Through GTA's Dark Mirror

GTA Cover

I like Niko Bellic, and I'm not sure what that says about me. Grand Theft Auto IV's protagonist is kind of a dick, no two ways about it. While he stumbles into a situation far removed from what he was expecting, the demands placed on him soon balloon far beyond a rationale person's tolerance. Not five hours into the game's main storyline you're killing people in cold blood for not much more than a verbal insult.

Still, despite it all, I like Niko. I enjoy his tale in a way that I haven't enjoyed the story in any other GTA title, and that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. GTA is fundamentally about 3 things, and they're all uncomfortable: violence, race, and sex. That these things speak to me is troubling and intriguing, tapping into the basest elements of humanity. It feels like there are three monkeys on my back. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil ... it's so archetypal it's almost silly.

Ready for a peek into my subconscious? Me neither.

Violence

As an American man in his late 20s, I'm about as jaded to artistic fictional violence as it's possible to be. The Bourne films are some of my favorite movies, I've played through both of the PS2 God of War titles; I'm no stranger to digital blood. The mindless violence of movies like Saw turn my stomach, though. The grotesque thought process behind inflicting harm on another person for entertainment is utterly alien.

And yet, I had to really think about what I was doing before I realized the depths of depravity Niko sinks to relatively early in the game. An audience changed the tone for me: my brother and his girlfriend were over last weekend, and I showed them the game by completing the mission I was on. My only requirement was to hunt down a contact's enemy and end his life.

I managed to trap my quarry inside a car, pinning him between my own vehicle and a wall. It was a simple matter, then, to get out and shoot him in the head. It was incredibly pathetic, as the NPC's AI struggled for life; tires squealed and he swerved from side to side, all to no avail. He didn't even try to shoot back as I approached the driver's side door. And then it was over.

Turning to look at my guests, I saw two very different expressions. My brother was grinning, obviously enthused about the game's beauty and looking forward to his own chance at the controls. My brother's girlfriend was gazing at me with an expression I'd never seen on her face before. I identified it immediately: pity mixed with sadness.

Sex

I really enjoy reading John Davison's blog over at 1up. His new venture since leaving that site has been "What They Play", a fantastic resource for parents interested in videogames. He linked from his blog back to the four pieces they have up right now showcasing 'the worst' you'll see in GTA IV. The sex video was, of course, the one visited most often. I clicked through (like a sheep) and beheld the relatively tame sex acts.

Exotic dancers, fine. The actual imagery we see, no problem. But the implications ... maybe it was the poor quality of the captured videos, maybe it was the callous way Niko's voice actor directed the prostitutes, but it felt cheap and sleazy in a way I wasn't really prepared for. The women in those videos are sex objects, pure and simple. Not people, not daughters, not mothers, nor sisters or friends; they're essentially walking orifices.

Watching the video produced a strange mental schism. I've been telling myself the game's violence and sexuality weren't things I needed to engage in. I have a choice whether or not to include random cop-killing or the solicitation of prostitutes into my narrative. But by mentally associating myself with Niko, by decided he was 'a good guy', I'd invested something into that character. The same character pushing some chick onto his knob for a meaningless blowjob. "My character", acting in a way I couldn't understand or appreciate.

Race

If you haven't read it already, the recent dialogue between the insightful Tracey John and the erudite N'Gai Croal is not something to miss. During a week of features about African-Americans in the games industry, N'Gai and Tracey tackle the highly contentious Resident Evil 5 trailer. Croal's statements begin with "I looked at the Resident Evil 5 trailer and I was like, 'Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game.'" The comment thread that follows is insane, running something like 360 posts long.

The thing that I took away from their dialogue is how important imagery and context can be, even if it's meaningless to others. To a middle-class white guy like me the RE5 trailer is just more of what I'm used to from the games industry: teasing images, violence, title screen. To anyone with a grounding in cultural symbology, the hooded eyes and sense of 'otherness' N'Gai describes are cause for concern - signposts of an era our country is still coming to terms with.

