Grand Theft Opportunity

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

Comments

Certis wrote:
take your righteous indignation back to church where it belongs. Because it is silly and irrelevant.

Cool your jets, guys. I know it's a weighty topic, but no need for the righteous anger because you think people are being righteously indignant. ;)

I was justly and fairly called out for being a hypocrite... Do I get a cookie?

Reaper81 wrote:

Your soul decides who lives and dies in a game just as it does in the real world. The consequences of the game are minimal on the real world. What of the consequences on your soul? You sell yourself a bit when you play a game like GTA. You validate the evolutionary past of homo sapiens when you beat a hooker to death in this game. Do we want to reward cave dwelling?

This statement is almost offensive to me.

Every game that comes out has some kind of dominance issue expressed via conflict. Do we ever ponder whether destruction of pieces in chess is morally correct? Do we feel that red or black is the "good" side in checkers? In Contra, did we ever ponder that some of those thousands of people we slaughtered didn't deserve it? I don't understand how a game, which is epitomized simply as a set of conflict rules within a given context, has any realistic morality inherent to it at all. It is a GAME.

Given, part of sandbox games is determining what the "rules" are, but that doesn't imply that there is some deeper meaning. I don't see any reason to justify why I am stealing the treasure from a dragon, nor do I feel the need to justify why I'm stealing my money back from a Liberty City hooker. They are equivalent experiences because they occur against vague backdrops with imaginary characters. Who knows, maybe EVERY SINGLE person in Liberty City is actually an evil bastard... maybe we are an angel of death sent by god to wreak vengeance on the idolaters... Playing the game shouldn't require us creating a moral context for play. The rules for the environment are the rules, and people are not good, evil or intellectually regressive for playing.

Now, some people are more sensitive than others, and I wouldn't recommend playing games like GTA to people with delicate sensibilities. But I would also recommend people like that not watch Rob Zombie horror films, and I don't think there is a moral ambiguity for watching those movies. Why a particular medium is somehow given more negative credence just because the consumer is making decisions within it seems illogical to me. Anyone making that case is essentially saying that Dungeons & Dragons IS the work of the devil, which I categorically reject.

So unless you are willing to define in absolute terms how they knew for sure that the space ship in Galaga wasn't a mass murderer, how bombarding planets in Sins of a Solar Empire isn't slaughter of unparalleled numbers of civilians, or how all those poor WoW animals we took body parts from were actually asking for it... you can get off GTA and take your righteous indignation back to church where it belongs. Because it is silly and irrelevant.

Edit: I used stronger language at the end there than I really intended. I go to church.. sometimes... and I have nothing against church or people thinking that they should live a good life and be good people. I apologize for my wording.

I think the fun of getting chased by the cops is one of the things that best reveals what's really going on in GTA: the idea is to see what you can get away with, in this fantasy-world. If you didn't get chased by the cops, there wouldn't be a point in experimenting with senseless acts of violence.

It's IMHO the simultaneity of consequences and no-consequences that makes the game immersive, and also that represents the place where its lessons, if any, are learned.

I picked my avatar thinking "No way anyone else will have a pic of Oliver Wendell Holmes." And then LilCodger posts directly below me with Holmes as his avatar. Un-freaking believable. I guess I'll just have to go scare up some other famous judge's picture.

Higgledy - I never heard of the Tarzan example; the A-Team and G.I. Joe were more my generation. So many bullets and so little death; violence without the consequences. Not to say GTA has real consequences, either; anyone who says that the cops coming after the player somehow deters wanton violence in GTA is being disingenuous or hasn't realized that, if anything, it's more fun to deal with the 5-0.

For the record: I have killed many virtual people in the various incarnations of GTA, but have never picked up a hooker even knowing that it was possible. Nothing moral about it: I always found it was easier to regain health through other means. And although many of my interests are prurient, I figured I wasn't missing much by skipping the carnal pleasures of virtual in-car prostitution.

Edit: For punctuation.

TinPeregrinus wrote:

I think the fun of getting chased by the cops is one of the things that best reveals what's really going on in GTA: the idea is to see what you can get away with, in this fantasy-world. If you didn't get chased by the cops, there wouldn't be a point in experimenting with senseless acts of violence.

It's IMHO the simultaneity of consequences and no-consequences that makes the game immersive, and also that represents the place where its lessons, if any, are learned.

