switched on the PS4. “Oh, more video games,” a little voice in my head would say, and it would proceed to remind me of all the people out there writing novels, learning languages, taking up new hobbies — and of course that old army vet who did the charity walk around his garden. And here I was, arguing with a 12-year-old over a game of Rocket League.
But I love video games. When you need to escape, there’s nothing better. Oblivion, the fourth instalment of the Elder Scrolls series, got me through one particularly bleak winter when A-levels and a messy breakup were conspiring to ruin my mood. And there’s nothing like chipping away at my Master League campaign on Pro Evolution Soccer or teaming up with my friends on Call of Duty: Warzone to fast forward quiet afternoons when there’s nothing else to do but eat or sleep.
One thing I love about video games is that they have their own internal logic; the logic of the real world doesn’t apply. Call of Duty, for example, is a game about shooting people, or, in my case, getting shot by people. But if you get shot you can actually healyourself just by not getting shot again. You’ll be in the middle of a gun battle when suddenly some bastard jumps out from behind a corner and peppers you with bullets. In real life you’d be done for, but in Call of Duty you can just run away and chill behind some boxes for a bit, and then go shoot him back. In Age of Empires, a strategy game I played endlessly when I was younger, you can set castles ablaze by shooting them with arrows. In The Elder Scrolls, you can cure diseases through prayer.
There’s another series called Grand Theft Auto where you steal cars and do heists and fight gangsters and stuff. I’d just started high school when GTA: San Andreas came out and it was like nothing I’d ever played before. You could do everything. You could get a jetpack and fly around shooting people down below with an Uzi. You could go to the airport and steal a 747 and fly wherever you wanted. You could climb a mountain and then ride off the top of it on a BMX. You could steal a taxi, drive it into a tuning shop and have it spray painted pink and fitted with neon lights and spoilers and nitrous oxide (for when your customers were in a hurry). You could jump out of a plane from any height without a parachute and, so long as you landed in water, you’d be fine. The map was so big that you could spend an entire afternoon just driving around it. But the most incredible thing about this game was that you could go to a barber shop and come out with longer hair than what you went in with. Say what you like about the state of San Andreas, but their barbers have some serious skills.
But Grand Theft Auto is probably the most misunderstood game of all time. You’ve probably seen all the stuff in the news about how playing it turns you into a murderous, sociopathic criminal. Most people who criticise it have never even played it, so they don’t even know what it’s about. I remember playing it one afternoon and my girlfriend at the time saying, “is that that game where you kill prostitutes?” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “I heard some of the guys at uni talking about hiring prostitutes in GTA because having sex with them increases your hit points or whatever, and then they kill the prostitutes and take their money back.” I paused the game and fell silent. I realised she had a point. It had never occurred to me to kill the prostitutes and take my money back.
“Well,” she continued, “I don’t see why anyone would want to play a game about killing prostitutes.” And I said, “wait a second. The game is not about killing prostitutes.” I tried to reason with her that while you can kill prostitutes, that’s not the point of the game, nor is it encouraged. You can kill anyone in GTA: police officers, taxi drivers, paramedics, firemen, shopkeepers, airport staff, motorists, pedestrians — anyone, not just prostitutes. She looked even more horrified at this so I moved swiftly to my second argument, which was that you can’t reduce an entire game to one little aspect of it and judge it based on that. When you take a game like GTA so far out of context, of course it sounds fucked up. ‘That game where you kill prostitutes’sounds terrible, even if it would probably sell quite well.
People need to lay off GTA. Every game sounds sketchy when you take it out of context. Super Mario was my favourite game when I was a kid, but you could argue that it promotes the use of magic mushrooms and — if we’re to believe that Princess Peach is really fifteen years old — normalises the idea of an adult man relentlessly courting a minor and using his rescuing her as leverage in pursuing her romantically. Then there’s The Sims, where you create a family and build a nice home for them with a pool and then killthem one by one by getting them to go swimming and deleting the stairs so that they swim and swim until they die of exhaustion. And what about Animal Crossing, everyone’s favourite lockdown game, where you move to a tiny island cut off from the rest of civilization and become the indentured servant of a local loan shark, who has you perform humiliating, menial tasks in order to work off a mortgage that he’s forced on you since he has a monopoly over the island’s housing market. The most outlandish thing of all? The mortgage is interest-free.