GTA Glenvista High

"_The disturbing material in _Grand Theft Auto _and other games like it is stealing the innocence of our children and it's making the difficult job of being a parent even harder." _Hillary Clinton, 2005

Towards the end of the viral video of a Glenvista High School student attacking his teacher with a broom last week, his classmate, who filmed the incident, can be heard excitedly shouting, "Did you see that? That's GTA! That's GTA, né? That's GTA!"

The boy was referring to the massively popular game, Grand Theft Auto.

Last week, the latest edition in the series was released - GTA V - and it made around $800 million (R7.7 billion) on its first day of sales, smashing records for the medium.

The series, published by Rockstar Games, has been around for about 15 years. Essentially, it involves the player's rise through the ranks of the criminal underworld. The player controls their character in first person and along the way has to complete a number of missions. This generally involves using big guns, but sometimes just baseball bats or bare fists, to rob, kill and earn money. In between missions, given the open-world and free-will nature of the game, one can fool around by soliciting prostitutes and then killing them, assaulting policemen or innocent pedestrians, or driving people over with your stolen car. As one does.

In my own experience, when something annoying happens during the game like failing a mission repeatedly or having someone write off my car when I have a time limit to get somewhere, it's easy to vent my frustration by knocking people out with a baseball bat, ramming their cars or going on a killing spree.

While driving in real life, after playing the game for long periods of time, one sometimes has urges. These may vary from wanting to ramp over a speed bump to wanting to drive onto the pavement and knock down pedestrians like bowling pins. It would never actually happen, but the thoughts are there. Apparently I'm not alone in this, according to some very scientific in-office research. I think it's normal, but maybe it's best you just stay clear of EWN-marked cars.

But it isn't farfetched to assume, then, given the urges brought on after gaming for hours on end to act the same things out in real life, that some people have actually done so.

When the boy filming the video said the violence he'd just witnessed reminded him of GTA, I wasn't surprised. It's a fair observation. The seemingly random, almost comical violence of the game was well recreated by his classmate.

I don't know whether the grade eight boy who attacked the teacher has ever played it himself but some of his friends clearly have and, despite the game's 'M for mature' rating (for ages 17 and up), I can confidently say that many kids well below that age are playing the game and loving it.

My own primary school, in fact, had an early version of the game installed on the school computers which we sometimes played during IT class. I don't know why they weren't teaching us Powerpoint or something, but that's beside the point. While the poor graphics of that version meant the blood and guts weren't nearly as realistic as they are in the latest instalments, the concept was entirely the same. Hardcore violence and other criminal acts were the main focus.

The debate over the effect of computer games on a child's psychology has been long running and people have made some good (and some terrible) arguments on both ends of the scale. I'm not going to rehash that whole thing only to get as far as anyone before me, but it's worth looking at a few cases.

It's also worth noting, first, that given the 'real-world' design of the game, there's a notable lack of schools and children. There are hospitals, malls, bars and almost any other regular institution, but no houses of education. There are school buses but they don't carry any actual kids. I'd venture to say that was a conscious - and wise - move on the part of the developers to avoid any Columbine-style re-enactments in the game. The Columbine Massacre shooters back in 1999, by the way, were hardcore fans of a first-person shooter game called Doom. This debate isn't a new one.

GTA has been at the centre of that debate in more recent years, particularly in the US. One lawyer, Jack Thompson, was eventually disbarred in 2008 for participating in a few too many court cases where he blamed the game for a number of murders, including one where a 17-year-old killed three police officers. The boy was apparently a keen GTA player and was later quoted as saying, "Life is a video game. You've got to die sometime."

Thompson later called the game a "cop killing simulator" on CNN, saying shooting games trained minors to kill.

While he may have been over-zealous in his lawsuits, he was not alone in his mission. His were the most high-profile cases, but many have been played out in both the courts of law and public opinion. Rockstar Games has spent over $1 billion defending its titles in court, particularly GTA, but few of the battles have ended badly for them. From what I can find, one of the biggest losses they ever suffered was a $2.75 million settlement with employees who claimed they had not been compensated for overtime. Rockstar may have implicated itself in a sort of 'Grand Theft Wages', but no one seems able to prove that the game has serious effects on children. Most of that billion was seemingly spent on legal fees rather than fines or pay-outs.

In 2006, the Washington Post reported that a six-year-old boy who took his parents car for a joyride, ending in an accident, claimed he had learned to drive by playing games including GTA. Fortunately no-one was hurt, even though the boy had driven around 16 kilometres alone and reportedly overtook a woman driving at 100 kilometres per hour.

The game might lead a 6-year-old to think he can drive, then, but whether it can actually encourage violence remains uncertain. The Glenvista pupil who filmed his classmate attacking his teacher observed such extreme, humiliating violence on a man he ought to respect and only reacted with manic laughter and by saying it all looked like a scene out of GTA. Further, he actually encouraged the attacker, even picking up and passing him the broom after it had been thrown at the teacher. He loved the violence. But where did that come from? Is that because of the game, or is that just a factor?

Another incident of school violence occurred at Sasolburg High School in the Free State on Friday. A 15-year-old pupil brought his grandfather's gun to school, allegedly to threaten a female classmate with, but when a teacher intervened, a shot went off (accidentally, according to the police), hitting the teacher's leg.

When I came across the school's Facebook page later that day, I found a series of photographs of their Mr and Miss Sasolburg High School pageant where most of the participants carried replica guns, aiming them at each other and at the cameras, seemingly as part of the theme.

Of course, the boy who allegedly shot his teacher was probably not inspired by that pageant and it was by no means the first gun-related theme for an event involving minors. It was mostly just ironic. But perhaps if a child is predisposed or overexposed to violence, further exposure in such environments could encourage them or at least instil in them the belief that violence isn't as much of a taboo as it should be.

It's important to consider that the Columbine shooters, for example, were severely damaged boys. In his study of the massacre, Dr Jerald J. Block, an American psychiatrist, found there were several issues affecting the shooters' psyches.

"A childhood medical ailment, bullying, the copycatting of prior school shootings, mental illness, and alcohol abuse were all important factors," he explained to the Psychiatric Times.

Block actually suggested that games may be a good way for such people to vent their rage, which was caused by other factors. But his study warns that removing that from certain people "might provoke a potentially dangerous crisis."

The deep-rooted issues the shooters were facing probably can't be blamed fully on computer games, and while their final actions might have been informed in part by games, it was not the sole contributor to their actual actions by any stretch of the imagination. While it was nowhere near the same level of violence, I'm sure the same would prove true in any other case, including Glenvista. In the coming weeks we'll likely hear more about the psychological states of the Glenvista and Sasolburg boys, and find that there were greater problems in their lives than computer games.

Don't blame one game, or one pageant, albeit if they are in poor taste. There's probably no point in banning games, and age restrictions clearly don't help. Banning drugs hasn't helped stem their use by much and, unlike games or movies, drugs can't simply be downloaded. Violence will remain a part of films, games and, for some kids, everyday life as long as it remains something which is glorified and glamorous. This is done by society as a whole, not just one game. It isn't something you can stop with one law or sanction. At the very least, parents need to be able to show their kids the difference between fantasy and reality, as realistic as that fantasy may be.