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

BadKen wrote:

I wouldn't want my 13-16 year old playing this game, with its lap dances and prostitutes complete with price menus.

Good point. I haven't played the game myself, but I spent a good part of last night watching a friend of mine play it (in a movie theatre, no less). I'd forgotten how shocked I was when he picked up a hooker, especially because no more than 2 seconds after she gets into the car, she belted out something like "I can't wait for you to f*ck me like the dirty bitch I am". Then he parks and, wait, did I just see a menu?! Then he adjusts the camera and Niko's got his head tilted back while she rides him like a mechanical bull.

That's not the lame creaky car we all remember from 3, now is it?

Oh brave new world...

DudleySmith wrote:

It's interesting that you mention Kant there, Wordsmythe, because I was just thinking how a Utilitarian would consider GTA4 to be neutral morally, and wondering if that was interesting enough to mention. But wouldn't Kant take the view that all computer game playing is a pretty pointless end and therefore not worthy of being a universal law?

Hang on with the cat tossing there! I'm sure we've got quite enough of that.

I think that the notion of gaming as pointless is an assumption too commonly held. At the core, such an assumption is at least as much about the mindset of the individual gamer as it is about the possibility of inherent utility in a game. Sure, games can desensitize you to certain things, like all media. They can teach you through providing interaction to otherwise static presentations. They can train you in general problem-solving skills, hand-eye coordination, or in following a pre-formatted plan for dealing with certain situations. Ultimately, though, the utility of a game lies in the intent of the user.

The amount you get out of games correlates to how much you put in. If gamers don't take games seriously, then games become mostly useless. I don't think most gamers beyond the realm of Pop-Cap write off their pastime so casually, though. Gamers seek to improve their skills, and they intentionally immerse themselves in game worlds and their game personae. At that level of intent, games give back more than just a neat experience of missing time since you turned the game on. At that level, you experience narratives, learn about yourself, and gain skills that are applicable in fields as far apart as lawyering, engineering, and philosophy.

I'm following the Imperative on this. I think everybody should game moderately during free time.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Wordsmythe broke the planet!

Yeah, I'll do that sometimes.

Not to kick the horse while you're all trying to lower it, respectfully, into its grave, but did anyone link this from the MTV blog yet re: "It's just a game"?

What I don't get about Totilo's post is why he seems to think we should have the conversation more urgently about games than about films or books. Thoughts?

TinPeregrinus wrote:

What I don't get about Totilo's post is why he seems to think we should have the conversation more urgently about games than about films or books. Thoughts?

I think we've had these conversations about books and films, personally. I studied English Lit in college. So I know there is no shortage of writing/theory about any piece of art, no mater how outlandish the idea. When we examined "Wuthering Heights" through the lens of examining communism or some such goofiness, I knew no stone had been left unturned. I don't think we do the same thing with games.

Obviously context creates more compelling story... but I remain unconvinced that real-world ethics are applicable to artificial environments. I mean, you can learn someone is probably more of a JERK than you think they are, but I think it's fallacious to assume that their behavior effects their morality. It's akin to saying someone is less moral for THINKING something. If I think about shooting my parents am I less or more moral for NOT doing so when compared to someone who has never had those thoughts. The idea behind morality is that we don't actually perform amoral actions on other human beings.

The obvious error in logic behind the "It's Just a Game" article can be compared with the current evolution debate. Scientists say that evolution has no bearing on religion, much like how gamers say games have no bearing on reality. Yet, when God starts being injected into scientific debates, people get VERY defensive and reject the premise. This could be compared to people who don't want their gaming archetypes altered and get quite defensive about it. The opposition implies that the defensiveness is indicative of their duplicity. I am not sure it applies.

DSGamer wrote:

I think we've had these conversations about books and films, personally. I studied English Lit in college. So I know there is no shortage of writing/theory about any piece of art, no mater how outlandish the idea. When we examined "Wuthering Heights" through the lens of examining communism or some such goofiness, I knew no stone had been left unturned. I don't think we do the same thing with games.

Hmm. Maybe the question then becomes, (why/how) are games really, truly different? My own opinion (see http://livingepic.blogspot.com :D) is that they really aren't, but that the ways in which they reconfigure the old elements are the most interesting thing about them.

To put it succinctly: how is choosing to do a bad thing in GTA really different from choosing to read a bad book (rather than closing it when you realize the "people" in it are doing bad things)?

Are We What We Play? on 1up

weswilson wrote:

It's akin to saying someone is less moral for THINKING something. If I think about shooting my parents am I less or more moral for NOT doing so when compared to someone who has never had those thoughts. The idea behind morality is that we don't actually perform amoral actions on other human beings.