So what's my context with the GTA series? As I mentioned on the conference call this week, I played GTA III, and its sequel Vice City. I'm obviously playing GTA IV. So what's the most obvious difference with San Andreas? The protagonist isn't some white trash schlub or an italian hitman. He's an African-American man from LA, an individual incredibly removed from my societal context. Games are about context, about identification, about resonance, and I'm not sure I'd even be able to have a conversation with CJ were I to meet him in a grocery store.

Did I avoid playing San Andreas because I'm an overweight white guy? Did I think I wouldn't be able to identify with a story set in the gang culture of an LA-lookalike? Have I missed out on a lengthy story and some intriguing RPG gameplay add-ons because of cultural hangups? More importantly - more disturbingly - am I now choosing to identify myself with a coldhearted killer because his culture is more familiar, his skin tone more like my own?

Dealing With The Reflection

I'd like to think I'm not racist, violent, or sexist. I feel relatively confident that my day-to-day thoughts, my actions, and my writing don't reflect the close-minded bigotry I associate with haters. I'm equally certain that the developers at Rockstar aren't all gore-fetishist misogynists.

That said, it's still difficult not to think long and hard about the reflection you cast in GTA's mirror. Are you Niko Bellic's best intentions? His hope for a better tomorrow and the resolution of his pain? Or is Liberty City your debauched playground, a stage which you can use to fulfill your deepest fantasies of the id?

"It's just a game", to some extent, and I'd certainly rather a violent person take out their aggression on digital characters. I still have to ask: what does it say about us that the ability to do anything often turns into the ability to harm everyone?

Comments

This might be my current hang-up on the game. After Vice City I felt I was "done". I discovered Mercenaries and the ability to do what I want without feeling like "the bad guy" even if I wasn't always being the guy in the white hat. It's not that I wanted to be "good" I just wanted that option to be there.

Also, while I tolerated III because of its uniqueness at the time, I could tolerate Vice City because there is an air of respectability around "The Mafia". When San Andreas hit I decided I didn't want to be a common street thug. It wasn't really a matter of race, I just didn't see any appeal to that lifestyle no matter how you try to justify that character. In many ways I see the same problem with Niko. I don't want to be a thug.

Combine that with my time working at a jail, I have come to see what people will do at their worst. When you take away their freedom and their sense of individuality, when they no longer have anything comfortable or familiar, they become something else. It's not fun getting a first hand up close look at how low people can sink. Now couple that with an awareness of my own dark nature and suddenly you might get a glimpse of why I can come across somewhat cynical at times.

So while GTAIV might represent escapism for someone else, it's an indulgence for me that I'd rather not do anymore. That's a side of me I'd rather stay buried until I need it again. There's something about "that person" I'd rather just stay in hibernation. A part of me I'd have to rouse to really get into GTAIV.

Though this also represents why I don't want to play the game but could care less if others are.

Niko Bellic by far isn't the first protagonist who has questionable morals and does questionable things. Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano immediately spring to mind. Both are people who would be denounced if they were real; regarded as villains as much as an Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Ladin. And yet, people who watch The Godfather or The Sopranos find themselves compelled by their stories and in some cases rooting for them to succeed against their antagonists. Do we find ourselves questioning our own values by liking Mike or Tony? Of course not; they're just characters and their actions are removed from our own due to the medium that they're being showcased in. Niko, of course, is different. He's an avatar for the player driven both by how he was written and by how we choose to control him. But it's the former that separates him from Claude in GTA 3, Tommy Vercetti in Vice City, and CJ in San Andreas. There are limits to what he'll do, either through the story or the choices he presented and to some players (namely me), it's who Niko is that affects what the player does when given the option to either kill someone or let them go. Niko isn't the raving psychopath that Tommy was or the young thug looking to prove himself like CJ. He's actually the most human character in all the Grand Theft Auto games and because he's so human, that's why we're asking ourselves questions like the ones above.

Well written and thought provoking stuff, as I've come to expect from GWJ. Props for consistently elevating the discourse on the medium.