Exactly - I meant the sort of consequences that might justify moralizing your choice to shoot a random pedestrian in the face. If your character dies or gets caught, he's back out on the streets faster than you can say "revolving-door penal system." The fact that the game reacts to your choices is definitely part of the awesometude. The real-life reaction you'd get for driving through a park in your Hummer would not be awesome and the consequences would be real and awful - hurting real people is a Bad Thing and to be avoided.

Something strange happened while waiting to pick up GTA 4 last night.

...Not a single person was raped and murdered.

...Not a single car was stolen from the parking lot

...people were laughing, generally having a good time about being in line.

You'd think for a "Thug" game like GTA 4 it would bring out all the people who would use "the tools to plan and execute carnage on a grand scale so we can learn something about the human experience. "

I don't feel bad about playing GTA 4. You shouldn't either. There's nothing morally sick about GTA 4. It's a game, it's escapism. Daresay it's art. It seems some folks are making a bigger deal out of this than it really is.

I'll go one step further:

I do not like playing the board game, Diplomacy. In it, I feel people are rewarded for deliberately misleading other people who they are probably quite close to. I do not enjoy playing games where I have to deliberately lie to someone I call a friend in order to get ahead. It is not pleasant to me.

I do not, however, look at Diplomacy as a degenerative experience. I do not think that someone is less moral for having played it. Experiences in amoral behavior are actually constructive at times, even if I do not choose to participate in them. I think it would be silly to condemn this board game because of my personal choices regarding it.

I know what you mean about some board games playing that way. I would never condemn another person for their choice either. However, I do believe games are art and good art evokes emotions and makes you feel. And I don't think there's anything strange about feeling "odd" or somehow uncomfortable doing some things in a game like GTA.

Either way, Stylez is only convincing me more that I need to get off work early today.

TinPeregrinus wrote:

I think the fun of getting chased by the cops is one of the things that best reveals what's really going on in GTA: the idea is to see what you can get away with, in this fantasy-world. If you didn't get chased by the cops, there wouldn't be a point in experimenting with senseless acts of violence.

It's IMHO the simultaneity of consequences and no-consequences that makes the game immersive, and also that represents the place where its lessons, if any, are learned.

I seem to remember a developer once upon a time saying that GTA was a "chasing game" more than anything else.

Mr. GOH wrote:

I picked my avatar thinking "No way anyone else will have a pic of Oliver Wendell Holmes." And then LilCodger posts directly below me with Holmes as his avatar. Un-freaking believable. I guess I'll just have to go scare up some other famous judge's picture.

Had a decision when signing up, Howard Hughes or Holmes. Decided on Holmes, because ultimately I'm more interested in legal moonbats than celebrity moonbats.

One thing about AK-47s is that they aren't actually manufactured anymore, for a long time. Even in China. The current design is AK-74.

Wow, some really good discussion in this thread, on both sides of the coin.

Here's a question for the old-schoolers who find the GTA series to be morally problematic: how do you feel about a game like Syndicate, a game that potentially makes the violence in GTA look like Sesame Street? If you are not bothered by Syndicate, why? Visual fidelity? The science fiction setting? The view-from-a-blimp detachment?

Also, at the risk of sounding misanthropic, doesn't anyone else find these sorts of games funny? I mean, a game like Syndicate is pitch-dark comedy, but the GTA series has always framed its hedonistic violence in a bed of satire and sharp commentary.

Also, at the risk of sounding misanthropic, doesn't anyone else find these sorts of games funny? I mean, a game like Syndicate is pitch-dark comedy, but the GTA series has always framed its hedonistic violence in a bed of satire and sharp commentary.

I've definitely felt the same. GTA is satire at the core, and was never meant to be taken seriously. I was definitely more emotionally affected by gunning down tons of civilians in Syndicate than running over random peds on my motorbike in GTA. I was pretty young when I played syndicate though, so who knows how I'd feel about it now.

Podunk wrote:

Also, at the risk of sounding misanthropic, doesn't anyone else find these sorts of games funny? I mean, a game like Syndicate is pitch-dark comedy, but the GTA series has always framed its hedonistic violence in a bed of satire and sharp commentary.

Same here. This perfectly illustrates how you should approach GTA. This guy promised to kill his own incarnation in the game as soon as he gets the opportunity. He doesn't take it too seriously as nobody really should.

I wonder how many prostitutes play GTA.

Mr. GOH wrote:

I picked my avatar thinking "No way anyone else will have a pic of Oliver Wendell Holmes." And then LilCodger posts directly below me with Holmes as his avatar. Un-freaking believable. I guess I'll just have to go scare up some other famous judge's picture.

