Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. announced yesterday that the GTA 5, the fifth installment of its popular and controversial Grand Theft Auto video game franchise has delivered first day sales of more than $800 million worldwide (excluding the upcoming launch in Japan and Brazil). At $60 a pop, total retail revenues translate into 13 to 14 million units of the game sold, Reuters reported.

“Beginning at midnight on Monday, consumers around the world gathered in anticipation to be among the first to experience the evolution of this remarkable series," Strauss Zelnick, Chairman and CEO of Take-Two, stated in a press release. “In North America alone, more than 8,300 stores opened their doors at midnight to welcome fans whose loyalty and enthusiasm were rewarded with what The New York Times called ‘the most immersive spectacle in interactive entertainment.’” GTA 5 was so desirable, that one fan was stabbed and hit over the head with a brick for his copy.

Did You Say Spectacle?

In Society of the Spectacle, a slender book originally published in 1967, Guy DeBord begins with these words: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

From there he launches into a discussion that explores the idea that those who make and control the images control society. Each of us is shaped, then, by distorted images of reality instead of being shaped by our own experience of reality. And in this age of incessant TV, movies, online webjunk, and video games like GTA 5, the image-makers have even more access to shaping not only our vision of the world but also ourselves. And that view is artificial.

“In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false,” DeBord wrote. With the latest wave of entertainments, the false never looked so real. And for at least 13 to 14 million people, the false was never more difficult to resist.

If as DeBord believes, the spectacle is shaping us, can that be proven? Researchers in the US and the Netherlands may already have done so.

Sensitivity to Violence

GTA 5 (and the entire Grand Theft Auto series) has been criticized for its graphic portrayal of violence and sexuality. Many critics claim that the game glorifies violence by rewarding senseless violent behavior. The debate is often framed in terms of the real-life effects of the game: whether playing GTA 5 makes gamers more likely to commit violent acts in the living world.

To examine whether media violence exposure causes desensitization, a set of researchers created an experiment where participants played either a violent or nonviolent video game, viewed violent or nonviolent photos (while their brain activity was measured), and then made the choice whether to give an opponent a blast of unpleasant noise. What did the researchers discover?

Although men were more aggressive than women, violent video game content had a similar effect on men and women. The brain scans of those participants who previously had not been exposed to video game violence but now played a violent game showed actual physiological desensitization to violent images. Meanwhile, the brains of those who had a high level of exposure to video games liek Grand Theft Auto V were unaffected by the images — they had been desensitized.

“These data provide the first experimental evidence linking violence desensitization with increased aggression, and show that a neural marker of this process can at least partially account for the causal link between violent game exposure and aggression,” the authors state in their study. Although false from the start, the spectacle eventually becomes the true.

Source: Engelhard CR, Bartholow BD, Kerr GT et al. This is your brain on violent video games: Neural desensitization to violence predicts increased aggression following violent video game exposure. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2011.