One aspect of this discussion that I think merrits some extra consideration is the degree of the player's identification with the character. While I too would not be able to identify with a protagonist callously extracting sexual favours from prostitutes, it should be noted that games have been offering players opportunities for considerably worse behaviour long before GTA achieved notoriety.

I've played characters in KOTOR and Vampire: Bloodlines (among other 'western' RPGs) behaving far worse than my avatars in the GTA games ever have. In fact, in the later GTA titles, it seems possible to play the game in a relatively benign manner, by restricting oneself to the violence required to fulfill mission-specific objectives.

Its interesting to me that some quarters of the gaming community condemn GTA IV for being ethically bankrupt and cheapening the medium, while ommiting other games entirely from the discussion.

Shouldn't every game that features protagonists engaging, or potentially engaging, in questionable or downright evil behaviour (e.g. Hitman, Thief, most western RPGs, Splinter Cell) be measured by the same standard as GTA?

It's questions like these that truly tell us video gaming has reached an art form.

We're having a serious emotional response to this piece. We're asking deep philosophical questions. It has awakened feelings many of us have long since shuttered, and opened our eyes to new questions and avenues of discovery. Most importantly, we're internalizing the work and seeing how it affects us as individuals. Love it or hate it, GTA IV is a masterpiece of the medium.

I can only hope that future artists continue to make improvements and refinements that don't involve boobies.

I think (and I'm still only a few hours into GTA 4 so this opinion may change) that Rockstar have approached this title from a different angle to that of San Andreas. San Andreas' lead character was thoroughly detestable and I don't for a second think that has anything to do with either his race or the game's setting. I believe that if the whole of San Andreas played out like its first hour (remember the mission where you beat the crack heads to death in their sleep?) it would have been a pretty miserable and depressing game. However, as San Andreas progressed it became more and more ridiculous, from parachuting off mountain tops to stealing jet-packs from the military, it reeled off increasingly daft and cartoony missions. I don't think you needed to share any connection to CJ to enjoy San Andreas because of this, if anything I think disliking his character merely allowed you the throw him more willingly into these increasingly preposterous situations than would have been possible had you in any way related to or liked him.

Where GTA IV differs (so far at any rate) is that there doesn't appear to be the same increasing incredulity in the missions, instead they play out in a rather more grounded fashion. As such, sticking a CJ into the mix would, I believe, have made it all very grim. Not empathising with the lead character and being asked to do increasingly bad things is going to start leaving a bad taste after a while. That's why I believe you empathise with Niko, simply because to make an enjoyable experience Rockstar needed you to and wrote him as such.

ThatGuy42 wrote:
It's questions like these that truly tell us video gaming has reached an art form.

We're having a serious emotional response to this piece. We're asking deep philosophical questions. It has awakened feelings many of us have long since shuttered, and opened our eyes to new questions and avenues of discovery. Most importantly, we're internalizing the work and seeing how it affects us as individuals. Love it or hate it, GTA IV is a masterpiece of the medium.

I can only hope that future artists continue to make improvements and refinements that don't involve boobies.

I believe the term you're looking for is ooga-ba! Good day!

ThatGuy42 wrote:
I can only hope that future artists continue to make improvements and refinements that don't involve boobies.

See, it's the immature approach to sex and making the cities one big shallow dick joke that continues to work against the GTA series. I have a hard time taking them seriously as art. It's not unlike Da Vinci deciding to paint the Mona Lisa holding a rubber chicken at the last minute, or devoting himself to paintings of dogs playing poker.

I made Niko steal a car, do a flip off of a jump and get hit in midair by a train. I think what this reflects about my character is that, deep inside, I'm awesome.

I probably shouldn't shamelessly self-promote like this, but this whole thing spurred me to write about something I realized today while playing the game. It's a big, badly-written mess on my blog, so I won't bother reproducing it here and instead provide a link to my blog that everyone can easily ignore and skip over if they so desire. Plus, it's not really a reply to any of this, and it's only indirectly related to the topic at hand.