That's actually a classic question in ethics (usually asked regarding whether a cloistered monk or nun can be considered ethical if he/she has never faced temptation). It's part of discussing the merits of Aristotelianism and "Virtue Theory" questions of character against the views of ethics that are solely concerned with actions (Deontology) or consequences (Consequentialism). For my part, I believe that what you think and what you do are relevant.

weswilson wrote:

Obviously context creates more compelling story... but I remain unconvinced that real-world ethics are applicable to artificial environments. I mean, you can learn someone is probably more of a JERK than you think they are, but I think it's fallacious to assume that their behavior effects their morality.

Like I said previously in this thread, I don't think it's the same as real-world actions, but I think it does apply in a less direct way, and perhaps to a significantly diminished extent. Ultimately, a big part of it is what you bring with you to the game play: If you see the game as merely a complicated puzzle to be mastered, it makes some sense that your in-game actions wouldn't be as important.

I've said that I think that's a disservice to the medium and the game's creators. I also think that as games become more realistic, it's important to keep in mind that someone who's able to make the same disconnect in real life is a sociopath. The distinction between real life and games as obvious as it was in the Pac-Man days (though it's certainly pretty clear for most people). Unfortunately, the growing realism is what sensationalist media is using to bump sweeps ratings.

We owe it to gamer culture to be able to intelligently respond to that concern. In order to intelligently respond, though, we have to actually look into the questions, concerns, and possibilities we're presented with.

TinPeregrinus wrote:
DSGamer wrote:

I think we've had these conversations about books and films, personally. I studied English Lit in college. So I know there is no shortage of writing/theory about any piece of art, no mater how outlandish the idea. When we examined "Wuthering Heights" through the lens of examining communism or some such goofiness, I knew no stone had been left unturned. I don't think we do the same thing with games.

Hmm. Maybe the question then becomes, (why/how) are games really, truly different? My own opinion (see http://livingepic.blogspot.com :D) is that they really aren't, but that the ways in which they reconfigure the old elements are the most interesting thing about them.

To put it succinctly: how is choosing to do a bad thing in GTA really different from choosing to read a bad book (rather than closing it when you realize the "people" in it are doing bad things)?

I knew I should have checked for new posts before submitting that last one!

I don't know that I agree with it, but the general response I have seen is that games are different because the narrative is not static, and instead is largely controlled by the player. Quick rebuttals: 1) Obviously some people don't think much of reader response theory in literature. 2) Given the firm and often inevitable plot structures of games* and the trend of "infinite lives" (heh), and further given that the plot elements (cut scenes, etc.) are so prominant in the minds of so many players, I don't see the narratives of individual players as being functionally so different.

Then again, there are the Ludologists. I can certainly see the "it's just a game"/puzzle mechanics at play in games from Tetris to Mass Effect, but I think they're missing a pretty important element if the dismiss Narrativism entirely.

*Mass Effect seems to slip away from this in that I have conversations about the game with players who don't remember ever having some of the plot experiences I did. At the same time, though, many of the elements do persist between player narratives.

Now we're getting to the question that's been keeping me up at night lately: aren't games and stories actually two forms of the same thing? My own name for that thing is "performative play practice."

Indeed, isn't the superset actually games? Aren't stories actually a kind of game played between the the narrator and the audience, even when those stories are fossilized into written form?

More later. . . I have to run.

TinPeregrinus wrote:

Now we're getting to the question that's been keeping me up at night lately: aren't games and stories actually two forms of the same thing? My own name for that thing is "performative play practice."

Indeed, isn't the superset actually games? Aren't stories actually a kind of game played between the the narrator and the audience, even when those stories are fossilized into written form?

More later. . . I have to run.

That's certainly true inasmuch as the storyteller and audience interact -- which is more true in performance storytelling than it is when I read a dead author (and as a classics guy, you should have some familiarity with that little tragedy).

What I have heard is that the story of the player (not of the game character), as it may be recounted to friends later on, is the narrative that merits exploration. In that case, the game designer and other creators are co-authors with the player.

I've been avoiding pitching in too much since I think the article speaks for itself. I do want to say, though, that this has been a fantastic discussion. It's all I could ever ask for. Drinks for everyone!

(Thanks, Certis!)

Wordsmythe, I think the "after-story" that you make reference to is the way the narrativists want to see it, but I think (not to put too fine a point on it) they're wrong, which is why I think the comparison to ancient epic might have so much to offer.

When you play a game, you're creating a dynamic "performative play practice" with the game, which embodies what the developers (with the tradition of games behind them--i.e., for e.g. Oblivion everything back to D&D) gave you.

When you read the Aeneid, you're doing exactly the same thing, with the text, which embodies what Virgil (and the incredible epic tradition behind him) gave you.

If I'm right about that, it means everybody's right, and everybody's wrong, and there's a lot of room for us all. Yay.

TinPeregrinus wrote:

Indeed, isn't the superset actually games? Aren't stories actually a kind of game played between the the narrator and the audience, even when those stories are fossilized into written form?

Now there's an interesting thought, and one sure to twist some knickers into knots.

