‘Grand Theft Auto’ blamed for recent surge in carjackings in Chicago; gaming experts object


Jagoda chats with creative partner Ashlyn Sparrow, of the Weston Game Lab, at the University of Chicago. — Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO: Wait, did you feel that shift in the pop culture universe in the last week?

It was last Monday, when Illinois Democratic state Rep. Marcus Evans (33rd) spoke out at a news conference citing video games as contributing to the carjacking surge in Chicago. In January, 218 vehicular hijackings were reported in Chicago. A total of 1,415 carjackings were reported in 2020 – the highest number since 2001, according to a Tribune review of police information.

With residents concerned and city officials seeking answers, Evans introduced a bill to ban sales in Illinois of the video game Grand Theft Auto. “Violent video games are getting in the minds of young people and perpetuating the normalcy of carjacking,” he said at the news conference.

The bill would amend a 2012 law preventing some video games from being sold to minors – games that show “psychological harm”, including “motor vehicle theft with a driver or passenger present”.

On Thursday, Evans said his gaming buddies are teasing him about the bill and he has received numerous calls from around the world on the topic of the First Amendment. But he’s not going to stop trying to stop carjackings.

“I don’t want to create a circus; I want to secure a problem,” Evans said. “I think I’m doing that by having all these conversations about what we’re accepting. I may move the bill forward, or I may not.... These violent video games are not helping.”

But gamers and experts in the gaming field won’t hear of it. They are saying Evans’ attempt to play the blame game with a video game is just another grandstanding attempt to fault popular culture for society’s ills. (In the meantime, Chicago’s Second City is close to a deal that would sell it to private equity firm ZMC, controlled by investor Strauss Zelnick, who is CEO of Take-Two, the video game company best known for the Grand Theft Auto franchise.)

When she heard about Evans’ bill, Kishonna Gray, the author of Intersectional Tech: Black Users In Digital Gaming and an assistant professor in communications and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, laughed long and hard.

“This is what I call lazy legislating – where a person does something dramatic and very visible. It’s like the low-hanging fruit of legislation,” she said. “Let’s just blame something that we don’t understand anything about and we don’t have to have a nuanced, complex conversation about. Let’s just point to something and say that’s the reason we’re having all these carjackings.”

Patrick Jagoda, a professor of English and cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago who specialises in teaching media theory, game studies and design, and 20th and 21st century American literature and culture, said Evans’ move is just “smoke and mirrors”.

“As a legislator, I imagine, you know that things are going really poorly economically and politically in this city and in this country, and it’s really easy to take all of those complex problems and blame them on something that some people have a strong emotional reaction to, which is something that they don’t understand, like kids playing video games,” he said.

Experts have long said there is no correlation between video games and violence.

The Entertainment Software Association, an advocacy group for companies that publish computer and video games, offered this statement: “While our industry understands and shares the concerns about what has been happening in Chicago, there simply is no evidence of a link between interactive entertainment and real-world violence. We believe the solution to this complex problem resides in examining thoroughly the actual factors that drive such behaviours rather than erroneously ascribing blame to video games based solely upon speculation.”

The Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the possible correlation.

“I wish Grand Theft Auto taught me how to steal a car. It’s not a how-to manual; it’s a playground,” Jagoda said. “Whenever criminal activity surges or a tragedy occurs, you see lazy lawmakers and sociologists blaming video games for everything.”

He said better explanations might include unemployment and structural inequality. “People are struggling during the current economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. City, state and national leaders have much larger problems than video games right now. But it’s easy to divert attention from serious political change by blaming simple video games.”

He also noted that the most recent version of Grand Theft Auto (Grand Theft Auto V) came out in 2013: “A game that came out eight years ago is not causing carjackings today in 2021.”

Evans disagreed. When asked about the research that found no correlation between video games and violence, he said those studies didn’t include the people committing the crimes. Evans said the existence of the game normalises criminal behaviour.

“We have a problem right now: Our communities are being attacked by these carjackings, and it’s being trivialised through video games,” he said. “My mom and grandmother live on the South Side, and they’re scared to go in the garage. We have to stop this.

“Taking a stance against something, making it crystal clear that it’s unacceptable can send shock waves,” he said. “Or maybe not. It’s just an idea. If people don’t like my ideas, I’m open to not advancing them.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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