The post is called Grand Theft Auto 4: The Most Moral Video Game Ever?

http://MechaSlinky.1up.com

I don't mind the dick jokes in the GTA series. Even GTA4. What many people don't realize is that Da Vinci actually painted the Mona Lisa with his dick. As a joke. That's what makes the Mona Lisa art. Otherwise, it's just some stupid painting of an ugly chick.

It's a good bit of reflection, Mike. Thanks for writing it.

Urban Neurotic wrote:
Its interesting to me that some quarters of the gaming community condemn GTA IV for being ethically bankrupt and cheapening the medium, while ommiting other games entirely from the discussion.

Shouldn't every game that features protagonists engaging, or potentially engaging, in questionable or downright evil behaviour (e.g. Hitman, Thief, most western RPGs, Splinter Cell) be measured by the same standard as GTA?

I think ThatGuy has your answer:

ThatGuy42 wrote:
It has awakened feelings many of us have long since shuttered, and opened our eyes to new questions and avenues of discovery.

As a community, we've previously been mighty complacent about our medium. We have been especially skilled at deflecting and ignoring honest intellectual discussions about some of the more troubling games. This game, though, and the media attention that accompanies it, seem to be opening our eyes. Perhaps it comes as a function of the average gamer now being over thirty years old, but we're growing up in the way we look at these games. We're no longer content to roll our eyes and dismiss criticism with a casual "It's just a game."

I absolutely agree that other games should also draw this sort of attention. I think this is a game we need to look at in the context of its series as well as other violent and morally troubling games (e.g. Postal, Manhunt, Super Columbine), and I think those other games deserve similar scrutiny.

Frankly, I'm surprised it's taken this long for some of us to realize the potential a game has to change us and expose our inner selves. Games are a powerful, life-changing medium, and I think we're starting to collectively realize that "just a game" can be as ridiculous as a cancer victim dismissing "just a lump." These works deserve a careful biopsy.

Missions spoilers below up until about 35% completion

Is Rockstar's Niko Bellic really a lasting "good" guy?

I think/hope that when Rockstar first showed GTA in trailer form the line "This time, things are going to be different" was an allusion to the more serious take on themes in this installment. I directly identify with Michael about the sort of "filth" I felt far less eager to engage in with GTA IV. For the first 6-8 hours of the game I felt pretty good about Niko. The first guy he kills I actually killed on accident, in the struggle to disarm him I kicked him out the window without the intent of a deathblow. I also had noticed that people move around on the ground for quite a while after you "beat" them so I felt like the basketball court business was not murderous.

The first thing I did in GTA3 and Vice City after the intro was save the game then go cause mayhem. I didn't have that desire in GTAIV at all; I forgot about the warning level entirely until an accident. I was cruising around the city in Roman's cab and went over a bridge that was blocked off. Smashing into the barriers resulted in a flight straight into a 6 star warning level. I somehow got back into the car and sped away with cops at my heels, the chase was thrilling and jogged my memory about how fun the city-wide chases in GTA were. I felt fine about that because my 'crime' was purely an accident, a victim of circumstance like Niko is initially.

Then I got wrapped up into the missions and story again. Niko's reluctance to kill if not necessary was very impressive to me. I felt like Rockstar had finally made a character I liked. I never got more than 30% into the missions of GTA3 or Vice City (maybe only 10% of SA) because I absolutely hated the person I was playing by that point.

But then Niko just stopped upholding his moral character. He'll do any mission for money, and acts extra-cold to the idea of taking human life. The missions for Manny were specifically suspect because the 'gang hideout' i was cleaning up had no contraband inside it aside from a lot of soda. Surely they shot guns at me so they were probably not great fellas, but ever since killing Vlad Niko has become just another GTA character. He's a sociopath, a murderer, a drug dealer and a pervert.