If the continuum is "interactive narratives", then some games are the purest form, and movies are the most diluted (reading books at least let's the 'audience' use their imagination). Interestingly, you get things all over the spectrum: things like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where the audience 'participates' with no effect on the outcome; things like Dragon's Lair, where the audience input either advances the story down a linear progression or it does nothing; things like Choose Your Own Adventure Books, which allow some variation in outcome but within very strictly defined guidelines.

At the ends of the spectrum are movies, which take a 'user' from point A to point B in one pre-determined way, and some MUDs and MMOs, where the narrative is entirely up to the 'audience'.

TinPeregrinus wrote:

(Thanks, Certis!)

Wordsmythe, I think the "after-story" that you make reference to is the way the narrativists want to see it, but I think (not to put too fine a point on it) they're wrong, which is why I think the comparison to ancient epic might have so much to offer.

When you play a game, you're creating a dynamic "performative play practice" with the game, which embodies what the developers (with the tradition of games behind them--i.e., for e.g. Oblivion everything back to D&D) gave you.

When you read the Aeneid, you're doing exactly the same thing, with the text, which embodies what Virgil (and the incredible epic tradition behind him) gave you.

If I'm right about that, it means everybody's right, and everybody's wrong, and there's a lot of room for us all. Yay. :D

I hope you're right, because that means there are reasons for us to keep writing and debating this stuff.

I've always been more of an English guy than a classics guy (living languages for the win! ), so I'm not surprised that I'm a little unclear about the performative experience you're talking about for things like the Aeneid. I’ll take a stab at it and see if we’re on the same page:

Certainly the text itself isn't changed (except in translations), but the social experience of the text ("meta-text"?) is changed in (experiential/performative) reading, criticism, and discussion of the text. I can see that.

I can also see the meta-text as being changed inasmuch as the personal and social experience of the text is shaped by the associations and interpretations we draw from it, which in turn are dependent on the culture and circumstances we're familiar with. (Layman's example: The young church in the Book of Acts couldn't be examined as a socialist text until ideas of socialism and socialist interpretive theory were better developed, let alone the world's experience with attempts to implement socialism as a system of governance.) Like it or not, the Iliad's meta-text is now influenced by the cultural exposure to movies like Troy and 300.

I haven’t read much hypertextualist theory, but then I haven’t seen much published.

Chumpy_McChump wrote:
TinPeregrinus wrote:

Indeed, isn't the superset actually games? Aren't stories actually a kind of game played between the the narrator and the audience, even when those stories are fossilized into written form?

Now there's an interesting thought, and one sure to twist some knickers into knots.

Guys I'm sure would have loved this idea:
Joyce, Wilde, and Frost.

I think that choose-your-own-adventure books probably have to be a part of whatever continuum we choose. More linear novels still involve reactions, pace, and interpretations on the part of the reader as well, though. While the pace doesn’t necessarily carry over to films, reactions and interpretations do. Bear in mind the presentation space of films as well: Should one choose to watch a movie in the theater, you can crack jokes to the guy next to you, make out in the back row and only pay casual attention, fart loudly, or get up and leave in the middle of a dramatic scene. That's part of your user-generated (client-side?) meta-narrative.

I love thinking about Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books in this context. Lately I've been wondering whether they're not really a whole bunch of related, fossilized PPP's (performative play practices) jammed together into a single volume and provided with a mechanism for navigating between them.

Or perhaps they're the vanishing point of the basic interactivity that constitutes a PPP.

There's an interesting analogy to be made with a phase of the Homeric tradition when rhapsodes, rather than bards, had memorized huge chunks of Homeric poetry (rather than having the skill to recompose them), and could no longer improvise as the bards had done, but were still immensely popular and clearly engrossing storytellers.

I love thinking about Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books in this context. Lately I've been wondering whether they're not really a whole bunch of related, fossilized PPP's (performative play practices) jammed together into a single volume and provided with a mechanism for navigating between them.
Or perhaps they're the vanishing point of the basic interactivity that constitutes a PPP.

I think they're just a much simpler version. I'm not sure if they're more or less complex in terms of performance than You Have to Burn the Rope, but they're neighbors on the spectrum I envision.

TinPeregrinus wrote:

There's an interesting analogy to be made with a phase of the Homeric tradition when rhapsodes, rather than bards, had memorized huge chunks of Homeric poetry (rather than having the skill to recompose them), and could no longer improvise as the bards had done, but were still immensely popular and clearly engrossing storytellers.

Sure. Next you'll be telling me that American singers used to write their own songs.

Wow. I stayed away from this thread for a few days until I'd logged my mandatory 3-4 hours in the game. I'm still not sure where I fall out on this, but you've all given me a LOT to think about.

wordsmythe wrote:

I think they're just a much simpler version. I'm not sure if they're more or less complex in terms of performance than You Have to Burn the Rope, but they're neighbors on the spectrum I envision.

Something I remembered from a recent interview with Ken Levine: Mystery novels also have a game element to them. (Just wanted to make a ntoe before I forgot again.)