I laughed at this after I realized that GOH hadn't posted twice in a row.

I thought it was Old Man With Mustache Avatar Day.

Podunk wrote:

If you are not bothered by Syndicate, why? Visual fidelity?

Ding ding ding!

I think it's part and parcel of the whole uncanny valley thing. I can't imagine anyone being bothered by watching Little Joe punch out Don Flamenco, but watching some of the GTA IV vids where Niko stomps on downed opponents made me a little... something. Part of it was that it was a random bystander gettin' the beatin' (actually, I think that was a lot of it), but it was also the very realistic animations. I enjoy watching fights, but it bothers me to see "innocent" people get beaten on. Watching park-goers get stomped made me feel the same way as seeing real violence perpetrated on unwilling participants.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

I thought it was Old Man With Mustache Avatar Day.

Does a goblin with a mustache count?

sh*t, I hope CNN doesn't get its hands on this article.

Folklore wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:

I thought it was Old Man With Mustache Avatar Day.

Does a goblin with a mustache count?

No. You're fired!

weswilson wrote:

So unless you are willing to define in absolute terms how they knew for sure that the space ship in Galaga wasn't a mass murderer, how bombarding planets in Sins of a Solar Empire isn't slaughter of unparalleled numbers of civilians, or how all those poor WoW animals we took body parts from were actually asking for it... you can get off GTA and take your righteous indignation back to church where it belongs. Because it is silly and irrelevant.

Agreed. Rome: Total War allowed you to literally crucify hundreds upon hundreds of innocents to make a point to the larger populous. In Europa Universalis III, i've killed (and that's probably using a nicer word) between 15,000 and 25,000 indigenous peoples across North America, South America, Africa and Southeast Asia in order to further my colonial exploits and fund a war with France. And I don't see how GTA gets slapped with the terrible "murder simulator" tag when Battlefield II is a a human cataclysm simulator, featuring murder and the continual extinguishing of hundreds of lives in order to pursue an unreachable goal. With teabagging. Hell, Call of Duty allowed you to shoot one of hundreds of Nazi's (who, are still, technically, people) and occasionally you'd get a certain animation, where the man you shot would fall to the ground, clutching at his throat and writing as (ostensibly) he experienced exsanguination. And you could put another round in him.

But GTA's the cruel, evil game. Sure.

Prederick wrote:

But GTA's the cruel, evil game. Sure.

What I think is most fascinating is that it's the cruel, evil game precisely because it shows the events and thus evokes their consequences more realistically than the games no one has a problem with. It makes me think people are going to miss the boat on how pretending actually works for the next two thousand years, just as they have for the previous two thousand. IMHO.

Great article! Definitely more thoughtful than the rest of the stuff being written about GTA this week.

I think Certis nails just what it is about the mechanics of GTA that attracts so many of us to play (aside from the snappy writing and such). We can be King Badass when it comes to the storyline progression, but in the interim we can play the role of the tourist, the drag-racer, the average pedestrian, the real-estate mogul, etc. Often, GTA is criticized for providing the player with an awesome set-piece (in the form of an expansive city or cities) that is ultimately static. The user is unable, for instance, to drive a tank through mainstreet, demolish buildings, then see these homes and businesses rebuilt over time (save for pre-scripted events). There is a lot of attention focused on the player's interaction with the city itself, but hardly any concern given to the player's own experience with the game's freedom. It's pretty interesting that Certis explores and relishes the feeling of moral freedom, while Tycho posts about being
paralyzed without a guiding lifeline of choice.

Malor's post is also very swank, and brings to attention the degree to which some rules and regulations have been beat into our persona. I agree that it is an odd thing to go against something you've been following all your life (i.e. traffic laws) and not have to deal with the negative reinforcement one expects. But hey, GTA would be a much more frustrating experience if we were all getting ticketed for Jaywalking or having expired tags.

Anyway, on to some quibbles:

Reaper81 wrote:

GTA is a murder simulator. It rewards killing on a mass scale.

See, this is just wrong. Manhunt is a murder simulator, and a snuff film simulator. The Tenchu series is far closer to a murder simulator, seeing as how you're an actual assassin. Hitman is a BONAFIDE murder sim, since you actually, meticulously, plan out how you're going to kill a person (and possibly his/her guards). I can't say "Well, I'll put on this chef's outfit, pour some Clorox into the person's drink, then put a fire extinguisher into the oven when dinner starts to create a fire situation then slip out amidst the chaos" when it comes to GTA killing. If you're lucky, a GTA hit will be something like "plant bomb on car, detonate[/i]. Calling GTA a Murder Sim is just fundamentally dishonest.