With his change I noticed my play style changed too. I used to drive carefully. Not obey the lights of course but I would never hit pedestrians on purpose and avoid accidents. I'd never just randomly shoot people's tires out or smash into a biker. All of that felt out of character for the original Niko. He was calm and controlled compared to all the other excitable characters. But now I focus more on the destination and if a couple civvies die in the process I don't think much of it. If I am trying to keep my car in good shape (Like a comet or banshee) and someone hits me clearly on purpose (some nutty drivers in LC) I'll fire a burst at their tires in anger because now I've gotta go back to the pay and spray.

I am pretty disappointed with Niko's change. If Rockstar thinks they can keep is character in tact by having him say "Sorry!" every once in a while when he flattens someone they are mistaken. The missions need to change too or he's just a hypocrite.

I hope this is actually planned in the game. "A Lower Low" is the chapter I think and everything has gone to hell. Niko is darker and less compassionate, but he's got more money and fine suits. His body count is high and he doesn't really care. But then enters the character Kate, Packie's sister. She isn't purposely oblivious to Niko's way of life like Michelle was. I feel like she is a kind of conscience that has disappeared for the last 10 hours. I stole a car to get us home on a date (something I'd never do back with Michelle) and she replied "Oh Niko you are a misguided soul!". She hates it when I drive fast and even minor scrapes are clearly not desired. Our conversations are pretty much about how terrible I am; I feel like she's trying to save me, or hopes there is more inside.

I hope there is too.

Is Niko doomed to be just another GTA Thug once Rockstar couldn't hold up the morality with their tried and tested gameplay formula? Are things really going to be different this time? The answer is why I keep playing now, I hope I am not going to be disappointed.

i don't want to sound like i'm dismissing the entire point of the artile, but GTA is more satire than seriousness. It's meant to be a big joke on everyone who takes it seriously.

SexyBeast wrote:
i don't want to sound like i'm dismissing the entire point of the artile, but GTA is more satire than seriousness. It's meant to be a big joke on everyone who takes it seriously.

Actually, the GTA heroes have always been played straight, it's the world around them that is ridiculed. I'd agree with you if the lead character were like Hancock, the drunken superhero. Stephen Colbert is a satirical hero. The GTA franchise worships that mystical noble gangster, you know, where criminals live by a code of honor and somehow come through their journey with their karma clean, only blowing the heads off of "real" sickos, never lying to their mothers, whatever. Rockstar never targets the gangsta creed with the same bitter wit that they do everything else in society. They gotta stay cool with the fans. I had a friend who was the legitimate heir to an italian mafia family on the east coast, and he would tell me stories that curled my toes. Gangsters are not noble heroes.

As a literary device I'm finding Niko less attractive than CJ. Niko is a blank. I was debating with my roommate, who is black, saying that when he hangs out with Dwayne in the game, it's like 2 blacks hanging out, not a black and a bulgarian. Niko has personality, but he also is friends with absolutely everyone he meets. He's hard ass with the thugs, respectful to the crime bosses, sensitive to his girlfriends, total homeboy to his peers. Nobody is that perfect! The guy would be an angel if it weren't for his chosen profession.

I think what people forget when they play CJ, what white people forget, is that black culture has a strong fear of police and the justice system in general. Playing straight is not a path of moral redemption for CJ, it's bowing to the white man's system and losing the respect of his race. He is the forgotten son, you could play CJ any way you wanted, good, evil, pink fro with a clown suit, and you would still be true to CJ's character.

souldaddy wrote:
SexyBeast wrote:
i don't want to sound like i'm dismissing the entire point of the artile, but GTA is more satire than seriousness. It's meant to be a big joke on everyone who takes it seriously.

Actually, the GTA heroes have always been played straight, it's the world around them that is ridiculed. I'd agree with you if the lead character were like Hancock, the drunken superhero. Stephen Colbert is a satirical hero. The GTA franchise worships that mystical noble gangster, you know, where criminals live by a code of honor and somehow come through their journey with their karma clean, only blowing the heads off of "real" sickos, never lying to their mothers, whatever. Rockstar never targets the gangsta creed with the same bitter wit that they do everything else in society. They gotta stay cool with the fans. I had a friend who was the legitimate heir to an italian mafia family on the east coast, and he would tell me stories that curled my toes. Gangsters are not noble heroes.

