He hath set water and fire before thee: stretch forth thy hand to which thou wilt. Before man is life and death, good and evil, that which he shall choose shall be given him.- Sirach Chapter 15
There is nothing so damning to the human spirit as free will. No murder so heinous as one with forethought, planning and cold execution. When choice is consciously made, the most petty of actions become greater than the sum of their results. We raise our glass to men defending their homes from invaders. We would damn them without their justifications, their lack of choice because they were just protecting their families. In games we rely on the ends justifying means that would make the cruelest of dictators cringe.
This being the day Grand Theft Auto IV slips into gaming consoles all over the world, we’re going to be faced with questions of morality again. Not just from the media or concerned parents, but more importantly - ourselves.
The Grand Theft Auto series confronts us with something few games are willing to take on. It thrusts the player into a world that demands violence on a grand scale with no more justification than personal gain. Often there is no family to save, innocent to protect or even someone in a position of moral authority offering salvation. It’s just our willingness to do the drive-by because we’re told we have to. It’s a point system, and raising those numbers is usually all the comfort we need to squash any concern over what these actions say about us. We’ve been trained for over 20 years to think in these abstracts, to view digital people as obstacles and mobile treasure chests.
What Rockstar offers us is choice – the opportunity to shuck the responsibility of moving the story forward or gaining new territory. You can simply put it all aside, collect an AK-47, stride into a hospital and start shooting. Forethought, planning and execution. This is where we cannot hide behind the constructs of mission, points or saving the Presidents daughter. It’s just our guns and a lot of innocent treasure chests. Or people, depending on your viewpoint. We’re offered a chance to execute what society considers to be the worst kind of murder.
In those quiet moments when there are no friends to urge us on, we have an opportunity to see which side of the line we fall on. Sitting alone in the living room and gripping the controller lets us play out some of our basest fantasies. It’s an interactive opportunity that no other medium can claim to offer. Just how much is too much? How do we feel while we’re driving through crowds of innocents with the police hot on our tail? Are we still having fun, or just exorcising demons?
The answers are intrinsically personal because we all internalize things differently. It’s for this very reason that non-gamers are horrified at the prospect of having this kind of choice laid before them. There is no goal abstraction for them to get behind – there’s just people being gunned down. They cannot easily confront this aspect of themselves through a safe, interactive experience. It's an avenue largely unexplored by the older generation.
For gamers, Grand Theft Auto IV affords an opportunity to do more than just shock and titillate. By giving us the tools to plan and execute carnage on a grand scale we can learn something about the human experience. We can push further and find out where our primitive, club wielding aggression ends and our reason and compassion begins. We can make choices without the safety blanket of justification or righteous goals.
The freedom of choice, however limited it may be, is a rare opportunity in the gaming landscape. To cast story aside, pick up a gun and see what shakes out is another step toward learning about ourselves. Even better, we can explore these experiences and possibilities without hurting anyone in the real world.
What an opportunity!
- Shawn Andrich