Personally, I've never gotten some kind of "You have Killed 2500 grandmothers" achievement in a GTA game. The fact of the matter is you are penalized (in the form of police attention) when you go on an insane killing spree. Being shot at by the police interferes with your ability to shoot up random pedestrians. It's not much of a negative mark (in fact, I used to spend a good amount of time in GTA3 just shooting up the police), but it does show a minimum gesture of consequence. You certainly don't get fancy cars or nice guns as a direct result from killing pedestrians, either. Pretty much the only killing that is rewarded are the nebulous "people that did you wrong" entities in the game's missions, considering that the "rampages" from GTA3 have been pretty much marginalized now.

You sell yourself a bit when you play a game like GTA. You validate the evolutionary past of homo sapiens when you beat a hooker to death in this game. Do we want to reward cave dwelling?

Oh come on now. We've codified this kind of primal pleasure into a variety of modern "civilized" activities. I mean, listen to some of the things sports fans yell about opposing team members/coaches. Or to the post-game sh*t-talking from a Halo/CounterStrike/Etc matchup. That's some primal energy right there. As much as we like to think we're above bashing each other above the head with a branch or a stone, we as a species still love highly competitive matchups, and we're always looking for ways to vent aggression. Wake me up when they integrate a rape mechanic in the game, because then it will be about subjugating your morality for the ability to play out perverse primal power fantasies without any redeeming value.

peterb wrote:

Talk about GTA IV being a "bowling sim" all you want, but the truth is: if this wasn't a game that let you f*ck hookers and then kill them, it wouldn't be a megahit.

You're completely overlooking the reason why GTA is popular. It's not the hookers. GTA3 set a milestone for creating the guideline to what an open-world experience should be like. Its legacy (in Vice City and San Andreas) was presenting recognizable stories ("scarface-lite" and "Boyz N The Hood: Menaces II Society: An L.A. Riot Story") with fantastically satirical writing and a strong lineup of age-representative music. Generalizing them as little more than murder-hooker games is demonstrates a fundamental ignorance to the efforts of a number of people to get a particular mood for the game. By far the BIGGEST controversy from these games was the Hot Coffee scenario, and unless you are a Tom Leykis/Ladder Theory moron, you'll have a hard time equating the dating-minigame with the prostitution mechanic.

Ask yourself why it is that no one, no one who plays the game ever says something like "Oh man, I hope the next GTA game will have better hooker-physics, or maybe region-specific hos to unlock".

To be honest, I've "used" the hookers in GTA games probably about 20 times throughout GTA3-Vice City-San Andreas. I did the requisite "pick one up, kill her for money". I used them once or twice for a heath boost, or just to see the car jump around. More of ten than not I just pull away as they approach the car, or just bail out of the car as I send it into the path of oncoming traffic.

Rockstar could say, right now, that they're patching hookers out of GTA4 and I'd be completely ok with it. There is just no draw whatsoever for me when it comes to the hookers. At all.

By the way, why is it that people get up in arms about Hookers, their presence, their murder, but no one manages to mention that you can complete a pimping sidequest in San Andreas that enables you to pick up money FROM hookers? Isn't that far more morally reprehensible? Or does it just not make an appropriate sound-byte?

I also find this talk about not talking about "The morality and ethics of a specific game" a little offensive, because they always reduce the game to oversimplified talking-point strawmen. Modern GTA games have always revolved around a vengeance theme, and the criminal underbelly, so it makes sense that your character is somewhat conniving or ruthless. So how is it that no one ever talks about the journey that San Andreas' character takes? No one mentions the end cinematic where the protagonist's brother [b]prevents him from killing a corrupt police officer[/b] because such an act would be an unnecessary, over the top punctuation mark that would reinforce the negativity that Officer Tenpenny has bred throughout his life (despite the fact that putting a bullet in a dying man is the perfect way to end a vengeance tale). Rockstar did an ok job showing how C.J. gets out of San Andreas, has some success, then is drawn back into the "thug life" because of family ties. It wasn't just mindless turf-war bull. Despite most of the bleakness of the game, that part of the ending is pretty refreshing, considering it shows an end to the perpetuation of violence.