Eh, I don't think that's true. Remember at the end of GTA3 when Maria wouldn't stop talking to the unnamed main guy as the screen fades to black, until he finally gets fed up and shoots her? That was funny. Niko is actually a big departure for them, as a likable protaganist.

souldaddy wrote:
Rockstar never targets the gangsta creed with the same bitter wit that they do everything else in society.

That may be true of the past generation of GTA games, but I don't believe this is the case with GTA4. I agree that they're not satirizing it the way they satirize everything else, but I think the crux of GTA4's story is about condemnation and pity rather than worship. I haven't finished the game, yet, so there's still time for Rockstar to prove me wrong. Still, as you go through the game, look closely at the characters you meet. Try to find one that is truly happy. Not counting the crazy homeless people you meet on the street.

I second that: none of the gangsters are happy. They're doped up trying to forget misery, and that just makes them more mesriable. The Mcreary's a misrable, Faustin was miserable, Dwayne, and so on. The characters that aren't miserable are pretty much pure evil, vlad, Demitri, the "paper company." Hell the paper company guy even out right calls himself a monster.

The only criminals who aren'y portrayed as miserable or evil are the jamacans. And I don't know what that says.

Cramps wrote:
I second that: none of the gangsters are happy. They're doped up trying to forget misery, and that just makes them more mesriable. The Mcreary's a misrable, Faustin was miserable, Dwayne, and so on. The characters that aren't miserable are pretty much pure evil, vlad, Demitri, the "paper company." Hell the paper company guy even out right calls himself a monster.

The only criminals who aren'y portrayed as miserable or evil are the jamacans. And I don't know what that says.

Legalize it?

I haven't played GTA 4 yet. Actually my only experience was the horrible PC port of Vice City, but I love the fact that this discussion is taking place in so many places.

Our hobby really is maturing as a medium if the art and meaning debates are becoming widespread.

There is nothing about the gangster creed that says gangsters are supposed to be happy. Gangster mythos is about power, respect, honor, loyalty, perseverance through danger and adversity.

The people that Niko can hang out with are generally happy - Roman, Jacob, Brucie. Dwayne is miserable but that's part of his story. Packie isn't happy or sad, he's Irish However, all these friends are loyal to a fault.

The other characters are all tales of gangsters who somehow lack wisdom concerning the gangster creed. Vlad pretends to be tough but is obviously not, Dimitri is too ruthless, Faustin is too paranoid, Manny has betrayed the creed (and gets killed for it), Elizabeta is too careless, Playboy X is disloyal, Ray Boccino is a rat, etc.

Roman is happy at times, but only when he isn't caught up in the middle of the whole crime thing. When his life is just him and Mallorie and his business, he's very happy. If he could only get over that gambling problem, he'd have what is in his mind the perfect life.

I don't know how Jacob feels because I have no idea what the hell he's saying.

I don't think Brucie is actually happy. I think he's delusional. Sure, all he talks about is how awesome he is and how perfect his life is, but it all seems very shallow and empty, if that makes any sense. Especially recently, listening to him, I'm starting to hear some cracks in his facade. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, especially since he's basically just a comic relief character, but it seems like he wants something more real.

Packie is miserable, but it's mostly because he's Irish.

The point wasn't that the game subverts the gangster creed itself, but that it decries the gangster creed by causing the player, or the very least just me, to question whether it's all really worth anything in the end. Everyone who is part of this world is miserable, goes to jail, or gets killed. Maybe as I get further in the game, this won't hold up, but so far so good.

MechaSlinky wrote:

The point wasn't that the game subverts the gangster creed itself, but that it decries the gangster creed by causing the player, or the very least just me, to question whether it's all really worth anything in the end. Everyone who is part of this world is miserable, goes to jail, or gets killed. Maybe as I get further in the game, this won't hold up, but so far so good.

