Grand Theft Auto (GTA) IV and Wii-Fit, two of the biggest games of the year, were released to critical acclaim and not a little media circus.
Although these two share top billing they couldn't be more different. One game is marketed squarely at the twenty something hardcore gamer whilst the other sets its sights on the family gaming market. However, scratch beneath the surface and they have something fundamental in common – the opportunity for increased well being. This is obvious for Wii-Fit but how so with GTA IV?
Well, before we get into all that let's take some time to soak up the porcelain white goodness that is Wii-Fit. If you've not already heard, Wii-Fit is the latest add-on to the Nintendo Wii. As I recently discussed, it monitors your balance, weight and centre of gravity as you play. You can stretch, pose and wobble your way through a variety of games and exercises and get tailored feedback from your personal Wii-Fit trainer.
Although we were a little sceptical at first, my whole family has been enjoying the Wii-Fit experience - my son, my wife and even granny! Thom (3) loves the football heading game, whilst Ellen (5) usually goes for the dancing or hulahooping. I enjoy the muscle work outs and Jo is always keen to improve her Yoga some more. Because it tracks our progress we are all keen to add another entry in our graphs and see how we have improved.
On the face of it, GTA IV couldn't be more different. It is the latest in a series of games that let's you explore an expansive open city as reluctant anti-hero Nico Bellic. The adventure unfolds through automotive or pedestrian exploration of the impressively realistic streets of the living breathing Liberty City. I could easily spend a few paragraphs waxing lyrical about the hand crafted beauty of the city or heart stopping moments of GTA's story, but this has been well documented elsewhere.
This all sounds great for the late teens and twenties gamers, but what is there here to interest the family gamer? Answering this means talking the thornier parts of GTA. This is a game that doesn't try to dumb down or clean up the realities of life in the city's underworld. This is an adult experience with the related themes of strong language, sex, violence and drugs. Ironically though, it is this gritty reality that makes it a beneficial and interesting game for families (with older kids) to engage with.
Just as traditional folk stories dealt with unsettling or dangerous topics in a controlled and safe space, GTA similarly provides an environment that brings us face to face with difficult issues; sex, violence, relationships and human fallibility. The common perception of GTA (and games like it) is that it is all about cheap thrills, barrelling chases, gun battles and violent or degrading opportunities. Those things are in the mix for sure, but when you take time to engage with its environments and characters, when you bring your own imagination to the world - when you actually play it - you start to appreciate what is really going on. A big reason GTA is fun is because it provides a safe space in which to experience and experiment difficult issues.
As Dr Jeroen Jansz recently suggested, games provide a 'Private laboratory where one can play with all kinds of things that are impossible and/or forbidden in ordinary life. It is an excellent space to experiment with one's emotions and identities.' With this in mind, the challenge of GTA is not the questionable opportunities for misbehaviour it creates for our young adults, but rather how we enable them to process and vocalise their discoveries in that space. The danger of GTA is not that it may lead to copy-cat behaviour, but rather it will address the pressing issues of our day only to have them forgotten about once the console is switched off.
While you have younger kids (like us) this is still going to be a pursuit for the grown ups in the household. However, once you have a range of older teenagers in the gaming spectrum GTA IV precipitates some interesting morning after conversations. With a few people in the family playing the game it doesn't take long for breakfast time to stray into the previous nights pursuits in Liberty City. How we as families handle these issues is perhaps just as telling as any Fit-Age or BMI of our general health. Do we take the opportunity to engage with these tricky and sometimes embarrassing issues, grasping the nettle so to speak? Or does our silence alienate us from these real world issues of sex, relationships, usury, violence and crime?
Thank goodness for the innovation of Nintendo with products like Wii-Fit, but also thank God for the creative genius of Rockstar to so eloquently paint believable renderings of this world and its tough issues. Playing these two games, I realised that I am comfortable admitting that I am a bit out of shape, but a lot less happy admitting that my family is often too silent on issues like sex and violence. Some daily exercise and engaging breakfast conversations will hopefully help me emerge healthier and happier by the end of the year.
Phew, got a bit deep there for a while. If you're still with me I'll return for what I promise will be a lighter topic in a couple of weeks. Until then, why not follow my mini-blog on Twitter or get to know me on Facebook.
Paul Govan - The Family Gamer