The latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto video game series takes on an interesting subject: immigration and the American Dream.

 Image from Grand Theft Auto IV video game

Those who think video games are just mindless entertainment often contradict themselves by complaining that the games make their youthful players susceptible to becoming violent and irrational. The reality is that the games often teach very good lessons. It all depends on what the player brings to them.

A fine example is the Grand Theft Auto videogame series, which world-savers on both the political left and right have lambasted for years as encouraging violence among young people.

One might politely suggest that the real culprits are disgracefully poor public education systems staffed largely by unionized time-servers; weak sentencing given to youthful offenders; and draconian drug laws that make the narcotics trade immensely profitable—but one would be quickly shouted down as a child-killer.

Such is the fate of those cursed with common sense in our contemporary world.

Nonetheless, because people are still free to purchase such games, there is money in it and an eager audience for sensible critiques of them. Thank Heaven for the market economy.

In a very enlightening review of the newly released Grand Theft Auto IV in today’s Chicago Sun-Times, Misha Davenport covers both the game action and the highly interesting setting and ideas behind Grand Theft Auto IV. Yes, the game has ideas, and they are handled very well indeed, according to Davenport’s report:

“Grand Theft Auto IV” is a modern masterpiece that attempts to address what it means to be an American in a post-9/11 world.

The script by Rockstar founder Dan Houser distills and condenses both our hopes and fears during these confusing times as it captures the seedy underbelly of a major city. The game shares much in common with E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime. In that book, a Jewish immigrant family finds the turn-of-the-century tenements of New York to be a harsh place. A hundred years later, immigrants are still drawn to this country by the allure of freedom; but the good life of the “American Dream” dissipates when you wake to the bitter reality of life in a big city.

The comparison to Doctorow will undoubtedly offend those who dismiss video games as inherently non-intellectual, but the novel itself, after all, was originally considered to be a debased form of writing, grossly inferior to epic poetry and theatrical drama. Davenport continues with a description of the game action:

“GTA IV” follows Niko Bellic, an illegal immigrant from an unnamed eastern European country who is trying to escape the horrors of the Bosnian war by starting over in Liberty City (the game’s fictionalized version of New York). He no sooner meets his cousin Roman on the docks when he realizes the good life promised to him was a lie, his cousin’s letters about the good life mere exaggerations.

There is no mansion. Roman lives in a roach-infested studio walk-up located in Hove Beach (Brighton Beach) in the borough of Broker (Brooklyn). Roman has a gambling problem, he’s heavily in debt, and he needs some muscle to provide protection and even the score.

As Roman, players can take up various odd jobs, date and woo a girl, play darts, go bowling or even get stinking drunk with the cousin until neither of you can walk or see straight. (I’ve never driven drunk, but I can only imagine that programmers have done their research. The car is impossible to handle.)

The new game shows a further maturity from the series’ raucous beginnings, Davenport notes: 

While the main characters in the initial entries in the franchise were thugs and gangsters, things took a different turn in the last game. CJ, the hero of “GTA: San Andreas,” was basically a decent guy who, in true Hitchcock fashion, found himself mixed up in some very bad things.

But this time around, gamers hold Niko’s morality in their hands. Sure, you’re beating up the loan sharks who are hassling your cousin, but beyond that, things are again fairly open-ended, leaving it up to you to decide just what Niko will do as he chases the elusive American Dream.

The Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series is by no means unique in introducing challenging thoughts and ideas into video games. Countless other games do the same thing, and even those that seem to be nothing but action, such as the GTA series, can have serious implications and strong, positive educational components.

I’ve never played video games, or other parlor games either, as it’s just something I have never enjoyed, so I appreciate the views of people who do like these things. Although I don’t play the games myself, millions of other people do, and I’m glad to know that the makers of many of these games are serious about making them as good as possible on all levels of engagement.

Truly, they seem far more serious and responsible than the people who run our public schools.