And to bring this back to boardgames, I've seen a lot more duplicitousness and anger from a routine game of Monopoly than I've ever thought possible. I mean, you think you know some people, and then they turn into ego-centric Randian monsters of self-interest.

Prederick wrote:

Agreed. Rome: Total War allowed you to literally crucify hundreds upon hundreds of innocents to make a point to the larger populous. In Europa Universalis III, i've killed (and that's probably using a nicer word) between 15,000 and 25,000 indigenous peoples across North America, South America, Africa and Southeast Asia in order to further my colonial exploits and fund a war with France. And I don't see how GTA gets slapped with the terrible "murder simulator" tag when Battlefield II is a a human cataclysm simulator, featuring murder and the continual extinguishing of hundreds of lives in order to pursue an unreachable goal. With teabagging. Hell, Call of Duty allowed you to shoot one of hundreds of Nazi's (who, are still, technically, people) and occasionally you'd get a certain animation, where the man you shot would fall to the ground, clutching at his throat and writing as (ostensibly) he experienced exsanguination. And you could put another round in him.

But GTA's the cruel, evil game. Sure.

Just for giggles, I checked my BF2 stats. 46,000+ confirmed kills and another 9K that I've winged and someone else has finished off. I can finish any GTA game with a body count that lower than the last act of an 80s Schwarzenegger film.

GTA gets singled out because it violates the cardinal sin of American entertainment: you can show violence, sex, or drugs individually, but you can never show them together.

Prederick wrote:

And I don't see how GTA gets slapped with the terrible "murder simulator" tag when Battlefield II is a a human cataclysm simulator, featuring murder and the continual extinguishing of hundreds of lives in order to pursue an unreachable goal. With teabagging.

That aside made me laugh out loud at work. Bravo.

Out of curiosity, does anyone have any information on the presence of GTA in other countries?

I can't imagine it making too big of a splash in, say, Mexico (where you can turn on cable at 10:00 and see boobies).

Spaz wrote:

By far the BIGGEST controversy from these games was the Hot Coffee scenario, and unless you are a Tom Leykis/Ladder Theory moron, you'll have a hard time equating the dating-minigame with the prostitution mechanic.

I love hot coffee. It is so damn hilarious watching others go completely bat-sh*t crazy over the only act in the game that was LEGAL.

Hell, Call of Duty allowed you to shoot one of hundreds of Nazi's (who, are still, technically, people) and occasionally you'd get a certain animation, where the man you shot would fall to the ground, clutching at his throat and writing as (ostensibly) he experienced exsanguination. And you could put another round in him.

But GTA's the cruel, evil game. Sure.

Did you f*ck him first?

fangblackbone wrote:
Hell, Call of Duty allowed you to shoot one of hundreds of Nazi's (who, are still, technically, people) and occasionally you'd get a certain animation, where the man you shot would fall to the ground, clutching at his throat and writing as (ostensibly) he experienced exsanguination. And you could put another round in him.

But GTA's the cruel, evil game. Sure.

Did you f*ck him first?

That's what he was writing about.

you can get off GTA and take your righteous indignation back to church where it belongs. Because it is silly and irrelevant.

I don't attend church. I don't have much of a religion either.

Oh come on now. We've codified this kind of primal pleasure into a variety of modern "civilized" activities. I mean, listen to some of the things sports fans yell about opposing team members/coaches.

Right. Did I ever defend any of those things? No. I certainly didn't defend any of the other games that have been mentioned here either. We are symbolically killing when we play games that involve violence.

I care very much about the state of our society. People defend a thing like GTA pretty hard. Why? I don't want an answer because I don't need one. I just posed the question to you all.

Calling GTA a Murder Sim is just fundamentally dishonest.

A man shot in the head walking down the sidewalk is just as dead as a rich Italian mob boss strangled to death in his office. (Silent Assassin on the first mission in Hitman 2 was always a bit problematic for me. I finally got that fat bastard though. I had to drag his body out onto his patio above the pool and escape over the roof.)

For what's it worth, I care very little about the moral debate surrounding this game. I think we have bigger fish to fry these days. I plan on buying it because it's a good game. I thought San Andreas was a hoot. But it's a game I play acknowledging the actions I take in the game reflect on me. You may disagree. You may feel that your virtual actions have no bearing on the "real" world.

Somewhere inside of me, the capacity to kill and injure exists. How do I express this desire? Do I actually kill? Or do I virtually? Does this virtual killing mean that I actually want to kill people? I don't know. This is what Certis was discussing in his original post and I was attempting to discuss further.