I'm not really that far into the game, but from what I've seen I agree with Mecha. It reminds me of criticisms I'd heard about Trainspotting when it first hit theaters, that it glamorized the heroin lifestyle. I walked away from that movie wondering who the heck could look at that and go yes, that's glamorous, that's a lifestyle I'd choose. Nicco reminds me alot of the Viggo Mortensen character from Eastern Promises, although Nicco is actually less isolated than that character was. Also, after my first attempt at drunk driving in GTA IV (and what a debacle that was) I've used cabs when drunk ever since. If that isn't a good message to send through gaming I don't know what is.

I'm a few hours in and what Rockstar have created is quite a technical and in some ways artistic achievement. The detail and quality of the world makes playing an absorbing experience but Rockstar are aiming at a young male market so you get immersed in a squalid 'if teenage boys ruled' world.

So far, the story and characters are darker and more introspective than previous games but it's still only skin deep. Whatever the story the missions are pretty much the same seek-and-destroy blueprint used in previous GTAs.

The world is beautifully realised and it sucks me in but I am playing a psychopath and I feel uncomfortable about a lot of what you have to do to progress in the game. I don't like playing this in front of other people and I can't imagine many women playing it.

The game is good enough to make me feel bad when commiting murder but it's not good enough to make me feel like I'm playing another character and it's what Niko would do.

It's the blessing of computer games that, because your finger that pulls the trigger, you are more involved than watching a film but it's that quality that makes watching digital strippers feel tawdry and ultimately I can't help but feel it must inure people to the horrific actions involved.

If computer games are an art they have a long way to go.

After my first 10 hours in GTA 4 I watched Reservoir Dogs for the first time in about a year.

There is a line that Harvey Keitel says concerning the killing of "civilians" during a job.

The choice between doing ten years and taking out some stupid motherf*cker, ain't no choice at all.

That line has never hit me with the freight train force as it did the other day. It wasn't just me understanding the words or their meaning in context. It was me remembering things I had just done in Liberty City, and how I had made the exact same decision on a job. It finally struck me that this line wasn't Mr. White's way of warning others of his intentions. It was Mr. White's way of justifying his past. Apologizing to himself so that he can deal with the guilt.

I was sorry that I had to kill that guy's receptionist. I really was. She was a model made of polygons and textures, I know that, but, I swear to god I wasn't going to kill her.

But she ran at me, and I was being shot at, and I had to get out.

And the difference between losing my guns and having to start over on the street downtown after failing a mission, or taking out some stupid motherf*cker, ain't no choice at all.

I've posted my own thoughts about this on my weblog. I'll boil it down so I don't bug anyone with a link.

Basically, games are fantasy realms. There's an old quote that says "character is what you do when you think nobody's looking." Fantasy realms are the ultimate place to go where nobody's looking. Nobody can pry open your brain and see your secret desires. So, the sort of things you do in your fantasy realms says something about the sort of person you are-- about your character. All games-- not just GTA-- are mirrors of sorts.

That's why I gave up on the GTA series and rockstar games in general. I didn't like who the mirror was showing me, so I decided to change that part of myself into someone I wanted to be. I traded in my GTA games on Spiderman 2, which features a living city and puts me into the roll of defending it from people like Niko.

I'm not saying everyone who plays GTA is a bad person, but as Michael's column points out, there are some uncomfortable questions that players may or may not want to ask themselves about why they enjoy the game so much.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:
So, the sort of things you do in your fantasy realms says something about the sort of person you are-- about your character. All games-- not just GTA-- are mirrors of sorts.

You know, I just don't accept this. I don't believe anything I've done in a game says anything about who I am as a person. The fantasy realm of gaming is so far removed from reality, there is just not a connection *for me* - of course I cannot speak for anyone else. I've been playing "violent" games since Doom, and it has never changed who I am in real life - a nonviolent person with absolutely no desire to inflict pain on others. I can play GTA4 with no qualms or concerns at all - because I know who I am in reality, and for me it has nothing to do with what happens in the fantasy realm of a videogame.

