Grand Theft Experience

Today, while waiting in Jeep dealership for an oil change, I entered into a chat with a 15 year old kid named Brent who voiced disgust at the removal of the video game Grand Theft Auto from the shelves at Target and WalMart.

Here’s a rough summary of our discussion, which proved to be more thought provoking for me than anticipated.

Leigh: “Brent, please tell me why this game so much more exciting than other games. What about it do you like?”

Brent: “It’s just much more realistic to life. I mean, it’s not set in space or anything. There are real streets and real people and real situations and stuff. You can even drive over the Golden Gate Bridge!"

Leigh: “So you relate to the realistic imagery. That would definitely distinguish it from a lot of other games. How about the mission and action in the game? I read the premise of the game is all crime-related, a lot of the people in the game criminals, thugs and drug dealers, and that there's a fair amount sexual content and explicit language.”

Brent: “Yeah, it's there, but I don’t buy it for that. Besides, that stuff isn't real. I mean, you kill someone in real life and you don’t get a star on your windshield. You go to jail.”

Leigh: “So, if you had a choice between Grand Theft Auto and a game with realistic imagery just like it – only with legal behavior, straight language and no sexually explicit content, which one would you choose?”

Brent: “Well of course, Grand Theft Auto.

Leigh: “So, if the sex, violence, illegal activity and language don’t make it more interesting, what is it then?”

Brent: “It’s just more fun and realistic. I don’t know what else to say.”

Leigh: “Okay. I’m interested to know if you think movies and video games are increasingly more violent and sexual ...and if so, why?”

Brent: (With fascination) “Yeah. TV and games keep getting worse. I think it’s like addiction. You can’t get enough. You know, it’s like food: Today, it’s like an obsession to people but a long time ago, it wasn’t.”

Leigh: "You used the word 'addiction'. What do the increasing amounts of action, violence, aggression, sexuality do for people?"

Brent: “I guess keep you interested?”

Leigh: “So, going back to Grand Theft Auto -- how long does this game keep you interested – two hours a day, maybe?”

Brent: “Well, lately. Sometimes more, but sometimes less.”

Leigh: "I understand the game manufacturer actually pre-loaded some really sexually explicit content and other options into the game when it was sold, but the public couldn’t access it. To access it you have to run a “mod” you can get from the internet."

Brent: “Yeah, that’s what I heard, too.”

Leigh: " I read that, if that sexual content were publicly available, the game wouldn’t have gotten the “M” rating - which means the big sellers (Wallmart and Target) wouldn’t have sold it. But it's easy to download the mod from the web and you don't have to be 18."

Brent: “Well, some stuff was in there. I don’t do the mods – I didn’t even know about it or how to do it. Some of my friends do them. I just play the game like it came.”

Leigh: “In your opinion, what kind of motivation would lead a company to pull a stunt like that?

Brent: “Well, I"m positive it will make more people want the game!”

Leigh: “What do you think the people who engineer these experiences (games, videos, tv shows) get in return? What did the gaming industry get from you?”

Brent: “Well, I bought the game - but that’s really it.”

Leigh: “Well, you bought the game player, the game and other games, right? Maybe also gaming magazines, right?" (Nodding) "So, they got some of your money, and by your admission, they also get about 10-14 hours of your time each week, right?”

Brent: “Naaw. Well. Maybe like 10 hours...”

Leigh: “Okay. So, it's not just about money. When was the last time you spent 10 hours per week on something? Say homework?” (Brent grimaces) “I’m just using the question to stimulate some thought about the power of spending 10 hours a week doing anything! Some people who see numbers like this think the game manufacturers are trying to program kids. What do you think about that?”

Brent: “Well, it’s not like I’m going to go out and shoot someone because I played this game. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

Leigh: “You don’t seem like a potential serial murderer. Some say it might program you to become accustomed to violence, obscene language or sexual content? Others say it can create a decreaed attention span or habit for constant mental stimulation. What about reinforcing a sedentary lifestyle? I'm being a bit of a devi's advocate here -- are you concerned that time you spend program you in any way?

Brent: “Well, yeah, it probably does. But look - sometimes you just gotta escape, you know? Playing games helps you get away … People have jobs they hate and stuff. They get back from work all stressed and don’t want to do anything. They just want to get away.”

Leigh: “You are 15 years old. What are you escaping from?”

Brent: “Well, I might fail a test at school or something. Or get stress.”

Leigh: “Okay, believe it or not, I get this. I have TIVO. But, I know I'm not really escaping when I’m glued to the TV in my living room. Are you really getting away from anything when you play Grand Theft Auto? I mean, you’re in your room or living room or something – you’re not out anywhere, usually, right. If you did go out and, say, climb a rock – you’d really be getting away, right? Not just "vegging out" or checking out mentally, right?”

Brent: “Yeah, pretty much.”

Leigh: “Does playing the make your life materially different? Do you get something from it like the experience, feelings, new friendships or memories you might get from hiking, flying or four-wheeling for fun?“

Brent: “No. It's just fun. Mental escape.”

Leigh: “So the gaming industry is taking your money and lacing 10 plus hours of your "escape time" each week with increasing amounts of violence, action, violence and sexual content, which you called 'addicting.' You admit that it could subtly program you. Do you think this is a bad thing at all?”

Brent: “Nope, just as long as I’m happy.”

Leigh: “Are you really happy, or are you or just entertained?

Brent: (stunned look) “Man, that’s a good question. I never thought of it that way.”

Leigh: “Yeah, after all, we're just talking about a game, right?”

Brent: “Right.”

It occurs to me that Brent's experience isn't any different than my friend Jen's infatuation with soap operas and gossip magazines - or my own addiction to TIVO and going to movies. When you look at things plainly, these industries (e.g. entertainment) are less than subtle and they're making a mint off of our addiction to entertainment.

Marketing started by advertising neccessities... it later focused on innovations that promised an easier life.... later, we promoted luxuries for a better or different life. Today's marketers are promoting someone else's life as an ultimate form of escape. Beyond games, reality television is a great example of this -- only it's almost always fundamentally unrealistic.

Beyond games, is our rising infatuation with engaging in "manufactured experiences" (movies, gaming, amusement, gambling, etc..) dissuading us from participation in other experiences, which might make us healthier, result in stress reduction, new relationships, a greater sense of accomplishment, or the betterment of others? How much can does it work to isolate us? Feed our materialism? I wouldn't villainize the entertainment industry - however deserved. We follow along like lemmings. I just wonder what happened to common sense?

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LEIGH DURST

LEIGH DURST
I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.

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