I disagree with your disagreement to a point. I believe a lot of games are mirrors (I don't think Tetris is a mirror), but not a regular mirror. They're funhouse mirrors, showing you a distorted and unfamiliar version of yourself. Playing a violent game does not mean you are a violent person. I love running people over in GTA4, but that doesn't mean I enjoy running people over in real life all of the time. But since I do enjoy running them over in GTA4 means something about me. I'm not entirely sure what, but I'm sure it's not something dark or negative.

I love games where you play as bad guys, and it's not because I want to be evil, but because I sort of like embracing that dark side in a safe environment. Sort of like why I like scary games, I suppose. Plus, if it's done well, like in GTA4, it lets me examine these dark characters and what makes them do the things they do from a more intimate perspective, like an actor playing a bad guy in a movie. I think one of the biggest mistakes an actor can make is to judge a character he is going to play. Truly believing that the character is evil will cause the performance to be unconvincing, because evil characters very rarely feel deep down that they're evil, even when they openly admit to being so. So even now, I still like Niko a lot because I don't truly believe he's a bad guy even though I recognize he's made some bad choices. A lot of the characters in GTA4 try to justify their actions to make themselves comfortable with what they've done. Dwayne is having trouble continuing to lie to himself and is questioning himself. Others, such as Packie, are still very much in denial about the kinds of problems they cause, and blame others for their actions.

That's part of why I roleplay if a game engages me. It helps me explore who the character is and relate to the story. Probably sounds stupid, but whatever.

Excellent comments all around.

dr mindcrime wrote:
MechaSlinky wrote:

...The point wasn't that the game subverts the gangster creed itself, but that it decries the gangster creed by causing the player, or the very least just me, to question whether it's all really worth anything in the end...

...It reminds me of criticisms I'd heard about Trainspotting when it first hit theaters, that it glamorized the heroin lifestyle. I walked away from that movie wondering who the heck could look at that and go yes, that's glamorous, that's a lifestyle I'd choose ...

Anthony Swofford, former marine and author of Jarhead, is of the opinion that all war movies are pro-war movies, even the anti-war ones. Young soldiers are trained for the horrors of war, so watching a film like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket is a rite of passage. Killing isn't evil if its your job to kill. Gangsters and criminals don't love murder, they simply don't respect law and government.

So I see the GTA games as being very neutral towards crime. Whatever morals you bring with you into the game, the game will agree with you. If you respect the life of a gangster, wish to be one yourself, the game won't make you feel guilty. This is in sharp contrast to the rest of the game, where Rockstar makes merciless fun of everything.

MechaSlinky wrote:
I believe a lot of games are mirrors (I don't think Tetris is a mirror), but not a regular mirror. They're funhouse mirrors, showing you a distorted and unfamiliar version of yourself. Playing a violent game does not mean you are a violent person. I love running people over in GTA4, but that doesn't mean I enjoy running people over in real life all of the time. But since I do enjoy running them over in GTA4 means something about me. I'm not entirely sure what, but I'm sure it's not something dark or negative.

When playing GTA4 I generally try to avoid running over pedestrians and guessed that I had run over less than 10. I opened up my stats the other day and when I saw that I had really run over 55 so far I felt genuinely bad. It also surprised me that I didn't remember hitting nearly that many. This makes me wonder whether I filter out these actions while playing (it's probably more that I'm focused on catching someone / running from someone than whether people are in front of me.)

The time I've felt the worst while playing was when I pushed some poor schlub into the water to see what would happen. If I'd known that he couldn't swim and would drown, I wouldn't have done it.

I know that the character I'm playing isn't the nicest fellow but I project myself into the game more than 'role-playing' the main character so these actions do bother me.

georob wrote:
The time I've felt the worst while playing was when I pushed some poor schlub into the water to see what would happen. If I'd known that they couldn't swim and would drown, I wouldn't have done it.

Some of them can swim, and we wouldn't know that unless we'd pushed many schlubs into the water. See, it isn't psychopathic behavior. It's science!

I applaud you both for waiting to see them drown. The only time I watch people fall into the water it's immediately followed by 40 or 50 rounds from a submachine gun diving in with them.